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Rufer v. Federal Election Commission

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 19, 2014

CHRIS RUFER, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, Defendant. REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, United States District Judge.

To curb the risk and appearance of corruption, Congress has, for almost 40 years, placed dollar limits on individual contributions to federal candidates and their parties. The Supreme Court has upheld these limits repeatedly. At the same time, recent Supreme Court cases instruct that Congress may not limit contributions to political action committees and other entities that do not coordinate their expenditures with candidates or parties. In the Court’s view, non-coordinated expenditures by these groups, even if used to expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a particular candidate, pose too low a corruption risk to justify limiting contributions to the groups consistent with the First Amendment. Drawing on this reasoning, Plaintiffs in these related cases— committees of the Republican and Libertarian parties and a Libertarian contributor—seek to invalidate Congress’s longstanding party contribution limits as applied to their non-coordinated expenditures. What’s good for the PAC geese, they argue, should be good for the party ganders.

The merits of Plaintiffs’ challenge will be decided in due course. For now, the Court must decide how and by whom the case will be adjudicated. Before the Court are applications by both the Republican and Libertarian Plaintiffs to convene a three-judge district court, the decisions of which could be appealed directly to the Supreme Court, under the judicial review mechanism of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“BCRA”), Pub. L. No. 107-155, § 403. As an alternative to convening a three-judge court under BCRA, the Libertarian Plaintiffs request that the Court certify the constitutional questions raised in the case to the D.C. Circuit sitting en banc under the judicial review procedures of the Federal Election Campaign Act (“FECA”). See 2 U.S.C. § 437h.

To proceed along either of these special jurisdictional avenues, Plaintiffs must raise substantial, non-frivolous constitutional claims that are not clearly foreclosed by Supreme Court precedent. The Court finds they have done so. As between the two routes of judicial review, Plaintiffs’ alleged injury—being prohibited from accepting or giving unlimited amounts to fund independent campaign expenditures—can only be redressed by invalidating FECA’s longstanding base contribution limits. Constitutional challenges to FECA provisions “are subject to direct review before an appropriate en banc court of appeals, as provided in 2 U.S.C. § 437h, not in the three-judge District Court convened pursuant to BCRA § 307.” McConnell v. FEC, 540 U.S. 93, 229 (2003), overruled in part by, Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010). The Court therefore will deny Plaintiffs’ applications to appoint a three-judge court and instead certify the constitutional questions in the case to the en banc DC Circuit after developing an appropriate factual record.

The Libertarian Plaintiffs also seek a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Federal Election Commission from enforcing the current base party contribution limits as applied to their non-coordinated expenditures. While the Libertarian Plaintiffs’ challenge is sufficiently substantial to require en banc certification, it is nonetheless in direct tension with longstanding Supreme Court precedent upholding base contribution limits to political parties. A finding that the challenge would likely succeed on its merits would require the Court to overlook this precedent, which it declines to do. The Court will, accordingly, deny the Libertarian Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction.

I. Background

A. Statutory Scheme

In 1976, Congress amended FECA to establish monetary ceilings on contributions to political party committees intended to influence federal elections. Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1976, Pub. L. No. 94-283, § 112, 90 Stat. 487, codified at 2 U.S.C. § 441a. These amendments prohibited contributions to “political committees established and maintained by a national political party . . . which, in the aggregate, exceed $20, 000; or . . . to any other political committee . . . which, in the aggregate, exceed $5, 000.” Id. In ensuing campaign cycles, certain corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals sought to bypass these contribution limits by making so-called “soft money” contributions to political parties—contributions ostensibly earmarked for state and local elections or “issue advertising” and thus not subject to the same FECA requirements as contributions explicitly intended to influence federal elections. McConnell, 540 U.S. at 122–26, 132. Congress responded to this circumvention of FECA’s contribution limits in 2002 with the enactment of BCRA, a sweeping series of amendments to FECA which, among other things, limited soft money contributions to political parties. Id.

Rather than specifically defining and prohibiting soft money contributions, BCRA imposed a general ban on collecting funds in excess of FECA’s base contribution ceilings for certain entities involved in federal elections. BCRA § 101, codified at 2 U.S.C §§ 441i(a), (b)(1), (c), added a new section to FECA (section 323) prohibiting national, state, and local party committees from soliciting, receiving, spending, or disbursing money not raised in compliance with the base contribution limits found at subsections 441a(a)(1)(B) and (D). BCRA also amended the overall base limits by adding a new subsection of 2 U.S.C. § 441a, limiting individual contributions to state party committees to $10, 000, and by increasing FECA’s contribution limit for national parties to $25, 000 and pegging that limit to inflation. BCRA §§ 102(3), 307(a)(2), codified at 2 U.S.C § 441a(1)(B), (D).

FECA contains a special judicial review mechanism that requires a district court to “certify all questions of constitutionality of the Act to the United States court of appeals for the circuit involved, which shall hear the matter sitting en banc” if the challenge is brought by “the national committee of any political party, or any individual eligible to vote in any election for the office of President[.]” 2 U.S.C. § 437h. Rather than incorporating FECA’s preexisting judicial review procedure into BCRA, Congress required that constitutional challenges to any “provision of” or “amendment made by” BCRA be heard by a three-judge district court. See BCRA § 403(a)(3). To expedite Supreme Court review of the constitutionality of the new statute, Congress provided that decisions of the three-judge court may be appealed directly to the Supreme Court. Id.[1]

B. Plaintiffs

Plaintiffs in the first action before the Court are the Libertarian National Congressional Committee Inc., the Libertarian Party of Indiana, and Chris Rufer, a Libertarian contributor (“Libertarian Plaintiffs”). Plaintiffs in the second action are the Republican National Committee (“RNC”) and its chairman, Reince Priebus; the Republican Party of Louisiana and its chairman, Roger Villere, Jr.; and two local Louisiana Republican Executive Committees (“Republican Plaintiffs”). Each set of plaintiffs challenges the constitutionality of BCRA to the extent that it (1) limits national, state, and local political party committees from accepting unlimited contributions into segregated funds to be used for non-coordinated federal campaign expenditures and (2) prevents individuals from donating unlimited amounts to those segregated funds. Libertarian Pls.’ Verified Compl. ¶ 3; Republican Pls.’ Verified Compl. ¶¶ 35–54.[2] Plaintiffs contend that the absence of “prearrangement and coordination” between a candidate and a contributor to a segregated, independent expenditure fund ameliorates any threat of actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption, “the only constitutionally permissible grounds on which Congress may seek to limit political contributions.” Libertarian Pls.’ Verified Compl. ¶¶ 20–22; accord Republican Pls.’ Verified Compl. ¶¶ 1–5.

All Plaintiffs request that the Court convene a three-judge court to adjudicate their challenges pursuant to BCRA § 403. Alternatively, the Libertarian Plaintiffs ask the Court to certify relevant constitutional questions to the D.C. Circuit for en banc review under 2 U.S.C. § 437h. Libertarian Pls.’ Application for Three-Judge Court at 1. The Libertarian Plaintiffs also seek a preliminary injunction barring the FEC from enforcing the challenged provisions, arguing that the ongoing injury caused by prohibiting these large donations requires immediate relief. Libertarian Pls.’ Mot. for Prelim. Inj. The Republican Plaintiffs have filed a motion to expedite this action and a motion ...


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