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Johnson v. Debates

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 5, 2016

GARY E. JOHNSON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
COMMISSION ON PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES, et al., Defendants.

          GARY E. JOHNSON, Plaintiff, represented by Bruce Fein, FEIN & DEVALLE PLLC.

          GARY JOHNSON 2012, INC., Plaintiff, represented by Bruce Fein, FEIN & DEVALLE PLLC.

          LIBERTARIAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE, INC., Plaintiff, represented by Bruce Fein, FEIN & DEVALLE PLLC.

          JAMES P. GRAY, Plaintiff, represented by Bruce Fein, FEIN & DEVALLE PLLC.

          GREEN PARTY OF THE UNITED STATES, Plaintiff, represented by Bruce Fein, FEIN & DEVALLE PLLC.

          JILL STEIN, Plaintiff, represented by Bruce Fein, FEIN & DEVALLE PLLC.

          JILL STEIN FOR PRESIDENT, Plaintiff, represented by Bruce Fein, FEIN & DEVALLE PLLC.

          CHERI HONKALA, Plaintiff, represented by Bruce Fein, FEIN & DEVALLE PLLC.

          COMMISSION ON PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES, Defendant, represented by Lewis Kleiman Loss, LOSS, JUDGE & WARD, LLP, Michael Seth Steinberg, LOSS, JUDGE & WARD, LLP & Uzoma Nkwonta, LOSS, JUDGE & WARD, LLP.

          REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE, Defendant, represented by Charles H. Bell, Jr., BELL, MCANDREWS & HILTACHK, L.L.P., pro hac vice & John R. Phillippe, Jr., REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE.

          DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE, Defendant, represented by Robert Felix Bauer, PERKINS COIE LLP, Elisabeth C. Frost, PERKINS COIE LLP, Marc Erik Elias, PERKINS COIE LLP & Shylah R. Alfonso, PERKINS COIE, LLP, pro hac vice.

          FRANK J. FAHRENKOPF, JR., Defendant, represented by Lewis Kleiman Loss, LOSS, JUDGE & WARD, LLP, Michael Seth Steinberg, LOSS, JUDGE & WARD, LLP & Uzoma Nkwonta, LOSS, JUDGE & WARD, LLP.

          MICHAEL D. MCCURRY, Defendant, represented by Lewis Kleiman Loss, LOSS, JUDGE & WARD, LLP, Michael Seth Steinberg, LOSS, JUDGE & WARD, LLP & Uzoma Nkwonta, LOSS, JUDGE & WARD, LLP.

          BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA, II, Defendant, represented by Robert Felix Bauer, PERKINS COIE LLP, Elisabeth C. Frost, PERKINS COIE LLP, Marc Erik Elias, PERKINS COIE LLP & Shylah R. Alfonso, PERKINS COIE, LLP, pro hac vice.

          WILLARD MITT ROMNEY, Defendant, represented by James Mahoney Burnham, JONES DAY & Noel John Francisco, JONES DAY.

          OPINION

          ROSEMARY M. COLLYER, District Judge.

         The Libertarian and Green Parties and their political candidates sought, and failed to receive, invitations to privately-sponsored presidential debates in 2012. They now seek invitations to this year's presidential debates, claiming that the rules that bar their participation violate antitrust law. However, because Plaintiffs have no standing and because antitrust laws govern commercial markets and not political activity, those claims fail as a matter of well-established law. Plaintiffs also allege violations of the First Amendment, but those claims must be dismissed because the First Amendment guarantees freedom from government infringement and Defendants here are private parties. Finally, Plaintiffs fail to allege facts that could support a claim for intentional interference with prospective business advantage. Defendants' motions to dismiss will be granted.

         I. FACTS

         Plaintiffs are the Libertarian National Committee, which controls the U.S. Libertarian Party; Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party's nominee for president in 2012; Gary Johnson 2012, Inc., a corporation that served as the campaign committee for Mr. Johnson in 2012; James Gray, Mr. Johnson's 2012 vice presidential running mate; the Green Party; Jill Stein, the Green Party's nominee for president in 2012; Jill Stein for President, the entity that served as Ms. Stein's campaign committee in 2012; and Cheri Honkala, Ms. Stein's 2012 vice presidential running mate. Plaintiffs brought this suit against: the Republican National Committee (RNC); the Democratic National Committee (DNC); the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit corporation founded by the RNC and the DNC (Commission); Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr., Commission founder and co-chair; Michael McCurry, Commission co-chair; President Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate in 2012; and Willard Mitt Romney, Republican candidate for president in 2012. The Complaint sets forth four counts:

Count I, combination and conspiracy to restrain interstate commerce in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act;
Count II, monopolization, attempt to monopolize, and conspiracy to monopolize in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act;
Count III, violation of First Amendment rights of free speech and association; and
Count IV, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage and relations.

         Compl. [Dkt. 1] ¶¶ 31-141.

         In support of these claims, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants have conspired to entrench market power, to exclude rival candidates, and to undermine competition "in the presidential debates market, the presidential campaign market, and the electoral politics market of the two major political parties by exercising duopoly control over presidential and vice presidential debates in general election campaigns for the presidency." Id. ¶ 1. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants intended, and still intend, to exclude rival candidates and impair competition in these "markets" and to narrow voting choices to the candidates from the two major political parties at the expense of the electoral process as well as third party and independent candidates. Id. ¶¶ 3-6. Plaintiffs further allege that the Libertarian and Green Party candidates were excluded from the debates in 2012 "due to hostility towards their political viewpoints." Id. ¶ 1.

         Each of the three presidential debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012 was watched by more than 59 million viewers, and each allegedly excluded Plaintiffs Johnson and Stein by agreement between the Commission, the RNC, the DNC, and party nominees President Obama and Mr. Romney.[1] Id. ¶ 34(m). The Complaint alleges that the presidential and vice presidential debates have a monetary value of hundreds of millions of dollars. Id. ¶ 34. Corporate sponsors collectively contribute millions of dollars in each election cycle to the Commission. Id. ¶ 35. Further, presidential debates generate millions of dollars in revenue for the communities in which they are held. Id. ¶ 37. Also, the hosts of the debates spend "several millions of dollars in associated direct and indirect costs, including payments of millions of dollars to the Commission." Id. ¶ 38. For example, for the 2012 presidential debate in Denver, the University of Denver paid the Commission $1.65 million for production fees. Id. Republican and Democratic campaigns spend enormous sums on advertising, rental of office space, staffer salaries, tee shirts, and entertainment. Id. ¶¶ 40-44. Allegedly, over $2 billion was spent on the 2012 presidential election, including sums expended by the campaigns and third parties. Id. ¶¶ 40, 44.

         Plaintiffs contend that televised debates are essential to presidential and vice presidential candidates, providing candidates with free national advertising and allowing them to compete meaningfully and to communicate their message to the electorate. Id. ¶¶ 45-46. They allege:

To be excluded from the debates is "an electoral death sentence." The media gives non-duopoly, non-major party candidates little or no coverage, and they cannot afford significant, if any national advertising. Hence, they are denied the free, enormous coverage received by the duopoly party candidates through the debates, and they are marginalized in the minds of most people in the U.S. and the media, and considered to be less than serious, peripheral, and perhaps even frivolous candidates.

Id. ¶ 46. Plaintiffs insist that there are no alternative means for national exposure and that "[e]xclusion from the debates guarantees marginalization, a public perception that the excluded candidates are unserious, ' notwithstanding their talent, records, capabilities, alignments with the views of many, if not most, of American voters, and leadership skills." Id. ¶ 47.

         The Commission has sponsored the presidential debates since the League of Women Voters withdrew in 1988; now it is the sole sponsor of all presidential debates. Id. ¶¶ 52, 65, 69-70, 100. The Commission allegedly structured the 2012 debates to promote RNC and DNC candidates and to exclude other candidates, id. ¶¶ 58-63, and plans to do so again in all future debates, id. ¶¶ 66-67.[2]

         In each year that presidential debates are held, the Republican and Democratic campaigns enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Id. ¶ 71; see also Compl., Ex. 1 (MOU dated Oct. 2012). In 2012, the MOU was signed by the general counsel to the Obama campaign and the general counsel to the Romney campaign. The MOU provided that the Commission would sponsor the candidates' debate appearances and the candidates would not appear at any other debate without prior consent of the parties to the MOU. The MOU also provided for candidate selection criteria for the presidential debates, including (1) evidence of "ballot access"-that the candidate qualified to appear on enough State ballots to have a mathematical chance of securing an electoral college majority;[3] and (2) evidence of "electoral support"-that the candidate had the support of 15% of the national electorate as determined by averaging public opinion polls from five selected national polling organizations (the 15% Provision).[4] Compl. ¶ 74. The Complaint asserts that the 15% Provision was designed to exclude the participation of third party and independent candidates. Id. ¶¶ 75-76, 85-86. Plaintiffs allege that they have been injured in their "businesses of debating in presidential elections, participating in presidential election campaigns, and engaging in electoral politics." Id. ¶ 90.

         Accordingly, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants have colluded to restrain commerce and monopolize the presidential debates, elections, and politics markets by keeping other parties and candidates out of the debates (and thus out of the electoral competition) and by fixing the terms of participation in the debates to avoid challenges to the Republican or Democratic parties and their candidates. Id. ¶ 89 (alleging violation of Section 1 of Sherman Act); id. ¶ 104 (alleging violation of Section 2 of Sherman Act). They further assert that Defendants have violated the First Amendment by suppressing the viewpoints of third party and independent candidates, id. ¶ 120, and by burdening and stifling the right to associate, to vote, to form new political parties, and to support third party and independent candidates, id. ΒΆΒΆ 122, 123, 128, 130. Finally, they contend that ...


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