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Libertarian National Committee, Inc. v. Federal Election Commission

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 3, 2017

LIBERTARIAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          BERYL A. HOWELL Chief Judge.

         The plaintiff, the Libertarian National Committee ("LNC"), was left a testamentary bequest by Joseph Shaber in 2015 in the amount of $235, 575.20 but was allegedly unable to accept the bequest in full due to restrictions imposed by the Federal Election Commission Act ("FECA"), see 52 U.S.C. §§ 30116 and 30125. The LNC challenges certain aspects of the statutory scheme as unconstitutional and seeks certification of the constitutional issues it raises to the D.C. Circuit en banc, pursuant to 52 U.S.C. § 30110.[1]The defendant, the Federal Election Commission ("FEC"), has moved to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) on the ground that LNC lacks standing to bring this suit. This potential Article III issue must be addressed before certifying any question to the D.C. Circuit under § 30110. See Holmes, 823 F.3d at 70 ("If the requirements of Article III of the Constitution are satisfied, the district court must 'immediately' 'certify all questions of constitutionality of this Act to the United States court of appeals for the circuit involved . . . sitting en banc"'); see also Republican Party of La. v. FEC, 146 F.Supp.3d 1, 8 (D.D.C. 2015) ("This Court may properly dismiss [the plaintiffs'] claims [under analogous Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act] without convening a three-judge panel if [the plaintiffs] lack standing to bring those claims."); Holistic Candlers & Consumers Ass 'n v. FDA, 664 F.3d 940, 943 (D.C. Cir. 2012) (describing standing as a "threshold jurisdictional question" (quoting Byrd v. EPA, 174 F.3d 239, 243 (D.C. Cir. 1999)). For the reasons set out below, the FEC's motion will be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The challenged statutory framework is summarized before discussing the particular facts underlying this suit and the LNC's claims.

         A. FECA's Limits on Contributions to Political Committees

         Under FECA, "no person, " including, inter alia, a testamentary estate, [2] "shall make contributions ... to the political committees established and maintained by a national political party, which are not the authorized political committees of any candidate, in any calendar year which, in the aggregate, exceed $25, 000." 52 U.S.C. § 30116(a)(1). FECA was amended in 2014 to allow individuals to make additional donations of up to three hundred percent of the annual contribution limit set out in § 30116(a)(1) for each of three specified purposes: (1) "expenses incurred with respect to a presidential nominating convention;" (2) "expenses incurred with respect to the construction, purchase, renovation, operation, and furnishing of one or more headquarters buildings of the party;" and (3) "expenses incurred with respect to the preparation for and the conduct of election recounts and contests and other legal proceedings." Id. § 30116(a)(9)(A)-(C). Donations accepted for the three enumerated purposes under § 30116(a)(9) must be funneled into a "separate, segregated account" and not comingled with other funds. Id.

         The contribution limits set forth in § 30116(a)(1) are adjusted for inflation in odd-numbered years such that, at the time this Complaint was filed, the annual limit on a general account contribution was $33, 400, and the annual limit on a segregated account contribution for each of the three segregated accounts was $100, 200. See Id. § 30116(c). Accordingly, in 2015, the total amount that a party's political committee could accept from any person, including a testamentary estate, was $334, 000.

         B. Bequest to the LNC by Joseph Shaber

         The LNC is "the national committee of the Libertarian Party of the United States." Compl. ¶ 1. Its mission is "to field national [p]residential tickets, to support its state party affiliates in running candidates for public office, and to conduct other political activities in furtherance of a libertarian public policy agenda in the United States." Id. From 1988 to 2011, Mr. Shaber made small, periodic donations to the LNC. Id.¶ 15. "Unbeknown to the LNC, it was made a beneficiary of the Joseph Shaber Revocable Living Trust U/T/D February 11, 2010." Id. ¶ 16. Upon his death on August 23, 2014, Mr. Shaber's trust became irrevocable, with the LNC's share amounting to$235, 575.20. Id. ¶ 17. No restrictions were placed on how the LNC could utilize the bequest, and the trustee maintains that it is "entirely up to the LNC how it wishes to apply the distribution." See Def.'s Mot. Dismiss at 6-7, ECF No. 9 (quoting Letter from Trustee's Counsel to FEC (dated June 15, 2015), available online at http://saos.fec.gov/aodocs/1317218.pdf (last visited Dec. 27, 2016)).

         On February 23, 2015, the trustee distributed $33, 400 of the bequest to the LNC's general account. Id. ¶ 19. LNC asserts that it "would [have] accept[ed] and spen[t] the entire amount of the Shaber bequest for its general expressive purposes" but for FECA's contribution limits. Id. ¶¶ 18-19. On May 6, 2015, the trustee requested an advisory opinion from the FEC as to whether the remainder of the bequest could be placed in a third-party escrow account for annual disbursements pursuant to § 30116(a)(1). The FEC approved the trustee's request on August 11, 2015. See generally FEC Advisory Op. 2015-05. In January 2016, the LNC accepted another $33, 400 of the Shaber bequest from escrow for deposit into the party's general purpose account. Compl. ¶ 20. Thus, as of the filing of the complaint, approximately $168, 775.20 of the bequest remained in escrow. See Defi's Mot. Dismiss at 7; Pl.'s Opp'n Def's Mot. Dismiss ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at20, ECF No. 12 (referencing $168, 000 in escrow).

         C. The LNC's Claims

         The LNC's complaint alleges in three counts that application of the § 30116 contribution limits to the Shaber bequest "violates the First Amendment speech and associational rights of the LNC and its supporters, " id. ¶ 27 (Count I), and that the segregated accounts scheme, which allows parties to accept larger donations for three specified purposes only, amounts to a content-based restriction on speech, both on its face and as applied to the Shaber bequest id. ¶¶ 31, 34 (Counts II and III); see also Pl.'sOpp'n at 8 ("[P]rivileging large donations based on their purposes-as if a party would be corrupted by a $33, 401 donation for general purposes, but not a $312, 000 donation for conventions, buildings, and lawyers[-]is an irrational content-based speech restriction."). The LNC seeks "[a]n order permanently enjoining [the FEC] . . . from enforcing 52 U.S.C. §§ 30116 and 30125, either generally or in relation to the Shaber [b]equest, " in addition to "[declaratory relief consistent with the injunction." Id., Prayer for Relief ¶¶ 1-2.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         '"Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, ' possessing 'only that power authorized by Constitution and statute.'" Gunn v. Minton,133 S.Ct. 1059, 1064 (2013) (quoting Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am.,511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994)). Indeed, federal courts are "forbidden . . . from acting beyond our authority, " Network IP, LLC v. FCC, 548 F.3d 116, 120 (D.C. Cir. 2008), and, therefore, have "an affirmative obligation 'to consider whether the constitutional and statutory authority exist for us to hear each dispute, '" James Madison Ltd. ex rel. ...


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