On March 13, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the Commission in Campaign Legal Center, et al., v. FEC (18-5239).
Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 (the Plaintiffs) filed five administrative complaints with the Commission between 2011 and 2015. In the complaints, the Plaintiffs alleged that various individuals made contributions to Super PACs by using closely held corporations and LLCs as “straw donors” in violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act). The Plaintiffs also alleged that these entities violated the Act by failing to register and report as political committees. The Commission’s Office of General Counsel recommended finding reason-to-believe that several of the respondents had violated the Act’s “straw donor” prohibitions, but recommended taking no action on the political committee allegations. In February 2016, the Commission voted 3-3 on finding reason to believe that a violation of the Act had occurred and then voted unanimously to close the file in all five matters. The Commission’s “controlling group” in the dismissal of the administrative complaints–the three Commissioners who voted against finding reason to believe–released a Statement of Reasons in April 2016. In this Statement of Reasons, the three Commissioners stated that they declined to find reason to believe a violation occurred as “an exercise of the Commission’s prosecutorial discretion.” They stated that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC required the Commission to examine how the Act’s straw donor ban applied to corporate contributions and that “the speech rights recognized in Citizens United would be hollow if closely held corporations and LLCs were presumed to be straw donors.” They concluded that “principles of due process, fair notice, and First Amendment clarity counsel against applying a standard to persons and entities that were not on notice of the governing norm.”
District court decision
The Plaintiffs filed suit against the Commission in the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging the dismissal of their administrative complaints as contrary to law. In March 2017, the district court granted the Commission’s motion to dismiss for two matters for lack of standing. In June 2018, the district court granted summary judgment for the Commission on the remaining three matters, holding that these dismissals were not contrary to law. The Plaintiffs appealed the district court’s summary judgment decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Appeals court decision
In response to the Commission’s argument on appeal that the Plaintiffs lacked standing for the remaining three matters as well, the appeals court found that, as the Plaintiffs alleged violations of the Act that require the accurate disclosure of contributor information and that there is no reason to doubt that their claim that the information they seek would help them, they do have standing to challenge the Commission’s dismissal of those three administrative complaints. However, the court found that the Commission, through the Statement of Reasons released by the Commission’s “controlling group,” provided a sufficiently reasonable basis for their decision not to investigate either the Plaintiffs’ straw donor allegations or the Plaintiffs’ political committee allegations and affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment.
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