On March 31, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted the FEC’s cross-motion for summary judgment and denied plaintiffs’ motion in Level the Playing Field, et al. v. FEC. The district court also granted in part and denied in part the FEC’s motion to strike, and denied plaintiffs’ motion to supplement the administrative record. The court’s opinion affirms the Commission’s decisions following the prior remand to dismiss plaintiffs’ administrative complaints and deny LPF’s rulemaking petition regarding the candidate selection criteria used for presidential debates in 2012.
The FEC’s regulations on candidate debates allow tax-exempt 501(c)(3) and (c)(4) organizations to serve as debate “staging organizations” provided that they “do not endorse, support, or oppose political candidates or political parties,” and that they use “pre-established objective criteria to determine which candidates may participate in a debate.” Further, a staging organization “shall not use nomination by a particular political party as the sole objective criterion to determine whether to include a candidate in a debate.”
In 2014 and 2015, Level the Playing Field, the Green Party of the United States, the Libertarian National Committee, and Dr. Peter Ackerman (collectively, plaintiffs) filed two administrative complaints with the FEC alleging that the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) violated the debate staging provisions. Level the Playing Field also filed a Petition for Rulemaking asking the FEC to revise its debate regulations to prohibit the use of a polling threshold as the sole criterion for accessing general election debates.
After reviewing the complaints, the FEC found no reason to believe that CPD violated the debate regulations and dismissed both complaints in 2015. It also declined to initiate a rulemaking. Plaintiffs filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging the FEC’s dismissals and the decision not to engage in a rulemaking.
In February 2017, the district court found that the FEC failed to articulate the legal standard it used to determine whether CPD had endorsed, supported, or opposed political parties. As a result, the court found the dismissals of the administrative complaints arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law and remanded the matters back to the FEC. The court ordered the FEC to detail how it considered evidence submitted by the plaintiffs and to issue a new decision after a second review. The court also ordered the FEC to reconsider the petition for rulemaking. Following the court’s remand, the FEC reconsidered the complaints and again found the allegations unpersuasive. The FEC also denied the petition for rulemaking a second time.
On August 11, 2017, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint alleging that the FEC failed to comply with the court’s order. The plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that the FEC applied an incorrect legal standard in reviewing their complaints; failed to properly consider the evidence; and reached the wrong conclusion regarding the objectivity of the debate requirements. The FEC filed a cross-motion for summary judgment contending that it complied with the court’s previous order and articulated a legal standard in its decision that is reasonable and complies with Supreme Court precedent.
District court decision
On March 31, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that, after remand, the FEC applied an appropriate legal standard in reviewing the administrative complaint. After a thorough examination of the record, the court disagreed with the plaintiffs’ allegation that the FEC failed to consider its supporting evidence. The court found that the FEC’s treatment of any of the previously considered evidence was not arbitrary or contrary to law. The court also found that the FEC’s decision on the debate requirements was reasonable and that the polling threshold was not so high that only major party candidates would qualify.
Finally, the court upheld the FEC’s second denial of the plaintiffs’ petition for rulemaking. It found that the FEC’s discounting of the plaintiffs’ experts was reasonable and that the plaintiffs presented no basis for the court to find the FEC’s decision not to engage in rulemaking was arbitrary, capricious or otherwise contrary to law.
The court granted the FEC’s cross-motion for summary judgment and denied plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. It also granted in part and denied in part the FEC’s motion to strike, and denied the plaintiffs’ motion to supplement the record.
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