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Civil Rights – No Review of Election Law Challenges

Stop Reckless Economic Instability Caused by Democrats v. Federal Election Comm’n (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-038-16, 31 pp.) (Traxler, J.) No. 15-1455, Feb. 23, 2016; USDC at Alexandria, Va. (Trenga, J.) 4th Cir.

Holding: In this appeal by four political committees of an award of summary judgment against them in their constitutional challenge to contribution limits established by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, the 4th Circuit says two of plaintiffs’ three claims became moot prior to the grant of summary judgment and should be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction; the court upholds summary judgment for the agency on plaintiffs’ constitutional challenge to the FECA’s annual limit on contributions made by multicandidate political committees to national and state party committees.

FECA regulates many different types of donors and recipients. The Act sets different contribution limits for different classes of donors and recipients. In 2014, the inflation-adjusted limit for contributions by “person” was $2,600 per election, with primaries and general elections counting as separate elections. However, non-connected political committees, unlike other types of persons, qualified for an elevated per-election limit of $5,000 on contributions to individual candidates if and when they satisfied certain criteria. FECA also limits contributions that persons and political committees can make to political party committees.

On Dec. 16, 2014, Congress amended FECA to create a new category of limits. National party committees can create up to three segregated accounts to fund their presidential nominating convention, building headquarters and election-related legal expenses. The annual limits for contributions made to such segregated accounts are three times the limits on other contributions to national party committees.

Political Committee Plaintiffs

Plaintiffs here are four political committees:  Stop Reckless Economic Instability Caused by Democrats (Stop PAC), Tea Party Leadership Fund (the Fund), Alexandria Republican City Committee (ARCC) and American Future PAC (American Future).

The amended complaint contains three claims, each of which seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.  Counts I and II pertain to FECA’s $2,600 limit on contributions made to individual candidates by political committees that have not yet become “multicandidate political committees” (MPCs). In count III, ARCC and the Fund allege that FECA’s annual limits on contributions made by MPCs to national party committees ($15,000), and to state party committees ($5,000), violate the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause insofar as political committees that have not yet completed the waiting period but that have satisfied the other MPC criteria enjoy the higher limits of $32,400 and $10,000 respectively. Plaintiffs later moved to join American Future in the suit as an intervening plaintiff concerning counts I and II.

The district granted summary judgment to defendant Federal Election Commission on all claims.

Claims Mooted

We agree with the FEC that counts I and II became moot once Stop PAC and intervenor American Future became MPCs, since that change in status ensured that they would never again be bound by the limit they are challenging. Because we conclude these counts became moot, we do not address FEC’s contention that Stop PAC never established standing to assert these claims in the first place.

We conclude we are bound to apply the doctrine that we and the Supreme Court have articulated – and recently applied – and we must leave to the Supreme Court the decision of whether it wishes to create an exception to, or otherwise limit, that rule. Because plaintiffs cannot satisfy the same-complaining-party requirement, the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” doctrine does not apply, and the district court erred in not dismissing counts I and II for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. We therefore vacate the district court’s merits ruling regarding the claims and remand them for dismissal under Rule 12(h)(3).

Count III does fit into the doctrine allowing review. It is undisputed that the election cycle is too short in duration for election disputes to be fully litigated within a single cycle. And the Fund very well may wish to contribute more than $5,000 to the ARCC in future years. Plaintiffs are not required to forecast evidence that they were so inclined.

In our estimation, plaintiffs cannot show that FECA overall burdens the First Amendment rights of political committees that have become MPCs more than it burdens the rights of political committees that have satisfied all MPC requirements but the waiting period. That is so because the decrease in the amount of contributions that political committees, once they become MPCs, can make annually to state party committees or their local affiliates and to national party committees is more than counteracted by the increase in the limits in the amount of contributions that MPCs can make to individual candidates. Because plaintiffs cannot demonstrate that FECA discriminates against MPCs, there is no discrimination to be justified and we conclude the FEC was entitled to summary judgment on count III.

Affirmed in part, vacated and remanded in part, with instructions to dismiss.

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