D.C. Circuit Tosses Election Act Case

May 19, 2021 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – The Campaign Legal Center had neither standing nor a claim when it accused the Federal Elections Commission of failing to act on a claim a federal contractor violated campaign finance laws.

The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center and Catherine Hinckley Kelley, a senior director, filed an administrative complaint against GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., on Nov. 1, 2016, accusing it of violating the Federal Election Campaign Act’s prohibition on contributions by federal contractors.

Specifically, the complaint said GEO Corrections Holdings violated the law by contributing $225,000 to Rebuilding America Now, a SuperPAC supporting former President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, in 2016.

On Jan. 10, 2018, the Campaign Legal Center sued the FEC, claiming both that it failed to act on the underlying complaint, and that the failure to act was contrary to both the FECA and the Administrative Procedure Act.

On May 26, 2020, the U.S. District Court in Washington dismissed both counts, ruling the plaintiffs had no claim under the APA as the Federal Election Campaign Act provides the exclusive mechanism for judicial review of administrative complaints under the statute.

The Campaign Legal Center appealed, arguing that the statute confers a legally enforceable substantive right to timely action on its administrative complaint and that the commission’s failure to act on the complaint creates an injury sufficient to establish standing. 

The U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia disagreed, finding the statute is procedural and noting Supreme Court precedent that the deprivation of a procedural right alone is insufficient to establish standing. The appeals court explained that the plaintiff must identify a concrete interest that is harmed by the commission’s alleged failure to act on their administrative complaint. 

The mere allegation that the commission failed to process an administrative complaint in accordance with law is not enough to establish that the plaintiff had in fact been injured, the appeals court said.

The Campaign Legal Center also argued it had suffered an “informational injury” as the commission’s alleged failure to act on their complaint has deprived them of disclosure information that they are entitled to under the FECA. The appeals court found that the plaintiff had forfeited this argument as it was not raised in either their administrative complaint or in the district court proceedings.

Having determined that the district court was correct in finding that the plaintiff lacked standing to sue under the FECA, the appeals court affirmed that portion of the district court’s decision.

Although the Campaign Law Center did not appeal the district court’s ruling on their APA count, the appeals court considered the district court’s judgment on the merits that the FECA provides the exclusive mechanism for judicial review of administrative complaints under the Act. 

The appeals court found instead that the plaintiff lacked standing under the APA and vacated the district court’s judgment, remanding this count to the lower court with instructions to dismiss it for lack of standing.

The case is Campaign Legal Center v. FEC 18-0053 / 20-5159.

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