Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission

PETITIONER: Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee
RESPONDENT: Federal Election Commission
LOCATION: Colorado Republican Party

DOCKET NO.: 95-489
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 518 US 604 (1996)
ARGUED: Apr 15, 1996
DECIDED: Jun 26, 1996

ADVOCATES:
Drew S. Days, III - Argued the cause for the respondent
Jan W. Baran - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

Before the Colorado Republican Party selected its 1986 senatorial candidate, its Federal Campaign Committee bought radio advertisements attacking the Democratic Party's likely candidate. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) brought suit charging that the Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee had violated the "Party Expenditure Provision" of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), which imposes dollar limits upon political party "expenditure[s] in connection with the general election campaign of a [congressional] candidate." The Colorado Party defended itself by claiming that the FECA expenditure limitations violated the First Amendment as applied to its advertisements, and filed a counterclaim seeking to raise a challenge to the Provision as a whole. The District Court held that the Provision did not cover the expenditure at issue. Therefore, the court entered summary judgment for the Colorado Party and it dismissed the counterclaim as moot. The Court of Appeals ruled that the Provision covered this expenditure and satisfied the Constitution. Subsequently, the court ordered judgment for the FEC.

Question

Do the federal campaign-financing limits on the amount of money political parties may spend on congressional races, as established by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, violate First Amendment rights when applied to expenditures a political party has made independently of any candidate's campaign?

Media for Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 15, 1996 in Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 95-489, the Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission.

Mr. Baran.

Is that correct pronunciation?

Jan W. Baran:

That is correct.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Baran.

Jan W. Baran:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

The Colorado Republican Party, like any party, has a lot to say about issues and candidates, but when it starts talking about congressional issues and congressional candidates it becomes subject to a Federal law that limits that type of core political speech.

From the inception of this case, the Colorado Republican Party has asked that this Federal law, section 441a(d)(3), be declared unconstitutional because it needlessly prevents our speech, speech that we are ready, willing, and able to engage in.

The FEC has also accused my client of violating this statute by virtue of financing a radio advertisement known as Wirth Facts Number 1.

The FEC would like my client punished for this alleged violation.

Thus, this case presents two important issues to the Court.

The first issue was alluded to in this Court's opinion in Buckley v. Valeo 20 years ago.

At issue is, does the First Amendment permit Congress to limit a political party's speech, including speech that contains express advocacy in support of the party's own candidates?

If this Court upholds such a limit, then the second issue is raised, which is, are political parties entitled, at the very least, to clear guidance as to which of its speech is subject to a spending limit and which speech is not?

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, Mr. Baran, I thought there was another possible question here, which is whether the statute as presently drafted covers this expenditure at all.

One could... this was an advertisement, as I understand it, paid for by the Colorado political committee at a time when there was no Republican nominee for the Senate and, indeed, not officially a Democratic nominee, and one could read 441a(d) as not covering that at all.

Now, what if we think that's the situation?

Do we reach some constitutional issue, or can we just say, gee, the statute doesn't cover it, and we'll postpone those bigger issues for an occasion when it does?

Jan W. Baran:

If the Court reached such a decision, Justice O'Connor, it would still leave section 441a(d) as limiting some form of speech, speech by my client.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, it would, but what do you think our doctrines are on reaching constitutional issues unnecessarily?

Jan W. Baran:

I believe that in prior cases involving restrictions on campaign speech the Court has addressed specific statutory limitations, including, of course, most expansively in the Buckley decision, but it did so also in the NCPAC decision in terms of evaluating a particular statute under a declaratory judgment request by a party such as my client.

Antonin Scalia:

You had a separate counterclaim asking for declaratory judgment and making a facial attack on the statute so that even if we found against the Government's claim, against the Republican Party, we would still have to adjudicate the disposition that was made of your claim against the Commission, which was a facial challenge, as I gather.

Jan W. Baran:

Yes, Justice Scalia, that is our position.

We've had a separate discrete counterclaim that was part of our answer.

The discovery that took place in the district court focused on that issue as well as the other issues.

Antonin Scalia:

And your grievance here is not just that you were punished for this violation, but you don't think you should be subject in the future to this provision at all.

Jan W. Baran:

Yes, that is--

David H. Souter:

For purposes of the counterclaim, is it your position that subsection (d) covers any expenditure that the party might make which is not a coordinated expenditure?

Jan W. Baran:

--That is the interpretation of the statute that we have agreed with the Government on, that this limitation as it was intended, and certainly as it is applied by the Federal Election Commission, applies to both coordinated contributions which are, in fact, coordinated with the candidate and also contributions that may not factually be proved to be coordinated.

David H. Souter:

Well, I thought the Government's position was that all of your expenditures were coordinated.