Federal Election Commission v. Akins

PETITIONER: Federal Election Commission
LOCATION: The White House

DOCKET NO.: 96-1590
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 524 US 11 (1998)
ARGUED: Jan 14, 1998
DECIDED: Jun 01, 1998

Daniel M. Schember - Argued the cause for the respondents
Seth P. Waxman - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) imposes recordkeeping and disclosure requirements upon political committees which receive more than $1,000 in "contributions" or which make more than $1,000 in "expenditures" in a year "for the purpose of influencing any election for Federal office." Certain assistance does not count toward the expenditure cap if it takes the form of a "communication" by a "membership organization or corporation" "to its members" as long as the organization is not "organized primarily for the purpose of influencing [any individual's] nomination... or election." A complaint filed by a group of voters asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to order the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to make public the information that FECA demands of political committees. Ultimately, the FEC found that AIPAC was not a political committee because its major purpose was not the nomination or election of candidates. The en banc Court of Appeals concluded that the FEC's major purpose test improperly interpreted FECA's definition of a political committee.


Do voters have the proper legal standing to challenge the Federal Election Commission's decisions regarding political committees?

Media for Federal Election Commission v. Akins

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 14, 1998 in Federal Election Commission v. Akins

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 96-1590, the Federal Election Commission v. James E. Akins.

General Waxman.

Seth P. Waxman:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court--

In holding that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, was a political committee within the meaning of the Federal Election Campaign Act, the court of appeals misinterpreted this Court's decisions, and it did so in a case it should not have reviewed on the merits, for the respondents do not have standing.

AIPAC is an association engaged in issue advocacy and lobbying.

The FEC investigated a complaint filed by individuals who disagree with AIPAC's policies, and the FEC concluded that AIPAC had, quote, likely made inkind contributions aggregating over 1,000 in a calendar year.

The commission then considered whether AIPAC was thereby a political committee under the act, in which case it would be required to disclose all receipts and disbursements over 200 dollars, whether or not they were related in any way to a campaign, and it would be limited in how much money it could receive, and from whom.

The commission, interpreting the statute in light of this Court's decisions in Buckley and Massachusetts Citizens for Life, concluded that, because campaignrelated activity was not a major purpose of AIPAC, its incidental campaign spending did not require it to comply with the act's restrictions on political committees.

In concluding that the FEC acted, quote, contrary to law, the court of appeals erred in two ways.

Let me just say a few words about the merits and then address the standing issues.

In Massachusetts Citizens for Life, this Court deemed it, quote, undisputed that an organization making nearly 10,000 in campaignrelated spending was not a political committee because its major purpose was issue advocacy, not election activity.

In so holding, this Court relied on its earlier conclusion in Buckley that, quote, to fulfill the purposes of the FECA, the term political committee need only encompass organizations that under... that are under the control of a candidate, or the major purpose of which is the nomination or election of a candidate.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

General Waxman, I... you're addressing the merits, and do you mind if I raise a preliminary question before we really wade into the merits of the major purpose test?

Seth P. Waxman:

I'd be grateful, Justice O'Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Has the FEC changed its notion of who are members within the meaning of the statute so that the expenditures that were made here might be ones that were for publications that went to members, in which case the statute wouldn't be involved at all?

Seth P. Waxman:

Justice O'Connor, a great deal has happened with respect to the membership issue and the law relating to who consti... what... who is or is not a member since the FEC made its decision in this case, and let me--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Under the FEC's current interpretation and application of who's a member, would the mailings here have gone to members?

Seth P. Waxman:

--The FEC has recently within the last 3 weeks issued a proposed... a notice of proposed regulation in which it has set out for public notice and comment an alternative set of definitions of membership, and what constitutes a member, and under one of the alternative definitions that the FEC is proposing, the AIPAC members, insofar as the record existed in this case at the time, would not qualify as members, but as--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

In that case the statute wouldn't be invoked at all, if that were--

Seth P. Waxman:

--Well, no, what... I guess what I... what I meant to say is, the FEC has not yet settled on a firm definition of membership.

It did after the decision in this case, but that regulation was struck down by the court of appeals in a case that it decided a few years after the FEC made a decision in this case.

In response, the FEC--

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

--Well, in that case I thought that the... I thought that the Chamber of Commerce case intervened between the threejudge panel in this case and the en banc in this case, is that not--

Seth P. Waxman:

--That is correct, and--

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

--So at the time you were arguing political committee at the en banc, the D.C. Circuit had already decided the membership question in the Chamber of Commerce case, and to me it was just a total mystery how come these two never met from the same court.

Seth P. Waxman:

--Well, I... I agree that it is, like many other things in this case, somewhat mysterious, but I think what the en banc court of appeals concluded, and I think correctly, is that for purposes of deciding this case, the FEC's determination was that the people that AIPAC considered members were not, in fact, members, and that the FEC is now in the process of determining... of fixing on a definition of membership which it has not yet done, but still takes the position that membership can be defined in a way to exclude all people who pay 50 dollars a year in dues to AIPAC.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

But wasn't AIPAC itself always taking the position that it was a membership organization communicating with its members?

I mean, it was not--

Seth P. Waxman:


Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

--It was not in this litigation.