459 U.S. 197 (1982), 81-1506, Federal Election Commission v. National Right to Work Committee

Docket Nº:No. 81-1506
Citation:459 U.S. 197, 103 S.Ct. 552, 74 L.Ed.2d 364
Party Name:Federal Election Commission v. National Right to Work Committee
Case Date:December 13, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 197

459 U.S. 197 (1982)

103 S.Ct. 552, 74 L.Ed.2d 364

Federal Election Commission


National Right to Work Committee

No. 81-1506

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 13, 1982

Argued November 1, 1982




The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, 2 U.S.C. § 441b(a), prohibits corporations and labor unions from making contributions or expenditures in connection with federal elections. The section, however, permits some participation by unions and corporations in the federal electoral process by allowing these organizations to establish and pay the expenses of "separate segregated funds" which may be used for political purposes during federal elections. The Act restricts the operations of such segregated funds in several respects. Of most relevance here, 2 U.S.C. §§ 441b(b)(4)(A) and 441b(b)(4)(C) provide that a corporation without capital stock may solicit contributions to a fund it has established only from "members" of the corporation. During 1976, respondent National Right to Work Committee (NRWC), a corporation without capital stock, solicited some 267,000 persons for contributions to a separate segregated fund that it sponsored. Petitioner Federal Election Commission determined that NRWC's solicitation violated § 441b(b)(4)(C), because the persons it had solicited were not its members. Among other things, NRWC's solicitation letters did not mention membership, its articles of incorporation disclaim the existence of members, and members play no part in the operation or administration of the corporation.


1. The persons solicited by NRWC were insufficiently attached to the corporation to qualify as members under § 441b(b)(4)(C). This interpretation of the Act does not raise constitutional difficulties. Pp. 201-207.

2. The First Amendment associational rights asserted by NRWC are overborne by the interests Congress has sought to protect in enacting § 441b. The provision marks the culmination of a careful legislative adjustment of the federal electoral laws to prevent both actual and apparent corruption, and reflects a legislative judgment that the special characteristics of corporations require prophylactic measures. Pp. 207-211.

214 U.S.App.D.C. 215, 665 F.2d 371, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 198

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in the case ultimately comes down to whether respondent National Right to Work Committee (NRWC or respondent) limited its solicitation of funds to "members" within the meaning of 2 U.S.C. § 441b(b)(4)(C).1

In April, 1977, petitioner Federal Election Commission (Commission)2 determined that there was probable cause to

Page 199

believe that NRWC had violated the above-cited provisions of the Act by soliciting contributions from persons who were not its "members." Shortly thereafter, respondent filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia seeking injunctive and declaratory relief against the Commission. One month later, the Commission filed an enforcement proceeding against respondent in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking to establish respondent's violation of 2 U.S.C. § 441b. The actions were consolidated in the latter court, which granted summary judgment in favor of the Commission on the basis of stipulated facts. 501 F.Supp. 422 (1980).3 The judgment of the District Court was reversed by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 214 U.S.App.D.C. 215, 665 F.2d 371 (1981), and we granted certiorari. 456 U.S. 914 (1982).

Respondent NRWC is a nonprofit corporation without capital stock organized under the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Given the central role of the congressional use of the word "member" in this litigation, it is useful to set forth respondent's organizational history in some detail. In 1975, respondent's predecessor and another corporation merged; the articles of merger filed in the District of Columbia by the successor corporation stated that NRWC "shall not have members." A similar statement is contained in the articles of incorporation of NRWC that are presently filed in Virginia. Likewise, respondent's bylaws make no reference to members or to membership in the corporation. The stated purpose of NRWC, according to its Virginia articles of incorporation, is

[t]o help make the public aware of the fact that American citizens are being required, against their will, to join and pay dues to labor organizations in order to earn a living.

Page 200

App. to Pet. for Cert. 17a. In pursuance of this objective, NRWC regularly mails messages to millions of individuals and businesses whose names have found their way onto commercially available mailing lists that the organization has purchased or rented. The letters do not mention membership in NRWC, but seek donations to help NRWC publicize its opposition to compulsory unionism, and frequently contain a questionnaire that the recipient is requested to answer and return.

In late 1975, in order to comply with § 441b, NRWC established a separate segregated fund, see § 441b(b)(4)(C),4 "to receive and make contributions on behalf of federal candidates." [103 S.Ct. 556] The fund was denominated the "Employees Rights Campaign Committee" (ERCC); its operation was completely subsidized from the NRWC treasury, which paid all the expenses of establishing and administering the fund, and of soliciting contributions. During part of 1976, NRWC sent letters to some 267,000 individuals, who had at one time contributed to it, soliciting contributions to ERCC. As a result of these solicitations, the fund received some $77,000 in contributions.

In October, 1976, another lobbying group, the Committee for an Effective Congress, filed a complaint against ERCC with the Commission, alleging violation of 2 U.S.C. § 441b(b)(4). The complaint asserted that NRWC had violated this section of the Act by using corporate funds to solicit contributions to ERCC from persons who were not NRWC's stockholders, executive or administrative personnel, or their families. NRWC did not deny these assertions, but took

Page 201

the position that the recipients of its solicitation letters were "members" of NRWC within the proviso set forth in § 441b(b)(4)(C). The Commission found probable cause to believe that a violation had occurred, and after completing the investigative procedures set out in the statute and unsuccessfully attempting to resolve the matter through conciliation, see 2 U.S.C. § 437g (1976 ed., Supp. V), it authorized the filing of a civil enforcement suit. This litigation followed.

Essential to the proper resolution of the case is the interpretation of § 441b(b)(4)(C)'s statement that the prohibition against corporate solicitation contained in § 441b(b)(4)(A) shall not prevent

a . . . corporation without capital stock . . . from soliciting contributions to [a separate segregated fund established by a corporation without capital stock] from members of such . . . corporation. . . .

(Emphasis added.) The Court of Appeals rejected the Commission's contentions regarding the meaning of "member," and went on to hold that the term "embraces at least those individuals whom NRWC describes as its active and supporting members." 214 U.S.App.D.C. at 220, 665 F.2d at 376. The opinion of the Court of Appeals indicates that this construction was reached at least in part because of concern for the constitutional implications of any narrower construction. Id. at 218-220, 665 F.2d at 374-376. As explained below, we reject this construction.

The statutory purpose of § 441b, as outlined above, is to prohibit contributions or expenditures by corporations or labor organizations in connection...

To continue reading