524 U.S. 11 (1998), 96-1590, Federal Election Comm'n v. Akins

Docket Nº:Case No. 96-1590
Citation:524 U.S. 11, 118 S.Ct. 1777, 141 L.Ed.2d 10, 66 U.S.L.W. 4426
Case Date:June 01, 1998
Court:United States Supreme Court

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524 U.S. 11 (1998)

118 S.Ct. 1777, 141 L.Ed.2d 10, 66 U.S.L.W. 4426



AKINS et al.

Case No. 96-1590

United States Supreme Court

June 1, 1998

Argued January 14, 1998



The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) seeks to remedy corruption of the political process. As relevant here, it imposes extensive record keeping and disclosure requirements upon "political committee[s]," which include " any committee, club, association or other group of persons which receives" more than $1,000 in "contributions" or "which makes" more than $1,000 in "expenditures" in any given year, 2 U.S.C.§ 431(4)(A) (emphasis added), "for the purpose of influencing any election for Federal office," §§ 431(8)(A)(i), (9)(A)(i). Assistance given to help a particular candidate will not count toward the $1,000 "expenditure" ceiling 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." § 431(9)(B)(iii). Respondents, voters with views often opposed to those of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), filed a compliant with petitioner Federal Election Commission (FEC), asking the FEC to find that AIPAC had violated FECA and, among other things, to order AIPAC to make public the information that FECA demands of political committees. In dismissing the complaint, the FEC found that AIPAC's communications fell outside FECA's membership communications exception. Nonetheless, it concluded, AIPAC was not a "political committee" because, as an issue-oriented lobbying organization, its major purpose was not the nomination or election of candidates. The District Court granted the FEC summary judgment when it reviewed the determination, but the en banc Court of Appeals reversed on the ground that the FEC's major purpose test improperly interpreted FECA's definition of a political committee. The case presents this Court with two questions: (1) whether respondents had standing to challenge the FEC's decision, and (2) whether an organization falls outside FECA's definition of a "political committee" because "its major purpose" is not "the nomination or election of candidates."


1. Respondents, as voters seeking information to which they believe FECA entitles them, have standing to challenge the FEC's decision not to bring an enforcement action. Pp. 19-26.

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(a) Respondents satisfy prudential standing requirements. FECA specifically provides that "[a]ny person" who believes FECA has been violated may file a complaint with the FEC, § 437g(a)(1), and that "[a]ny party aggrieved" by an FEC order dismissing such party's complaint may seek district court review of the dismissal, § 437g(a)(8)(A). History associates the word "aggrieved" with a congressional intent to cast the standing net broadly—beyond the common-law interests and substantive statutory rights upon which "prudential" standing traditionally rested. E. g., FCC v. Sanders Brothers Radio Station, 309 U.S. 470. Moreover, respondents' asserted injury—their failure to obtain relevant information—is injury of a kind that FECA seeks to address. Pp. 19-20.

(b) Respondents also satisfy constitutional standing requirements. Their inability to obtain information that, they claim, FECA requires AIPAC to make public meets the genuine "injury in fact" requirement that helps assure that the court will adjudicate "[a] concrete, living contest between adversaries." Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433, 460 (Frankfurter, J., dissenting). United States v. Richardson, 418 U.S. 166, distinguished. The fact that the harm at issue is widely shared does not deprive Congress of constitutional power to authorize its vindication in the federal courts where the harm is concrete. See Public Citizen v. Department of Justice, 491 U.S. 440, 449-450. The informational injury here, directly related to voting, the most basic of political rights, is sufficiently concrete. Respondents have also satisfied the remaining two constitutional standing requirements: The harm asserted is "fairly traceable" to the FEC's decision not to issue its complaint, and the courts in this case can "redress" that injury. Pp. 20-25.

(c) Finally, FECA explicitly indicates a congressional intent to alter the traditional view that agency enforcement decisions are not subject to judicial review. Heckler v. Chaney, 470 U.S. 821, 832, distinguished. P. 26.

2. Because of the unusual and complex circumstances in which the case arises, the second question presented cannot be addressed here, and the case must be remanded. After the FEC determined that many persons belonging to AIPAC were not "members" under FEC regulations, the Court of Appeals overturned those regulations in another case, in part because it thought they defined membership organizations too narrowly in light of an organization's First Amendment right to communicate with its members. The FEC's new "membership organization" rules could significantly affect the interpretative issue presented by Question Two. Thus, the FEC should proceed to determine whether or not AIPAC's expenditures qualify as "membership communications" under the new rules, and thereby fall outside the scope of "expenditures"

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that could qualify it as a "political committee." If it decides that the communications here do not qualify, then the lower courts can still evaluate the significance of the communicative context in which the case arises. If, on the other hand, it decides that they do qualify, the matter will become moot. Pp. 26-29.

101 F.3d 731, vacated and remanded.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which O'Connor and Thomas, JJ., joined, post, p. 29.

Solicitor General Waxman argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Acting Solicitor General Dellinger, Malcolm L. Stewart, Lawrence M. Noble, Richard B. Bader, and David Kolker.

Daniel M. Schember argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief was Abdeen Jabara. [*]

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has determined that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is not a "political committee" as defined by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA or Act), 86 Stat. 11, as amended, 2 U.S.C. § 431(4), and, for that reason, the FEC has refused to require AIPAC to make disclosures regarding its membership, contributions, and expenditures that FECA would otherwise require. We hold that respondents, a group of voters, have standing to challenge the

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Commission's determination in court, and we remand this case for further proceedings.


In light of our disposition of this case, we believe it necessary to describe its procedural background in some detail. As commonly understood, the FECA seeks to remedy any actual or perceived corruption of the political process in several important ways. The Act imposes limits upon the amounts that individuals, corporations, "political committees" (including political action committees), and political parties can contribute to a candidate for federal political office. §§ 441a(a), 441a(b), 441b. The Act also imposes limits on the amount these individuals or entities can spend in coordination with a candidate. (It treats these expenditures as "contributions to" a candidate for purposes of the Act.) § 441a(a)(7)(B)(i). As originally written, the Act set limits upon the total amount that a candidate could spend of his own money, and upon the amounts that other individuals, corporations, and "political committees" could spend independent of a candidate—though the Court found that certain of these last-mentioned limitations violated the First Amendment. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 39-59 (1976) (per curiam); Federal Election Comm'n v. National Conservative Political Action Comm., 470 U.S. 480, 497 (1985); cf. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Comm. v. Federal Election Comm'n, 518 U.S. 604, 613-619 (1996) (opinion of Breyer, J.).

This case concerns requirements in the Act that extend beyond these better-known contribution and expenditure limitations. In particular, the Act imposes extensive record keeping and disclosure requirements upon groups that fall within the Act's definition of a "political committee." Those groups must register with the FEC, appoint a treasurer, keep names and addresses of contributors, track the amount and purpose of disbursements, and file complex FEC

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reports that include lists of donors giving in excess of $200 per year (often, these donors may be the group's members), contributions, expenditures, and any other disbursements irrespective of their purposes. §§ 432-434.

The Act's use of the word "political committee" calls to mind the term "political action committee," or "PAC," a term that normally refers to organizations that corporations or trade unions might establish for the purpose of making contributions or expenditures that the Act would otherwise prohibit. See §§ 431(4)(B), 441b. But, in fact, the Act's term "political committee" has a much broader scope. The Act states that a "political committee" includes " any committee, club, association or other group of persons which receives" more than $1,000 in "contributions" or "which makes" more than $1,000 in "expenditures" in any given year. § 431(4)(A) (emphasis added).

This broad definition, however, is less universally encompassing...

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