King St. Patriots v. Tex. Democratic Party

Decision Date30 June 2017
Docket NumberNo. 15-0320,15-0320
Citation521 S.W.3d 729
Parties KING STREET PATRIOTS, Catherine Engelbrecht, Bryan Engelbrecht, and Diane Josephs, Petitioners, v. TEXAS DEMOCRATIC PARTY; Gilberto Hinojosa, Successor to Boyd Richie, in his Capacity as Chairman of the Texas Democratic Party; John Warren, in his Capacity as Democratic Nominee for Dallas County Clerk; and Ann Bennett, in her Capacity as the Democratic Nominee for Harris County Clerk, Respondents
CourtTexas Supreme Court

Kelly Greenwood Prather, The Greenwood Prather Law Firm, Houston, for Amicus Curiae Campaign Legal Center.

Joseph M. Nixon, N. Terry Adams Jr., Nicholas D. Stepp, Akerman LLP, Houston, for Amicus Curiae Empower Texans, Texas Right to Life Committee, and Texas Homeschool Coalition.

Brantley D. Starr, Kristofer S. Monson, Scott A. Keller, W. Kenneth Paxton Jr., Austin, for Amicus Curiae State of Texas.

Brock C. Akers, The Akers Firm, PLLC, Houston, Hiram S. Sasser III, Justin Butterfield, Kelly J. Shackelford, Liberty Legal Institute, Plano, James Bopp Jr., Randy Elf, The Bopp Law Firm, P.C., Terre Haute IN, Jeffrey C. Mateer, Jonathan M. Saenz, Margaret A. Wilson, Austin, Michael S. Hull, Hull Hendricks L. L. P., Austin, for Petitioners.

Chad Wilson Dunn, Abbie Kamin, K. Scott Brazil, Brazil & Dunn, LLP, Houston, Richard Alan 'Dicky' Grigg, Spivey & Grigg, LLP, Austin, for Respondents.

Justice Guzman delivered the opinion of the Court.

The liberty of the electors in the exercise of the right vested in them by the Constitution to choose public officers on whatever principle or dictated by whatever motive they see fit ... cannot be denied.1

Political liberty is the bedrock of our democracy, and the right of citizens to choose their public officials and political associations is deeply rooted in our constitutional firmament. The vast breadth of the freedoms "We the People"2 enjoy moved Alexis de Tocqueville to write "[t]here is only one country on the face of the earth where the citizens enjoy unlimited freedom of association for political purposes."3 But while the United States Constitution robustly protects the right of electors to choose their representatives, "[t]he States possess a broad power to prescribe the ‘Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives,’ ... [and] state offices."4 Though broad, the State's power to prescribe laws regulating elections is constitutionally constrained and is therefore subject to limits established by the First Amendment, including the freedom of political association granted to our citizens.5 This case, which involves a constitutional challenge to the Texas Election Code, highlights the tension between the warp and weft of these rights and powers in our constitutional fabric.

The Texas Democratic Party6 sued King Street Patriots,7 alleging noncompliance with obligations and restraints the Election Code imposes on "political committees" and corporations. King Street Patriots is a self-described "group of concerned residents from the Houston area" who "engage [d] in the political process" by forming a Texas nonprofit corporation to "provide education and awareness [to] the general public on important civic and patriotic duties." The Texas Democratic Party claims King Street Patriots is a "political committee" that unlawfully accepts "political contributions" and makes "political expenditures" as those terms are defined in the Election Code. King Street Patriots firmly denies being a "political committee" or violating any applicable law. But to the extent it is subject to regulation under the Election Code, King Street Patriots contends certain statutory provisions impermissibly burden its constitutional rights, including the right of political association. In the trial court, the parties took the unusual step of obtaining an agreed order (1) deferring resolution of the Texas Democratic Party's claims and King Street Patriots's as-applied constitutional challenges and (2) severing King Street Patriots's facial challenges to the Election Code for expedited adjudication.8 The former remain pending in the trial court, while the latter are the subject of this appeal.

Following severance, the trial court found the challenged Election Code provisions facially valid, and the court of appeals affirmed.9 Here, though the issues are more narrow in scope, King Street Patriots continues to assail the constitutionality of Code provisions that (1) restrict corporate contributions, (2) grant a private right of action, and (3) define political committees, campaign contributions, and political contributions. As to the last of these, the Texas Solicitor General, weighing in on the matter at our request, argues that if we properly construe the term "political committee," no constitutional infirmity exists and King Street Patriots does not fall within its ambit because it is not a "political committee."

Adhering to the United States Supreme Court's decision in Federal Election Commission v. Beaumont ,10 as we are obliged to do,11 we conclude that legislatively enacted bans on corporate political contributions are constitutional under the First Amendment. We also reaffirm, as we held in Osterberg v. Peca , that the Legislature's public policy choice to authorize a private right of action passes constitutional muster.12 Though we further conclude the Election Code's campaign contribution and political contribution definitions are not unconstitutionally vague, we do not reach King Street Patriots's challenge to the Code's political committee definitions because, as a prudential matter, that issue is not ripe.

The parties' agreement to sever King Street Patriots's facial challenges from its as-applied challenges is an unconventional procedural course. As a jurisprudential matter, we do not decide constitutional questions when a dispute may be resolved otherwise. Moreover, under the hierarchy of constitutional inquiry, "the usual judicial practice" is to determine an as-applied challenge before addressing a facial challenge.13 In this case, adjudication of King Street Patriots's facial challenge to the political committee definitions is premature because the limited record before us establishes King Street Patriots is not a political committee. We therefore hold King Street Patriots's as-applied challenges should be adjudicated before facial constitutionality of the political committee definitions is determined. Accordingly, we affirm the court of appeals' judgment in part, vacate the portions of the lower courts' judgments upholding the facial constitutionality of the political committee definitions of the Texas Election Code, and remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Under section 251.001(12) of the Texas Election Code, a "[p]olitical committee" is "a group of persons that has as a principal purpose accepting political contributions or making political expenditures." King Street Patriots denies it meets this definition, arguing it merely "offered to train anyone interested in serving as a poll watcher for any party or candidate" before the 2010 election,14 trained several hundred people who "observed" the election as poll watchers "to help ensure that election laws were followed," and held weekly meetings on "topics of interest" to local "concerned citizens." King Street Patriots insists speakers at its weekly meetings "are strictly informed that King Street Patriots is nonpartisan" and expressly prohibited from campaigning or promoting themselves at these events. Though money is collected at the meetings, King Street Patriots says (1) the collection process involves no more than passing around a cowboy hat, and (2) it "[has] not made any monetary contributions to any candidate or politician."

The Texas Democratic Party sued King Street Patriots after the 2010 election, alleging the group is a "sham domestic nonprofit corporation" that "was explicitly created in an effort to make and receive political contributions and to make political expenditures without complying with federal or state disclosure laws" and is knowingly operated as "an unregistered and illegal political committee."

The Texas Democratic Party claims King Street Patriots's Election Code violations include:

• making undisclosed and non-independent political expenditures from group members' contributions;
• training and assigning poll watchers "to polling locations in direct coordination with and [at the] request of Republican Party and elected officials";
• designing, preparing, and implementing training materials for poll watchers, which were used by the Travis County Republican Party and others;
• providing forums only for "Republican interests," including "political rallies" for the Governor and other Republican officeholders;
• holding statewide and nationwide "summit[s]" to impact the election; and
• organizing events and making expenditures, in funds or in-kind, to press for changes in the Election Code.15

The Texas Democratic Party seeks damages and injunctive relief under the Election Code,16 along with declaratory relief.

In response, King Street Patriots brought counterclaims challenging the constitutionality of several Election Code provisions, sought declaratory and injunctive relief barring the Texas Democratic Party from enforcing those provisions, and requested reimbursement of its attorney's fees and costs.17 Among other complaints not at issue here, King Street Patriots asserted that myriad provisions of the Texas Election Code, on their face, violate its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.18

In a Rule 11 Agreement, the parties agreed to (1) sever the counterclaims into a new cause number in which "the only issue to be decided" would be "the [facial] constitutionality of the applicable statutes," and (2) abate the original action pending disposition of the severed action. As to the...

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