Perhaps no citation has been more favored in Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) decisions over the past decade than Heckler v. Chaney, 470 U.S. 821 (1985), a Supreme Court decision that gives an agency broad discretion over which enforcement cases to pursue. But there is a category of cases where the FEC is not employing Heckler when it should: Cases where the constitutional support for the statute no longer exists. See Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. Federal Election Commission, 993 F.3d 880, 884 (D.C. Cir. 2021) (“New Models”); see also Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. American Action Network, No. 18-CV-945, 2022 WL 612655, at *2 (D.D.C. Mar. 2, 2022) (holding that an FEC dismissal that was supported by “constitutional doubts” that “militate in favor of cautious exercise of our prosecutorial discretion” was judicially unreviewable under Chaney).
The FEC continues to pursue enforcement penalties in several categories of cases where there is almost no chance that a majority of the Supreme Court would find the statute constitutional. This resembles a sort of regulatory Russian Roulette, where the agency pursues enforcement actions until it finds a respondent that is willing to fully litigate the constitutional issues, mostly likely in a case with plaintiff-friendly facts. The risk for the agency is that when one of these cases eventually comes before the Supreme Court, the justices may use a hammer, rather than a scalpel, in striking down the law.
In two areas in particular, the FEC should exercise its prosecutorial discretion to decline to pursue cases based on statutes and regulations of dubious constitutionality.
A Person Cannot Corrupt His or Her Spouse With a Campaign Contribution, No Matter How Large.
Currently, the FEC follows the Supreme Court’s decision in 1976 to rather tentatively uphold the application of the contribution limits to contributions from intimate family members in the same way as contributions from lobbyists and corporate and union PACs. But the law has evolved, and the Supreme Court has since been clear that generally the only legitimate interest the contribution limits play is to prevent quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. It is nearly impossible to argue that a spouse who gives a contribution over $2,900 to his or her candidate/spouse presents the risk of quid pro quo corruption.
Continue Reading Picking Battles: The FEC and the Constitution