Tuesday, April 13, 2021
The D.C. Circuit ruled on Friday that a private party can't challenge an Federal Election Commission decision not to enforce election law if the decision was based in any measure on agency discretion. The ruling effectively gives commissioners who successfully oppose enforcement action a get-out-of-judicial-review card simply by invoking discretion as any part of their explanation for not enforcing the law. The ruling also adds to the structural features that have paralyzed the FEC. (The FEC is comprised of six commissions, no more than three of either major political party. But it requires four votes to initiate an enforcement action. Partisan deadlock and quorum issues have created an impotent agency. This ruling only adds to those features, because it allows commissioners who vote against enforcement to insulate their decision simply by mentioning "discretion.")
The case, CREW v. FEC, arose when CREW sued the FEC for deciding not to enforce election law against New Models, a now-defunct non-profit. CREW filed a complaint against New Models for failing to comply with FECA's registration and reporting requirements for "political committees." But the FEC, by a 2-2 vote, decided not to pursue an investigation. The two commissioners who voted against an investigation wrote a 31-page, single-spaced opinion explaining their legal reasons why New Models wasn't a "political committee" under FECA. They added a final sentence, "For these reasons, and in exercise of our prosecutorial discretion, we voted against finding reason to believe that New Models violated the Act . . . ." (The commissioners dropped a footnote to their reference to "prosecutorial discretion" with a brief explanation: "Given the age of the activity and the fact that the organization appears no longer active, proceeding further would not be an appropriate use of Commission resources.")
CREW sued under FECA's provision that authorizes a private suit to challenge an FEC nonenforcement decision if it is "contrary to law." The D.C. Circuit ruled that the court couldn't review the decision, though, because it was "based even in part on prosecutorial discretion."
The court said that the ruling was a simple application of its previous ruling in Commission on Hope. In that case, the court said that under Heckler v. Chaney it couldn't review an FEC nonenforcement decision based on agency discretion. (Discretion formed a much more significant portion of the justification for nonenforcement in Commission on Hope, however.) It also said that FECA doesn't contain any standards for a court to judge an FEC decision based on discretion.
Judge Millett wrote a lengthy dissent, arguing that "the majority opinion creates an easy and automatic 'get out of judicial review free' card for the Federal Election Commission."