Federal Election Commission v. National Conservative Political Action Committee
Decided on Mar. 18, 1985; 470 US 480


A. Issues Discussed: 1st Amendment (press, speech, association)

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did the the Federal Election Campaign Act, 26 U.S.C. 9012, violate the National Conservative Political Action Committee's (NCPAC) First Amendment rights of free speech and association?


A. Background:

In 1975, Appellee, the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), was accused by both the Democratic Party of the United States and the Federal Election Commission (Appellants) of violating the Federal Election Campaign Act. The Act stipulated that independent political action committees could not spend more than $1,000 to support the election of a presidential candidate.

The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that the Appellants had standing to seek the requested declaratory relief, and ruled 9012(f) as unconstitutional because it violated First Amendment freedoms of speech and association.

Appellee appealed the District Court's decision directly to the United States Supreme Court.  This case was decided together with Democratic Party v. NCPAC.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Charles N. Steele argued the cause for appellant.  With him on the briefs were Richard B. Bader, Miriam Aguiar, and Jonathan A. Bernstein.
Robert R. Sparks, Jr., argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief was J. Curtis Herge.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
"The American Civil Liberties Union submits this brief as amicus curiae in support of the judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania declaring that 26 U.S.C. § 9012(f) is an unconstitutional abridgment of the freedoms of speech and association safeguarded by the First Amendment...

The statutory provision at issue in these appeals makes it a crime for any group to spend more than $1,000 on independent advocacy of presidential candidates who have chosen to accept federal financing for their general election campaigns. This provision has the practical effect of barring any effective independent group political expression in support of major party candidates for our nation's highest office.

Like the $1,000 limitation on independent political expenditures ruled unconstitutional by this Court in Buckley v. Valeo, supra, section 9012(f) directly and drastically restricts the exercise of fundamental First Amendment freedoms of political speech and association. Section 9012(f)'s abridgment of these basic freedoms cannot survive the 'exacting scrutiny applicable to limitations on core First Amendment rights of political expression.'

Each of the governmental interests asserted by appellants in an effort to sustain section 9012(f)'s expenditure limitation - elimination of corruption and the appearance of corruption in presidential campaigns and preservation of the integrity of the public financing provisions of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund Act - has been considered and rejected as inadequate to justify direct limits on political expression."
-Brief of the American Civil Liberties Union, Amicus Curiae in Support of Affirmance
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union by Philip A. Lacovara, Ronald A. Stern, Charles S. Sims, and Arthur B. Spitzer;  Gulf & Great Plains Legal Foundation et al. by Wilkes C. Robinson; the National Congressional Club by Brice M. Clagett and John R. Bolton; and Common Cause by Roger M. Witten, William T. Lake, and Archibald Cox.
No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Appellee.

"The Democrats lack standing under [Section] 9011(b)(l)... It is squarely presented in the Democrats' appeal from the District Court's determination that [Section] 9011(b)(l) is unconstitutional, and if the District Court's decision that the Democrats have standing is allowed to stand, it could seriously interfere with the FEC's (Federal Election Committee) exclusive jurisdiction to determine how and when to enforce the Fund Act.

The plain language of [Section] 9011(b)(l) and [Section] 306(b)(l) of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) - which provides that the FEC shall administer, seek to obtain compliance with, and formulate policy with respect to the Fund Act and confers on the FEC 'exclusive jurisdiction with respect to the civil enforcement' of the Act - clearly shows that the Democrats have no standing to bring a private action against another private party. The Democratic Party is clearly not included within those authorized by [Section] 9011(b)(l) to bring an action. And, while the Democratic National Committee is authorized to bring an action, the action must be 'appropriate' to implement or construe the provision of the Fund Act at issue.

Reading [Section] 306(b)(l) of the FECA and 26 U.S.C. [Section] 9010(a) - which authorizes the FEC to appear in and defend against any action filed under [Section] 9011- together with [Section] 9011, 'appropriate' actions by private parties are those that do not interfere with the FEC’s responsibilities for administering and enforcing the Fund Act... Accordingly, private suits to construe or enforce the Act are inappropriate interference with those responsibilities.

Section 9012(f) violates the First Amendment. The expenditures at issue are squarely prohibited by [Section] 9012(f).  And, as producing speech at the core of the First Amendment and implicating the freedom of association, they are entitled to full protection under that Amendment."

Held: The District Court's decision is affirmed in part and reversed in part.
Justice Vote: 7 Pro vs. 2 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority, wrote concuring dissenting opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Con (Joined White’s dissent, wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance of the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruling of Section 9012(f) of the Federal Election Campaign Act as unconstitutional because it violated 1st Amendment freedoms of speech and association; the US Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the US District Court in regards to the constitutionality of the statute, and reversed in part (regarding the Democrats' standing) by a 7-2 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.