Breaking News

New look at an old campaign law

A federal judge, apparently sensing that he may have left out a key point last week when he struck down a century-old federal campaign finance law, ordered lawyers on Tuesday to file new arguments on that point.  U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris of Alexandria, Va., issued a two-page briefing order in the criminal case of  U.S. v. Danielczyk, due to go to trial on July 6.

Last Thursday, in a ruling discussed here, Judge Cacheris found unconstitutional a law dating back to 1907 that flatly bars corporations from donating any money directly to candidates for President and Congress.  At the time the ruling emerged, groups and individuals who favor the old law accused Judge Cacheris of attempting something that federal trial judges are not allowed to do — overrule a Supreme Court precedent.

The precedent at issue is Federal Election Commission v. Beaumont, issued by the Court in 2003, upholding the very law that the Danielczyk decision would nullify.   Critics of Judge Cacheris’s ruling also criticized the Justice Department for not citing that precedent to the judge in the new criminal case.

However, lawyers for the two men facing criminal charges for allegedly channeling corporate funds directly to two federal campaigns — Hillary Rodham Clinton’s run for the Senate and then her run for President — had cited the Beaumont case in their brief to Judge Cacheris, but they argued that the 2003 ruling would not be upheld by the Supreme Court if it came up today.  Cacheris, though, did not even cite the precedent in his ruling.

Whatever prompted Judge Cacheris to do so on Tuesday, he issued a two-page order directing both sides in the Danielczyk case to file new briefs on the Beaumont case and its potential impact.   The briefs, the order said, are to address “whether, in light of FEC v. Beaumont…and Agostini v. Felton…(1997), this Court should reconsider its ruling” of last Thursday against the corporate donation ban.   (The Agostini precedent has been read by some judges and others as a stern reminder to lower courts that they are not to find a Supreme Court precedent to be no longer binding unless the Supreme Court itself has said so.)

In a recent decision by the Eighth Circuit Court in St. Louis, upholding the very law that Judge Cacheris struck down, both the majority on the three-judge panel and a concurring judge relied upon the Agostini decision for refusing  to abandon the controlling effect they found in the Beaumont decision.  The concurring judge, though, argued that Beaumont was now of doubtful force, in view of the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, giving corporations broad new constitutional freedoms in using money to influence federal campaigns.   Judge Cacheris relied primarily upon Citizens United in striking down the 1907 corporate ban.

The Alexandria judge’s ruling last week nullified one of seven criminal charges in the Danielczyk case, thus clearing the other charges for trial.  The one nullified charge was at issue in the specific part of his ruling that he indicated Tuesday he would review, based upon the new briefs filed on the significance of the Beaumont precedent.

The new briefs on that point are to be no longer than 10 pages, and are to be filed by Wednesday at 5 p.m.   The judge ordered a hearing on this issue for Friday of this week, at 9 a.m., in Alexandria.   The new briefing order will give the Obama Administration an explicit opportunity to discuss the impact it sees, if any, of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on the Beaumont precedent.

(Thanks to Rick Hasen, of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, for the heads-up about the new briefing order.   Rick is litigating the same issue in a San Diego case in the Ninth Circuit Court.)

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, New look at an old campaign law, SCOTUSblog (May. 31, 2011, 9:39 PM),