Shapiro Arato Wins Summary Judgment Motion Against FEC in Groundbreaking Presidential Debates Case

On Wednesday, February 2nd , United States District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan granted our motion for summary judgment on behalf of Plaintiffs Level the Playing Field, Peter Ackerman, the Green Party of the United States, and the Libertarian National Committee, Inc. in their lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission (“FEC”). Plaintiffs’ suit challenges the FEC’s dismissal of two administrative complaints against the Commission on Presidential Debates (“CPD”), alleging that the CPD has violated federal election laws that require it to be non-partisan and to apply “objective criteria” in determining who may participate in the presidential debates.  Plaintiffs also challenge the FEC’s denial of a petition to initiate a rulemaking to revise its regulations to prevent debate-staging organizations from requiring candidates to meet a polling threshold to access the general election presidential and vice-presidential debates.

Our motion for summary judgment argued that in dismissing the administrative complaints the FEC applied a legal standard contrary to the text of its own regulation, which requires the FEC to analyze whether the CPD is in fact non-partisan or whether it “endorses, supports, or opposes political candidates or political parties” in violation of that mandate. In her opinion, Judge Chutkan found that the FEC had failed to articulate which standard it applied in dismissing the complaints, characterizing its factual and legal analysis as “threadbare” and suggesting that “it possibly applied no analytical standard at all.”  The Court also agreed with Plaintiffs’ contention that the FEC failed to take a “hard look” at the significant expert and empirical evidence marshalled in support of the administrative complaints, including evidence that the CPD’s use of polling data as a criterion for debate inclusion illegally discriminates against third party and independent candidates. Judge Chutkan agreed that the evidence presented by plaintiffs “pointed to the recent partisanship of the CPD’s chairs and directors” and noted that the FEC’s dismissal “did not even mention the vast majority of the substantive evidence submitted regarding partisanship, party support, and…non-objectivity” and gave the polling evidence “only glancing attention.” The Court thus held that the FEC acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in dismissing the administrative complaints and ordered the FEC to produce on remand a new decision properly demonstrating that it had considered the evidence using the appropriate legal standard.

Similarly, the Court found that the FEC acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” with respect to plaintiffs’ petition for rulemaking by “refusing to engage in…a thorough consideration of the presented evidence and without explaining its decision.”  Judge Chutkan expressed both “concern[] at the agency’s cursory treatment of Plaintiff LPF’s petition, its arguments, and its evidence” and skepticism at the agency’s refusal to initiate a new rulemaking in light of this deficiency.  The FEC has been ordered to produce a new, more thorough decision within 60 days.

The full text of the Court’s opinion can be read here. The briefs in support of our motion for summary judgment can be read here. More information about the case can be read here and here.