Thursday, July 14, 2011

Opportunity for corporations to donate directly to federal candidates possible: Eighth Circuit grants en banc review for Swanson case

Excitement in the world of campaign finance litigation yesterday!* 

On July 12, 2011 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit granted en banc review in the case of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, Inc. v. Swanson, Record No. 10-3126.  This means that all of the Judges of the Eight Circuit will rule upon the issue of whether the Constitution allows the government to prevent corporations form making direct contributions to candidates.  

What is this about?

In May and June 2011 I covered the details of an Eastern District of Virginia case referred to generally as Danielczyk.  Coverage here.  In short the major issue of concern is whether a federal ban on contributions from corporations directly to federal candidates is Constitutional.  Judge Cacheris in the Eastern District of Virginia said the ban is unconstitutional.  The federal government has now appealed the Danielczyk decision.  Three federal appellate courts said a ban is Constitutional . . . until July 12.  On July 12, 2011 the Eight Circuit Court of appeals vacated their holding of Constitutionality, and now all the judges on the Circuit will have an opportunity to weigh in.

How does En banc review work?

When a case goes to a U.S. Court of Appeals it generally will go before a randomly selected panel of three appellate judges for that particular circuit.  Those three judges render an opinion, that then becomes the opinion of the entire circuit.  Litigants dissatisfied with a ruling by a panel may petition for rehearing (asking the same three judges to change their minds) or petition for a rehearing en banc.  A rehearing en banc is when all of the judges sit, hear argument, and rule upon a case.  Successful petitions for rehearing and petitions for rehearing en banc are very uncommon, and publicly available statistics for these procedures are unavailable (outside of the Federal Circuit).  Under Fed. R. App. P. 35(b) a rehearing en banc should only be granted in instances where the panel decision conflicts with a decision of the Supreme Court, or another decision from the same circuit, or if the case involves an issue of exceptional importance that can be concisely stated.  The petition is limited to 15 pages, and will often be narrowly focused on the major issue(s) in order to make an important point in a small amount of space.

Once en banc review is granted, the court may, in its discretion, order additional briefing.  This does not appear to have been done in this case.

What does this grant of en banc review mean?

1) It likely means a number of judges at the Eighth Circuit have serious misgivings about the Constitutionality of a ban on direct contributions from corporations to candidates.

2) More importantly, the judges of the Eighth Circuit likely believe this is an issue that will not be settled once and for all in the Courts of Appeals.  This issue is likely headed back to the Supreme Court where the scope of the January 2010 Citizens United Ruling will have to be clarified.

I just hope our Fourth Circuit Judges get a chance to opine before the Supreme Court sets the matter straight.

*I know campaign finance law and appellate procedure are not fun for everyone, but that is okay.  I think there is room enough in the world for all of us.

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