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Sierra Club v. FEC

Preface: Richard Mayberry represented the Sierra Club in the advisory opinion before the Federal Election Commission, and also in federal court and the appeals in the federal court of appeals for the District of Columbia

Sierra Club v. FEC, 593 F. Supp. 166 (D.D.C.), rev'd mem. (D.C. Cir. 1984), on remand (D.D.C. Nov 5, 1984) (unpublished opinion).


On July 31, 1984, the Sierra Club and its separate segregated fund, the Sierra Club Committee on Political Education (SCCOPE), filed suit against the FEC in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Civil Action No. 84-2354). The plaintiffs challenged the FEC's construction and application of 2 U.S.C. §441b in an advisory opinion the agency had issued to the Sierra Club on July 13, 1984. 

In Advisory Opinion 1984-24, the Commission rejected the two financing methods proposed by the Club for selling its goods and services to SCCOPE as part of SCCOPE's in-kind contribution program for federal candidates.

The Sierra Club asked the court to declare that:

  • The election law permits the Club to provide goods and services to SCCOPE for use in SCCOPE's in-kind contribution program, provided: a) SCCOPE makes payments in advance to an escrow account or reimburses the Club within a commercially reasonable time, and b) the goods and services are purchased at fair market value.
  • Section 441b, both on its face and as applied to plaintiff's activities, violates the First Amendment by abridging plaintiff's freedom of association and by being unconstitutionally vague.
  • Advisory Opinion 1984-24 is contrary to law and to the First and Fifth Amendments.

Plaintiff also asked the court to enjoin the FEC from commencing or continuing any enforcement proceedings designed to prevent SCCOPE from using Sierra Club goods and services for its in-kind contribution program.

District Court's Initial Ruling

On August 11, 1984, the district court issued an order dismissing the suit. The court ruled that the case was not ripe for its consideration became the Club had not exhausted the administrative remedies available to it before filing suit.
Appeals Court Remand to District Court

The Sierra Club appealed this ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The appeals court treated the Club's motion to expedite the appeal as a motion for summary reversal. In its order of September 7, 1984, the appeals court granted this motion, reversing the district court's dismissal, and remanded the case to the district court for further consideration.
District Court's Second Ruling

On October 31, 1984, the district court granted the FEC's motion to dismiss the suit. In its November 5 opinion, the court upheld AO 1984-24 as a reasonable interpretation of the law's prohibition on corporate contributions, noting that "the Federal Election Commission is the type of agency to which considerable weight and deference should presumptively be accorded.... " The court also rejected the Club's claim that the opinion violated its First Amendment rights, which, the court stated, were "overborne by the interests Congress has sought to protect in enacting Section 441b."

Attribution: Federal Election Commission Record -- September 1984, p. 10; and FEC Annual Report 1984, p. 26.