Federal Election Commission: KTB American Government and Civics Series
Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life (2007) is one of the landmark Supreme Court cases featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life (2007)
Federal Election Commission Facts:
Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL), a nonprofit political advocacy corporation, ran three advertisements encouraging viewers to contact two U.S. Senators and tell them to oppose filibusters of judicial nominees. WRTL intended to keep running the ads through the 2004 election, but the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) prohibits corporate funds from being used for certain political advertisements in the 60-day period prior to an election. WRTL sued the Federal Election Commission (FEC), claiming that the BCRA was unconstitutional as applied to the advertisements.
In 2006, the Supreme Court let the “as applied” challenge proceed (see Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission, 04-1581). In McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, the Court had upheld Congress’s power to regulate “express advocacy” ads that support or oppose political candidates, but WRTL claimed that its ads were “issue ads” rather than express advocacy. WRTL also argued that the government lacked a compelling interest sufficient to override the corporation’s First Amendment free speech interest. The FEC countered that WRTL’s ads were “sham issue ads,” which refrain from explicitly endorsing or opposing a candidate but are intended to affect an election.
A three-judge District Court agreed with WRTL’s arguments and ruled the BCRA unconstitutional as applied to the ads. The FEC appealed to the Supreme Court.
Federal Election Commission Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Is the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act’s ban on the use of corporate treasury funds for political advertisements in the 60 days before an election unconstitutional as applied to advertisements that do not explicitly endorse or oppose a candidate?
A: Yes. The court ruled that BCRA’s limitations on political advertising were unconstitutional as they applied to issue ads like WTRL’s.
Federal Election Commission Conclusion
5-4 decision ruling genuine issue ads are not able to be regulated by Congress. While McConnell established no test for express advocacy (it would be open ended and burdensome), the FEC court used the test of whether an ad is the functional equivalent of express advocacy only if the ad is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.
Preventing corruption nor distorting the effects of corporate wealth outweighed the right of corporations to speak through ads on public issues. The benefit of the doubt is given to speech as opposed to censorship.