Does The State GOP Have Standing To Bring The “Federal Account” Lawsuit?

As I noted in my preceding post, the state Democratic Party has moved to dismiss the state GOP’s lawsuit challenging a mailer the Democratic Party paid for from “federal account” funds to support Governor Malloy’s reelection campaign. The Democratic Party’s motion to dismiss articulates a number of reasons why the lawsuit should be dismissed, including that only the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) has the legal right to bring an action in court to enforce state campaign finance laws.

I’m wondering whether another jurisdictional problem exists. Even if the campaign finance laws authorize an enforcement action by a private party as opposed to the SEEC, it does not follow that any private party or organization can sue. Rather, only those private parties or organizations with “standing” can actually bring suit:

Standing is the legal right to set judicial machinery in motion. One cannot rightfully invoke the jurisdiction of the court unless he has, in an individual or representative capacity, some real interest in the cause of action, or a legal or equitable right, title or interest in the subject matter of the controversy. . . .

Town of New Hartford v. Connecticut Res. Recovery Auth., 291 Conn. 511, 518-19 (2009) (“New Hartford v. CRRA“).

As the GOP acknowledged in its brief opposing the Democratic Party’s motion to dismiss (GOP Br.), a party must be “aggrieved” by a defendant’s conduct in order to have standing to sue. There are two types of aggrievement: statutory and classical.  GOP Br. at 18. The GOP does not contend that it is statutorily aggrieved. To the contrary, it rests its standing argument squarely on the notion that it satisfies the test for classical aggrievement:
The fundamental test for determining [classical] aggrievement encompasses a well-settled twofold determination: first, the party claiming aggrievement must successfully demonstrate a specific personal and legal interest in the subject matter of the decision, as distinguished from a general interest, such as is the concern of all the members of the community as a whole. Second, the party claiming aggrievement must successfully establish that the specific personal and legal interest has been specially and injuriously affected by the decision.

GOP Br. at 18-19 (citing Town of New Hartford v. CRRA). The question, then, is whether the state GOP–as opposed to Tom Foley, Joe Visconti, etc.–has a specific personal and legal interest in the dispute, distinct from the interest of citizens of the state in general, and whether the specific personal and legal interest has been specially and injuriously affected.

In opposing the Democratic Party’s motion to dismiss, the GOP says the answer to that question is “yes.” It cites a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case, Tashjian v. Republican Party, for the proposition that “political parties are entitled to pursue judicial relief.” GOP Br. at 20. That proposition is certainly true in some circumstances. In Tashjian, for example, the state Republican Party had adopted an internal party rule in 1984 that allowed independent voters to vote in Republican primaries. That rule conflicted with a 1956 Connecticut law that limited primary voters to registered members of the relevant political party. The Republican Party filed suit to challenge the constitutionality of the 1956 law on the ground that it infringed the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of its members to associate for political purposes, which included the right to decide who could vote in Republican primaries. The Supreme Court agreed that the Republican Party had standing to file such a lawsuit and that the 1956 law was unconstitutional for the reasons asserted.

The facts of Tashjian, however, bear no resemblance to the present case. Moreover, Tashjian certainly does not stand for the proposition that any time a partisan political party–Democratic, Republican or other–is unhappy with the conduct of an opposing political party or that party’s candidate, that partisan political party is classically aggrieved by that conduct and has standing to sue.  Such a position would transform many purely political disputes into legal ones.

The GOP argues that an organization has the right to sue to protect the associational rights of its members. GOP Br. at 19. That argument is absolutely, 100% correct. But how does the Democratic Party’s use of “federal account” funds to pay for the mailer infringe on the associational rights of GOP members? I understand why GOP members don’t like the mailer. I understand their concern that the mailer could help the Democratic candidate in his reelection campaign, and thus hurt the GOP candidate.  But I don’t really understand how the use of federal account funds infringes on the constitutional rights of GOP members to associate for political purposes, such that the GOP–as opposed to Tom Foley personally–has standing to bring a lawsuit challenging the conduct at issue.

The claims that the GOP raises in its lawsuit concerning the use of federal account funds to pay for the mailer are serious and worthy of legal review.  However, I’m not persuaded that the GOP is the proper party to assert those claims in court. Tom Foley possibly could, and I think the SEEC certainly could. I’m just not sure the GOP can.

Some readers may view this as a rather technical debate. If someone can challenge the Democratic Party’s conduct, who really cares whether that “someone” is the GOP, as opposed to Tom Foley or some other candidate whose election prospects the mailer directly affects? The answer is that standing is a “practical concept designed to ensure that courts and parties are not vexed by suits brought to vindicate nonjusticiable interests and that judicial decisions which may affect the rights of others are forged in hot controversy, with each view fairly and vigorously represented.” New Hartford v. CRRA, 291 Conn. 511, 518-19 (2009).

This is a close question, I admit.  Stay tuned.

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