State Democratic Party Is Entitled To Jurisdiction Ruling Before Responding To Subpoena

As most readers are probably aware, the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) is investigating whether the Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC) violated state campaign finance laws when it sent out certain get-out-the-vote (GOTV) mailers that featured Governor Malloy.  The SEEC recently served the DSCC with an investigatory subpoena, calling upon the DSCC to produce a vast array of documents.  The DSCC’s attorney, David Golub, responded with a letter informing the SEEC that his client had no intention of responding to the subpoena.  Golub argues that the SEEC lacks jurisdiction on the theory that federal election law preempts state law with respect to GOTV activity.

I am not an election law expert and I offer no opinion on the legal or factual merits of the case or on the preemption issue.  But I do know a little bit about the importance of resolving jurisdictional disputes promptly–something that is not happening in this case.

Court and administrative agencies have tremendous power to wreak havoc with people’s lives.  The transaction costs associated with judicial and agency proceedings can be costly and intrusive, and the end result can be a significant loss of money (e.g., fines, penalties, damages), of reputation, and , in criminal cases, of personal liberty.  Before a court or agency can cause such disruption, however, it must have “jurisdiction” over the subject matter of the dispute.  “Jurisdiction of the subject-matter is the power [of the court] to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong.” Henry F. Raab Connecticut, Inc. v. J.W. Fisher Co., 143 Conn. 108, 111-112 (1981).  The legislature defines the scope of a court’s or an agency’s jurisdiction by statute.  Under certain circumstances, federal law may preempt a state law that gives a court or an agency jurisdiction over a particular subject matter.  The DSCC alleges that is the case here.

In short, jurisdiction is power.  If a court or agency has no jurisdiction over the subject matter of a dispute, as defined by applicable law, it has no power to resolve the merits of the dispute or, for that matter, to force parties to produce evidence in connection with the merits of the dispute.  Accordingly, it is well-established under Connecticut law that once a party challenges the jurisdiction of a legal tribunal, be it a court or an agency, everything is supposed to grind to a halt until the jurisdictional issue is resolved.  “Once the question of lack of jurisdiction of a court is raised, it must be disposed of no matter in what form it is presented … and the court must fully resolve it before proceeding further with the case.”  Raftopol v. Ramey, 299 Conn. 681 (2011) (emphasis supplied).

The DSCC challenged the jurisdiction of the SEEC over the subject matter of the GOTV complaint by filing a motion to dismiss last March.  The SEEC has yet to act on that motion.  The SEEC also declined to rule on the merits of the DSCC’s petition for a declaratory ruling, which raised similar arguments.  Notwithstanding these challenges to its jurisdiction, the DSCC has issued an investigatory subpoena.

Again, without expressing any opinion on the merits of the underlying complaint or on the jurisdictional issue, the DSCC’s refusal to respond to the subpoena at this juncture appears legally justified, even though it creates the unfortunate appearance of a political party thumbing its nose at a state administrative agency.

How should the matter proceed?  General Statutes § 9-7b(a)(1) provides the answer:

In case of a refusal to comply with any subpoena issued pursuant to this subsection or to testify with respect to any matter upon which that person may be lawfully interrogated, the superior court for the judicial district of Hartford, on application of the commission, may issue an order requiring such person to comply with such subpoena and to testify; failure to obey any such order of the court may be punished by the court as a contempt thereof.

If the SEEC wants to press the issue, and I expect it does, it can file a motion in Hartford Superior Court seeking an order directing the DSCC to comply with the subpoena.  The DSCC has the right to oppose the motion by challenging the jurisdiction, i.e., the power and authority, of the SEEC to issue the subpoena in the first instance.  The parties will then have a trial court ruling that resolves the jurisdictional question.  (That ruling, of course, may be subject to appeal, but that is a question for another day.)

UPDATE/DISCLOSURE: A reader inquired whether I am: (a) a registered Democrat, and (b) shilling for the party.  The answer to (a) is “yes.”  The answer to (b) is “no.”  I have not spoken with any of the parties or their attorneys in connection with this post, nor did anyone ask or encourage me to write it.  As with most of my posts, I write about topics in which I am interested and think I have something useful to say from a legal perspective.  Whether what I write is actually useful is, of course, up to the reader to decide.

UPDATE: 6/25/15  Jon Lender reports at The Hartford Courant that the SEEC voted today to ask the Superior Court to enforce the subpoena.

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