Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

King Street Patriots v. Texas Democratic Party

Supreme Court of Texas

June 30, 2017

King Street Patriots, Catherine Engelbrecht, Bryan Engelbrecht, and Diane Josephs, Petitioners,
v.
Texas Democratic Party; Gilberto Hinojosa, Successor to Boyd Richie, in his capacity as Chairman of the Texas Democratic Party; John Warren, in his capacity as Democratic Nominee for Dallas County Clerk; and Ann Bennett, in her capacity as the Democratic Nominee for Harris County Clerk, Respondents

          Argued February 7, 2017

         On Petition for Review from the Court of Appeals for the Third District of Texas

          Justice Guzman delivered the opinion of the Court.

          Justice Devine filed a concurring opinion.

          Eva M. Guzman Justice.

         The liberty of the electors in the exercise of the right vested in them by the Constitution to choose public officers on whatever principle or dictated by whatever motive they see fit . . . cannot be denied.[1]

         Political liberty is the bedrock of our democracy, and the right of citizens to choose their public officials and political associations is deeply rooted in our constitutional firmament. The vast breadth of the freedoms "We the People"[2] enjoy moved Alexis de Tocqueville to write "[t]here is only one country on the face of the earth where the citizens enjoy unlimited freedom of association for political purposes."[3] But while the United States Constitution robustly protects the right of electors to choose their representatives, "[t]he States possess a broad power to prescribe the 'Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, ' . . . [and] state offices."[4]Though broad, the State's power to prescribe laws regulating elections is constitutionally constrained and is therefore subject to limits established by the First Amendment, including the freedom of political association granted to our citizens.[5] This case, which involves a constitutional challenge to the Texas Election Code, highlights the tension between the warp and weft of these rights and powers in our constitutional fabric.

         The Texas Democratic Party[6] sued King Street Patriots, [7] alleging noncompliance with obligations and restraints the Election Code imposes on "political committees" and corporations. King Street Patriots is a self-described "group of concerned residents from the Houston area" who "engage[d] in the political process" by forming a Texas nonprofit corporation to "provide education and awareness [to] the general public on important civic and patriotic duties." The Texas Democratic Party claims King Street Patriots is a "political committee" that unlawfully accepts "political contributions" and makes "political expenditures" as those terms are defined in the Election Code. King Street Patriots firmly denies being a "political committee" or violating any applicable law. But to the extent it is subject to regulation under the Election Code, King Street Patriots contends certain statutory provisions impermissibly burden its constitutional rights, including the right of political association. In the trial court, the parties took the unusual step of obtaining an agreed order (1) deferring resolution of the Texas Democratic Party's claims and King Street Patriots's as-applied constitutional challenges and (2) severing King Street Patriots's facial challenges to the Election Code for expedited adjudication.[8] The former remain pending in the trial court, while the latter are the subject of this appeal.

         Following severance, the trial court found the challenged Election Code provisions facially valid, and the court of appeals affirmed.[9] Here, though the issues are more narrow in scope, King Street Patriots continues to assail the constitutionality of Code provisions that (1) restrict corporate contributions, (2) grant a private right of action, and (3) define political committees, campaign contributions, and political contributions. As to the last of these, the Texas Solicitor General, weighing in on the matter at our request, argues that if we properly construe the term "political committee, " no constitutional infirmity exists and King Street Patriots does not fall within its ambit because it is not a "political committee."

         Adhering to the United States Supreme Court's decision in Federal Election Commission v. Beaumont, [10] as we are obliged to do, [11] we conclude that legislatively enacted bans on corporate political contributions are constitutional under the First Amendment. We also reaffirm, as we held in Osterberg v. Peca, that the Legislature's public policy choice to authorize a private right of action passes constitutional muster.[12] Though we further conclude the Election Code's campaign contribution and political contribution definitions are not unconstitutionally vague, we do not reach King Street Patriots's challenge to the Code's political committee definitions because, as a prudential matter, that issue is not ripe.

         The parties' agreement to sever King Street Patriots's facial challenges from its as-applied challenges is an unconventional procedural course. As a jurisprudential matter, we do not decide constitutional questions when a dispute may be resolved otherwise. Moreover, under the hierarchy of constitutional inquiry, "the usual judicial practice" is to determine an as-applied challenge before addressing a facial challenge.[13] In this case, adjudication of King Street Patriots's facial challenge to the political committee definitions is premature because the limited record before us establishes King Street Patriots is not a political committee. We therefore hold King Street Patriots's as-applied challenges should be adjudicated before facial constitutionality of the political committee definitions is determined. Accordingly, we affirm the court of appeals' judgment in part, vacate the portions of the lower courts' judgments upholding the facial constitutionality of the political committee definitions of the Texas Election Code, and remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Under section 251.001(12) of the Texas Election Code, a "[p]olitical committee" is "a group of persons that has as a principal purpose accepting political contributions or making political expenditures." King Street Patriots denies it meets this definition, arguing it merely "offered to train anyone interested in serving as a poll watcher for any party or candidate" before the 2010 election, [14] trained several hundred people who "observed" the election as poll watchers "to help ensure that election laws were followed, " and held weekly meetings on "topics of interest" to local "concerned citizens." King Street Patriots insists speakers at its weekly meetings "are strictly informed that King Street Patriots is nonpartisan" and expressly prohibited from campaigning or promoting themselves at these events. Though money is collected at the meetings, King Street Patriots says (1) the collection process involves no more than passing around a cowboy hat, and (2) it "[has] not made any monetary contributions to any candidate or politician."

         The Texas Democratic Party sued King Street Patriots after the 2010 election, alleging the group is a "sham domestic nonprofit corporation" that "was explicitly created in an effort to make and receive political contributions and to make political expenditures without complying with federal or state disclosure laws" and is knowingly operated as "an unregistered and illegal political committee."

         The Texas Democratic Party claims King Street Patriots's Election Code violations include:

• making undisclosed and non-independent political expenditures from group members' contributions;
• training and assigning poll watchers "to polling locations in direct coordination with and [at the] request of Republican Party and elected officials";
• designing, preparing, and implementing training materials for poll watchers, which were used by the Travis County Republican Party and others;
• providing forums only for "Republican interests, " including "political rallies" for the Governor and other Republican officeholders;
• holding statewide and nationwide "summit[s]" to impact the election; and
• organizing events and making expenditures, in funds or in-kind, to press for changes in the Election Code.[15]

The Texas Democratic Party seeks damages and injunctive relief under the Election Code, [16] along with declaratory relief.

         In response, King Street Patriots brought counterclaims challenging the constitutionality of several Election Code provisions, sought declaratory and injunctive relief barring the Texas Democratic Party from enforcing those provisions, and requested reimbursement of its attorney's fees and costs .[17] Among other complaints not at issue here, King Street Patriots asserted that myriad provisions of the Texas Election Code, on their face, violate its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.[18]

         In a Rule 11 Agreement, the parties agreed to (1) sever the counterclaims into a new cause number in which "the only issue to be decided" would be "the [facial] constitutionality of the applicable statutes, " and (2) abate the original action pending disposition of the severed action. As to the claims in the severed proceeding, the parties stipulated to the following facts:

King Street Patriots, during and in advance of the 2010 General Election for State and County Officers, conducted, at its own expense, a training and recruitment program for poll watchers. Many of these . . . poll watchers [that King Street Patriots located and trained] were subsequently appointed to serve under Texas Election Code §§ 32.002-003 by the Harris County Republican Party Chairman and/or Republican Nominees with regard to the 2010 General Election for State and County Officers[.]

         The parties further stipulated that the Texas Democratic Party intends to "us[e] the private right of action" in Election Code sections 273.081, 253.131, and 253.132 to enforce the challenged statutes against King Street Patriots "based on alleged political speech."

         In the severed action, the parties litigated the constitutional issues in cross-motions for summary judgment. King Street Patriots's motion, which was unsupported by evidence, assailed the challenged provisions as facially unconstitutional and unenforceable as a matter of law. Arguing the statutes are facially constitutional, the Texas Democratic Party supported its summary-judgment motion with affidavits, documents, and videos.

         The trial court denied King Street Patriots's summary-judgment motion and granted the Texas Democratic Party's motion, finding no constitutional infirmity. The court of appeals affirmed, [19] and King Street Patriots petitioned this Court for review.

         Narrowing its focus and dropping contentions asserted in the courts below, [20] King Street Patriots limits its constitutional attack here to Election Code provisions (1) "banning" corporate contributions (sections 253.091 and 253.094), (2) creating a private right of action (sections 253.131 and 253.132), (3) defining political committees subject to regulation (section 251.001(12), (13), (14)) and (4) defining political contributions (section 251.001(3), (5)). Recognizing the State's interest in the validity of its laws, we requested the Texas Solicitor General's views on the constitutional issues presented.

         II. Prudential Ripeness

         Before turning to the merits, we consider the Texas Solicitor General's argument that, as a threshold matter, King Street Patriots does not, on the record before the Court, qualify as a political committee under the Election Code's plain language. Although the parties did not specifically address this issue in the lower courts, King Street Patriots's status as a political committee is relevant to deciding whether, as a prudential matter, [21] we should entertain its facial-invalidity challenges to the Election Code's political committee definitions.[22]

         Under Section 251.001(12), a "political committee" is "a group of persons that has as a principal purpose accepting political contributions or making political expenditures." A "[p]olitical contribution" is "a campaign contribution or an officeholder contribution, " and a "[p]olitical expenditure" is "a campaign expenditure or an officeholder expenditure."[23]

         The Election Code defines a "[c]ampaign contribution" as "a contribution to a candidate or political committee that is offered or given with the intent that it be used in connection with a campaign for elective office or on a measure, "[24] and an "officeholder contribution" is "a contribution to an officeholder or political committee . . . offered or given with the intent that it be used to defray expenses . . . incurred by the officeholder in performing a duty or engaging in an activity in connection with the office."[25] "Campaign expenditure" and "[o]fficeholder expenditure" are analogously defined.[26] In Osterberg v. Peca, we narrowly construed the statutory definition of "[d]irect campaign expenditure"[27] to avoid vagueness and overbreadth concerns, holding that term refers only to those expenditures that "'expressly advocate' the election or defeat of an identified candidate."[28]

         Considering the foregoing, a group is a "[p]olitical committee" if it has a principal purpose of accepting contributions given to the group with the intent that those contributions be used in connection with a campaign for elective office or on a measure or to defray expenses of officeholders.[29] And under Osterberg, a group is subject to regulation as a political committee if it has a principal purpose of making expenditures to expressly advocate for a particular outcome in an election.[30]

         King Street Patriots maintains it has taken no actions that would make it a political committee, as defined in the Election Code, [31] and specifically denies making any political contributions or expenditures, [32] including expenditures expressly advocating a particular election outcome. Although the Texas Democratic Party sued King Street Patriots claiming the entity is a political committee and a "sham" corporation, the record is silent as to whether those donating to King Street Patriots do so with the intent that their donations be used to defray officeholder expenses or used in connection with a measure or a campaign for elective office. Nor is there evidence that King Street Patriots has a principal purpose of accepting such contributions. King Street Patriots insists it provides training for poll watchers and speaker forums on a nonpartisan basis. It claims speakers at its weekly meetings discuss only "topics of interest" to local "concerned citizens, " and speakers "are strictly informed that King Street Patriots is nonpartisan and . . . politicians are not to campaign or promote themselves."[33] Although the Texas Democratic Party claims King Street Patriots violated the Texas Election Code by training and assigning poll watchers "to polling locations in direct coordination with and [at the] request of Republican Party and elected officials" and providing forums only for "Republican interests, " these allegations, even when coupled with the available summary-judgment evidence, are insufficient for us to determine whether the activities constitute a principal purpose of the group. Absent other evidence, King Street Patriots could not be a political committee because it would not have "a principal purpose [of] accepting political contributions or making political expenditures."[34]

         Our conclusion that, on the limited record before us, King Street Patriots is not a political committee, has left us in a procedural quagmire. We are asked to strike down provisions of a Texas statute with the "strong medicine"[35] of the "disfavored"[36] facial overbreadth doctrine by a party against whom those provisions likely do not apply. The parties' agreement to sever King Street Patriots's facial challenges to the Texas Election Code from the remaining issues in the case is the primary reason for the muddled procedural posture we now face.

         "It is not the usual judicial practice . . . nor do we consider it generally desirable, to proceed to an overbreadth issue unnecessarily-that is, before it is determined that the statute would be valid as applied."[37] As the United States Supreme Court has explained, "[s]uch a course would convert use of the overbreadth doctrine from a necessary means of vindicating the plaintiff's own right not to be bound by a statute that is unconstitutional into a means of mounting gratuitous wholesale attacks upon state and federal laws."[38] We agree with the Supreme Court that "for reasons relating both to the proper functioning of courts and to their efficiency, the lawfulness of the particular application of the law should ordinarily be decided first."[39]

         We thus refrain from considering King Street Patriots's challenges to the political committee definitions under subsections 251.001(12), (13), and (14) of the Texas Election Code because as- applied constitutional challenges remain pending in the abated action and discovery directed to a threshold legal and prudential matter either has not yet occurred[40] or, if it has occurred, establishes King Street Patriots is not a political committee.[41] The State's jurisprudential interests are not furthered by allowing a facial challenge to the political committee definitions when both this Court and the Solicitor General have concluded, on the record before us, that King Street Patriots does not fall within those definitions. As a prudential matter, we will not consider challenges to the political committee definitions under these circumstances. Because we have determined King Street Patriots's challenges to the political committee definitions are not prudentially ripe, the portions of the lower courts' judgments upholding the facial constitutionality of these definitions are impermissible advisory opinions.[42]

         Similar prudential concerns do not exist with respect to King Street Patriots's challenges to the Election Code provisions that regulate the activities of corporations, which manifestly apply to King Street Patriots. Accordingly, we consider the merits of those claims below.

         III. Private Right of Action

         In Osterberg v. Peca, we upheld the Legislature's choice to authorize a limited private right of action to enforce Election Code provisions.[43] The Texas Democratic Party contends, and the Solicitor General agrees, that Osterberg is dispositive of King Street Patriots's challenges to Election Code sections 253.131 and 253.132. King Street Patriots maintains Osterberg is neither controlling nor dispositive. First, King Street Patriots argues Osterberg is distinguishable because it concerned an enforcement action brought only by a single claimant and sections 253.131 and 253.132 create the potential for constitutionally excessive damages by allowing "an unlimited number of private parties to sue" based on the same violations. Second, King Street Patriots argues the private-right-of-action provisions are unconstitutional because plaintiffs are permitted to sue alleged violators-and pursue discovery-without a predicate showing that a claim is meritorious, which Osterberg does not address. We reject King Street Patriots's arguments and thus uphold the facial constitutionality of Election Code sections 253.131 and 253.132.[44]

         We first consider King Street Patriots's arguments that the enforcement provisions lack a constitutional essential: a minimal evidentiary threshold to institute a private enforcement action. Arguing the burdens of discovery are "chilling, " King Street Patriots contends the Code's failure to "delineate the showing necessary to seek discovery" effectively denies meaningful protection of a citizen's First Amendment associational rights. King Street Patriots also argues the absence of standards for initiating a suit and seeking discovery violates its due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

         While the Election Code does not specifically prescribe standards for limiting discovery or addressing the burdens of litigating meritless claims, procedural safeguards exist in the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and elsewhere. With regard to discovery burdens, our civil procedure rules limit discovery if "the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit, taking into account the needs of the case, the amount in controversy, the parties' resources, the importance of the issues at stake in the litigation, and the importance of the proposed discovery in resolving those issues."[45] Further, trial courts "must make an effort to impose reasonable discovery limits"[46]and may issue protective orders to avoid unduly burdening constitutional rights of free association and free speech.[47]

         Moreover, claims lacking genuine merit may be resolved expeditiously under Rule 91a's dismissal procedures or summarily under Rule 166a.[48] An important additional safeguard is the trial court's ability under Rule 13 to impose sanctions against attorneys and parties who file pleadings or motions that are groundless and brought in bad faith or for the purpose of harassment.[49] The Election Code itself provides another ameliorative measure, which King Street Patriots has already invoked by counterclaim: reimbursement of reasonable attorney's fees "if judgment is rendered in the defendant's favor."[50]

         Concluding that adequate procedural safeguards exist both within the Election Code and via other established mechanisms, we hold the Election Code is not constitutionally defective because it lacks evidentiary prerequisites to a private enforcement action.

         In Osterberg, we expressly left open "the issue of whether punishment for reporting violations can rise to the level of being so severe and so extreme that it amounts to an unconstitutional infringement of rights under the First Amendment."[51] There, the damages were potentially large, but the Osterbergs did not challenge the statutorily authorized damages on First Amendment grounds.[52] King Street Patriots does not take up this thread, however. Rather than framing its challenge in terms of the severity of the potential damages in a privately instituted action, King Street Patriots argues Election Code sections 253.131 and 253.132 would allow "an unlimited number of private parties to sue."[53] King Street Patriots's complaint could be construed as asserting that too many people may be able to sue for the same violations or that a damages cap is constitutionally necessary in this context.

         However the argument may be viewed, King Street Patriots is correct that sections 253.131 and 253.132 could allow more than one private party to sue, though the number would hardly be "unlimited." A case involving an improper contribution in opposition to a candidate, as in Osterberg, would have only one possible claimant-the candidate who was opposed. A case involving a contribution made in support of a candidate could have multiple "opposing candidates" authorized to sue, but only so many as appeared on the ballot.

         While a case involving a contribution to a political committee is not necessarily as limited, viewing the number of potential plaintiffs as "unlimited" would require us to ignore the jurisdictional constraint of standing and "imagine" unrealistic hypothetical scenarios, which a facial challenge does not allow.[54] Texas is home to a lot of political committees.[55] But even though Texas election statutes have included a provision granting a ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.