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Jones v. Coleman

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

April 19, 2017

KENT COLEMAN, et al., Defendants.



         This case, now before the Court for a second time, presents a constitutional challenge to a Tennessee statute, that, in part, defines a political campaign committee (also known as a political action committee or “PAC”) as “[a] combination of two (2) or more individuals, including any political party governing body, whether state or local, making expenditures, to support or oppose any candidate for public office or measure, but does not include a voter registration program.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-10-(12)(A) (“subsection 12(A)”). The first time the matter was considered, the Court found Pullman abstention to be appropriate and stayed the case pending resolution of state administrative proceedings involving Williamson Strong, an unincorporated group of parents involved in Williamson County school board and election matters. The Sixth Circuit disagreed with that resolution and remanded the case for further proceedings. Jones v. Coleman, 848 F.3d 744, 747 (6th Cir. 2017).

         After the case was returned to this Court, Plaintiffs renewed their request for a preliminary injunction (Doc. No. 54), and the Court set the matter for a hearing. (Doc. No. 58.) In doing so, the Court suggested that the parties seriously consider entering into an agreed injunction because Defendants' position is that Plaintiffs are not a PAC within the meaning of subsection 12(A), and an Administrative Law Judge had since decided that Williamson Strong does not fall within that subsection either. Within hours of that suggestion, however, Defendants filed a Motion to Stay. (Doc. No. 59.) This was followed the next day by a Joint Notice from the parties, which indicated Defendants would not enter into an agreed injunction or consent decree. (Doc. No. 60.)

         Prior to reaching the pending motions, the Court considers the question of standing. This is because not only is standing “a threshold requirement for federal jurisdiction, ” Binno v. Am. Bar Assoc., 826 F.3d 358, 344 (6th Cir. 2016), the parties, as instructed by the Court, addressed that issue as a part of their pre-hearing submissions.

         I. Standing

         Under Article III of the Constitution, this Court is limited to deciding cases or controversies, an element of which is standing. Ariz. State Legislature v. Ariz. Ind. Redistricting Comm'n, 135 S.Ct. 2652, 2663 (2015). The requirements for standing have been set forth by the Supreme Court as follows:

First, the plaintiff must have suffered an injury in fact Can invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized, and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical. Second, there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of —the injury has to be fairly ... trace[able] to the challenged action of the defendant, and not ... th[e] result [of] the independent action of some third party not before the court. Third, it must be likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.

Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560B61 (1992) (internal quotation marks, citations, and footnote omitted). “In requiring a particular injury, the Court [in Lujan] meant that 'the injury must affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way.'” Ariz. Christian Sch. Tuition Org. v. Winn, 563 U.S. 125, 134 (2011) (quoting Lujan, at 560 n. 11, 112 S.Ct. 2130).

         Defendants contend that Plaintiffs lack standing for a number of reasons. They argue that the Campaign Financial Disclosure Act imposes no burden on Plaintiffs as individuals, and that the registration and disclosure requirements of the Act apply only to the PAC itself (in this case Association for Accurate Standards in Education/Tennessee Public Education Advocates (“AASE/TPEA”) and its appointed political treasurer, which neither Plaintiff claims to be. Defendants next argue that Plaintiffs do not have third-party standing to act on behalf of AASE/TPEA because there is no evidence to suggest that it cannot protect its own rights and interests. Defendants also argue that Plaintiffs cannot show a “credible threat of prosecution, ” because the Registry has (1) sent no enforcement or warning letters to Plaintiffs or AASE/TPEA (and, in fact was unaware of its existence prior to the filing of this action), and (2) decided not to challenge the Administrative Law Judge's decision that Williamson Strong is not a political campaign committee as currently defined in subsection (12)(A). Finally, Defendants argue pending legislation will likely eliminate Plaintiffs' challenges to Tennessee's provisions for PACs. Even though Defendants devote nearly one-third of their 23-page response brief to the issue of standing, conspicuously absent is any mention the Sixth Circuit's prior discussion of the issue. While they do address that decision in their recently-filed supplemental brief (Doc. No. 67) by arguing that this Court is not bound by the Sixth Circuit's opinion on standing because it is "not necessarily decided" and standing can be addressed at any time, the Court is unpersuaded that Plaintiffs lack standing under the facts presented.

         In it prior opinion in this case, the Sixth court wrote:

The Registry argues that Appellants lack standing to bring either an as-applied or a facial (i.e., “overbreadth”) challenge, and that the district court therefore did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. We disagree. First, Appellants can bring this claim on behalf of AASE. The Supreme Court has held that in “overbreadth” challenges, “[l]itigants . . . are permitted to challenge a statute not because their own rights of free expression are violated, but because of a judicial prediction or assumption that the statute's very existence may cause others not before the court to refrain from constitutionally protected speech or expression.” . . . Second, regarding as-applied challenges, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that individuals or groups need not wait to be prosecuted for the exercise of First Amendment rights before they can bring a lawsuit, provided there is a “claim of specific present objective harm or a threat of specific future harm.” . . . Here, Appellants have done more than merely allege a potential chilling effect of the law. They have not only refrained from making independent political expenditures through AASE, but they have also raised the specter of fines and registration requirements, citing the ongoing Williamson Strong case, in which the Registry stipulated that Williamson Strong is an unincorporated association for the purpose of the Tennessee Financial Disclosure Act.
Based on the allegations in the Complaint and the aforementioned stipulation in Williamson Strong, we are satisfied that Appellants meet both the constitutional requirements for standing, . . . and the somewhat relaxed prudential standing requirements for First Amendment challenges.

Jones, 848 F.3d at 748-49. Plaintiffs insist this foregoing language is the law of the case on the issue of standing, and cite Cleveland Branch, NAACP v. City of Parma, 263 F.3d 514, 524 (6th Cir. 2001) for the proposition that standing is determined as of the time the complaint is filed.

         The law of the case “doctrine mandates that the district court adhere to rulings of the appellate court issued earlier in the case, ” but is subject to exception “in the face of an intervening change in law, new evidence, or a manifest injustice.” United States v. Charles, 843 F.3d 1142, 1145 (6th Cir. 2016). Furthermore, while the Sixth Circuit in Cleveland Branch stated that a “court must determine whether standing exists at the time of the filing of the complaint only, ” 263 F.3d at 526, it has also determined that “a plaintiff must have a personal interest at the commencement of the litigation (standing) that continues throughout the litigation (lack of mootness).” Barry v. Lyon, 834 F.3d 706, 714 (6th Cir. 2016); see Midwest Media Prop., L.L.C. v. Symmes Twp., Ohio, 503 F.3d 456, 460 (6th ...

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