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Better Rules Coming to Presidential Debates? Court May Soon Decide

Created: 14 February, 2019
Updated: 15 August, 2022
3 min read

A federal court could soon rule on a lawsuit against the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the nonprofit organization that sets the rules for debate entry and is controlled by the Republican and Democratic Parties.

Level The Playing Field chair and co-plaintiff Peter Ackerman filed a motion in federal court asking District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan to issue a summary judgment on plaintiffs' second complaint in the case.

There is a note of urgency in the motion as 2020 quickly approaches and a ruling in plaintiffs' favor would lead to additional litigation to get the debate rules changed. Further, it could affect the decision of potential independent candidates to get into the 2020 presidential election.

Here is a quick recap:

  • In September 2014, Ackerman and LPF, along with the Libertarian National Committee and the national Green Party, filed an administrative complaint with the FEC, the federal agency that oversees the CPD. The group alleged that the CPD and its directors violated federal regulations that require the organization to a) be nonpartisan and b) use objective criteria to determine debate entry eligibility.
  • The FEC dismissed the complaint, despite the mountain of evidence produced by the plaintiffs.
  • In June 2015 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal court petitioning for review of the FEC's decision, asserting that the CPD violated FECA as it is a partisan organization that supports the major party nominees for president. Further, it uses biased and exclusionary rules to ensure that there are only two candidates in the debates.
  • Judge Chutkan ruled on February 1, 2017 that the FEC's decision in the matter was  "arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law." Further, the FEC was ordered to review another administrative complaint against the CPD.
  • The FEC voted once again to dismiss the administrative complaint, prompting a Supplemental Complaint from plaintiffs. Plaintiffs further moved for summary judgment in September 2017, and briefings were concluded on December 8 of that year.

Since then, no action has been taken by the court. Plaintiffs are now asking the court to rule as quickly as possible with the 2020 presidential election cycle quickly approaching and the additional litigation that will need to be filed to actually change the debate rules should the court rule in plaintiffs' favor:

"For example, as detailed in the Supplemental Complaint, Plaintiffs would need to institute a new action asserting claims directly against the CPD under FECA’s remedial provisions, and the FEC would be required to institute a rulemaking to revise the current debate-qualifying criteria... And we anticipate that the FEC would appeal any adverse decisions, giving rise to further delays."

The effect a decision in plaintiffs' favor could have on US politics cannot be understated. Not only could we see more candidates on the public stage, but more candidates entering future presidential elections.

Right now, it is all, but impossible for a third option to be seen or heard by the public. They are ignored by the media, left out of polls, and must contend with the enormous and well-funded political machines of the Republican and Democratic Parties.

A ruling in favor of plaintiffs would be a huge step in changing the conversation on presidential elections forever.

Read the full motion for summary judgment:

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