A final ruling on the constitutionality of the long-standing ban on contributions by federal government contractors met a significant setback last week when the D.C. Circuit remanded the case to the trial court. In an opinion issued on May 31, 2013, about two weeks after oral arguments, a three judge panel of the D.C. Circuit concluded that the case, Wagner v. Federal Election Commission, must be heard en banc by the full panel of judges of the D.C. Circuit. 

The appellate court relied on an older provision of the Federal Election Campaign Act (“FECA”), section 437h, which states that the national committee of any political party, the Federal Election Commission (“FEC”), or any voter in a Presidential election “may” file a claim that a portion of the FECA is unconstitutional in a district court, and the district court “immediately shall” certify the constitutional questions to a circuit court, which must then hear the matter en banc. Last fall, a lower federal court heard the case and upheld the contractor ban, finding that it does not violate the First and Fifth Amendment rights of government contractors and concluding in two sentences that section 437h did not require certification of the constitutional questions. 

Despite arguments from both the FEC and the plaintiffs that the three judge panel could hear the case, the court stated that section 437h is a mandatory procedure for this type of claim, based on its reading of the language, and that an en banc hearing was required. The court cited the legislative history behind the section as support for its reading, including the need to have questions about the constitutionality of FECA provisions resolved quickly by circuit courts to enable these questions to reach the Supreme Court as soon as possible.     

The court’s decision, however, will actually result in considerable delays in Wagner’s path to the Supreme Court, as it imposes a new set of procedural hurdles. The district court must first identify and certify the constitutional questions in the case, thereby sending the case back to the D.C. Circuit. Scheduling and holding additional oral arguments on the merits of the case in front of the en banc D.C. Circuit may take several weeks or even months, and the issuance of an opinion on the constitutionality of the ban could be some time after that. A possible appeal to the Supreme Court, at this point, may not be completed until after the 2014 midterm elections.