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Corren v. Donovan

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 29, 2017

THOMAS J. DONOVAN, Vermont Attorney General in his official capacity, and JAMES CONDOS, Vermont Secretary of State in his official capacity, Defendants. DAVID ZUCKERMAN, Intervenor/Plaintiff,


          William K. Sessions III District Court Judge

         Plaintiffs are challenging the constitutionality of Vermont's campaign finance statute as it applies to publicly-financed candidates. In an Opinion and Order dated March 9, 2016, the Court found no constitutional infirmity in the statute and dismissed the case without prejudice. The scope of the Court's ruling was necessarily limited, as it had previously abstained from deciding any issues presented in the civil enforcement action being brought in state court against Plaintiff Dean Corren.

         Plaintiffs now contend that although their federal case was dismissed, they prevailed on certain issues and are entitled to attorneys' fees and related costs. They also move the Court for reconsideration and/or relief from judgment. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiffs' motions are denied.

         I. Factual Background

         The Court has issued two fundamental rulings in this case. The first, docketed on December 8, 2015, determined that the Court must abstain from hearing any constitutional challenges raised by Dean Corren “insofar as those challenges relate to the enforcement action currently pending against him in state court.” ECF No. 68 at 3. The ruling allowed several other claims to proceed, including those of Corren's co-Plaintiffs and intervenor David Zuckerman.

         On March 9, 2016, the Court ruled on all remaining claims and found no basis for granting Plaintiffs relief. In doing so, the Court offered its opinion about those activities that are exempt from being “contributions” under 17 V.S.A. § 2901(4), and their relationship to the related expenditures provision in 17 V.S.A. § 2983(b)(1). Accepting Defendants' concessions with respect to that relationship, the Court found that the exemptions in Section 2901(4) apply throughout the campaign finance statute, thus allowing “candidates to communicate freely with, and receive meaningful assistance from, their supporters. Political parties in particular may provide publicly-financed candidates with office space, voter lists, training sessions, and other forms of traditional party support without violating any statutory restrictions.” ECF No. 58 at 26.

         Consistent with its abstention ruling, the Court did not determine whether a specific email, sent by the Vermont Democratic Party (“VDP”) to approximately 19, 000 people and entitled “How you can help me help Dean Corren, ” violated the public financing portions of Vermont's campaign finance law. That question and any related defenses remain for the state courts to resolve.

         The Court understands that its interpretation of Section 2901(4) is based upon its assessment of how the Vermont Supreme Court would interpret that provision. Under this Court's interpretation, the email in question may fall within the statutory exemptions and may thus resolve the dispute. If, however, the state courts disagree with that interpretation, the Plaintiffs may need to re-file this action such that the Court can review the constitutionality of the entire public financing scheme.

         II. Motion for Reconsideration

         A. Legal Standard

         Plaintiffs now ask the Court to reconsider its March 9, 2016 Opinion and Order, claiming (1) that the Attorney General's conduct after the Court issued its ruling warrants additional federal review, and (2) that the Court did not adequately address the question of self-financing by publicly-financed candidates. Plaintiffs have filed their motion pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 59(e) and 60(b). Rule 59(e) may be used to alter or amend a judgment, while Rule 60(b) provides relief from a final order. Under either rule, the accepted standard for granting a motion for reconsideration “is strict, and reconsideration will generally be denied unless the moving party can point to controlling decisions or data that the court overlooked.” Analytical Surveys, Inc. v. Tonga Partners, L.P., 684 F.3d 36, 52 (2d Cir. 2012) (citation omitted).

         The Second Circuit has further instructed that a district court may grant reconsideration if the movant demonstrates an “intervening change in controlling law, the availability of new evidence, or the need to correct a clear error or prevent manifest injustice.” Kolel Beth Yechiel Mechil of Tartikov, Inc. v. YLL Irrevocable Trust, 729 F.3d 99, 104 (2d Cir. 2013) (citing Virgin Atl. Airways, Ltd. v. Nat'l Mediation Bd., 956 F.2d 1245 (2d Cir. 1992)). A motion for reconsideration is “not a vehicle for relitigating old issues, presenting the case under new theories, securing a rehearing on the merits, or otherwise taking a ‘second bite at the apple.'” Analytical Surveys, Inc., 684 F.3d at 52 (internal citation omitted). The decision whether to grant a motion for reconsideration rests within the “sound discretion of a district court judge.” Aczel v. Labonia, 584 F.3d 52, 61 (2d Cir. 2009); see McCarthy v. Manson, 714 F.2d 234, 237 (2d Cir. 1983).

         B. Post-Judgment Enforcement Position

         Plaintiffs first contend that after the Court issued its March 9, 2016 Opinion and Order, the Attorney General adopted a “new and heretofore undisclosed enforcement position” that requires additional federal court relief. ECF No. 63 at 1. In the state court case, the Attorney General has consistently alleged that the email sent by the VDP constituted a coordinated in-kind contribution to the Corren campaign. Because Corren was ...

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