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Rocky Mountain Gun Owner v. Williams

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

November 7, 2016

ROCKY MOUNTAIN GUN OWNERS, a Colorado non-profit corporation; COLORADO CAMPAIGN FOR LIFE, a Colorado non-profit corporation, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
WAYNE W. WILLIAMS, in his official capacity as Secretary for the State of Colorado; CITIZENS FOR RESPONSIBILITY AND ETHICS IN WASHINGTON, a Delaware non-profit corporation, trading as Colorado Ethics Watch, Defendants-Appellees.

         D.C. No. 1:14-CV-02850-REB-KLM, D. Colo.

          Before KELLY, BRISCOE and GORSUCH, Circuit Judges.

          ORDER AND JUDGMENT [*]

          Mary Beck Briscoe Circuit Judge.

         Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and Colorado Campaign for Life (Plaintiffs) initiated this lawsuit to enjoin a then-ongoing state administrative proceeding initiated by Colorado Ethics Watch (CEW) and to declare unconstitutional state election disclosure laws. The district court denied this relief and dismissed the case, citing the Younger v. Harris abstention doctrine. Plaintiffs appeal, arguing the district court applied an improper abstention standard. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Because there were no ongoing state proceedings when the district court ruled, we reverse and remand for the district court to determine in the first instance whether any of Plaintiffs' claims remain viable.


         The Colorado Constitution, Article XXVIII, and parallel statutory provisions require that any person who spends $1, 000 or more in a year on "electioneering communications" must file a disclosure report with the Colorado Secretary of State including, among other details, donor information. Colo. Const. art. XXVIII, § 6(1). Failing to file triggers civil penalties and a daily fine. Id. § 10(1)-(2). Although Colorado's Secretary of State enforces these laws, the statute's private enforcement provision allows "[a]ny person" to file a complaint with the Secretary, who must then refer the case to an administrative law judge (ALJ) in the Office of Administrative Courts (OAC). Id. § 9(1), (2)(a). A party dissatisfied with the ALJ's ruling may appeal to the Colorado Court of Appeals within forty-nine days of service of the agency's final decision. Id.; Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-4-106(11)(b) (2016).

         Plaintiffs are two Colorado non-profit organizations that lobby for specific political causes. Rocky Mountain Gun Owners advocate for Second Amendment rights. Aplt. Br. at 3. Colorado Campaign for Life advocates for the right to life. Id. They often send election mailings to Colorado voters concerning these two issues and plan to do so in the future. Aplt. Reply Br. at 7; Aplt. App. at 18. Defendants are Colorado Ethics Watch (CEW) and Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams. CEW is a non-profit organization that advocates for government accountability and transparency. Aplee. Br. at 3. As mentioned above, the Secretary is charged with enforcing Colorado's election disclosure laws and passing private complaints on to the OAC.

         Both Plaintiffs sent mailings in mid- and early June of 2014, respectively, which all parties agree fit the definition of "electioneering communications." Aplt. App. at 17-18, 37-47. Both Plaintiffs failed to file the required disclosure reports. Id. at 18. CEW filed a private complaint with then Secretary Scott Gessler (predecessor to Appellee Secretary Wayne Williams) on September 9, 2014. Id. at 18-19. The Secretary passed the complaint on to the OAC for a hearing. Id. at 19-20. Before the OAC hearing, Plaintiffs filed this action in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado challenging the constitutionality of the state's election disclosure scheme under both the United States and Colorado Constitutions. Id. at 10-70. Plaintiffs also requested a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order (TRO) to prevent enforcement of the disclosure scheme either generally or as applied to them, and also to halt the then-upcoming OAC hearing. Id. at 71, 155. The district court denied Plaintiffs' requests for a preliminary injunction and TRO, finding that "[t]he administrative proceedings pending against [Plaintiffs] are the type of proceedings entitled to abstention under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971)." Id. at 164.

         The Secretary then moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' constitutional claims on Younger abstention grounds on December 22, 2014. Id. at 166-74. The next day, the ALJ in the Colorado state proceedings issued his Final Agency Decision finding that Plaintiffs violated Colorado state law and rejecting their "as applied" constitutional challenges to the state law, which they had raised as a defense. Id. at 277. Plaintiffs could have appealed this decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals within forty-nine days after service of the Final Agency Decision, but chose not to do so. Aplee. Br. at 5; Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-4-106(11). Although unclear from the record, service seems to have taken place shortly after December 23, 2014, meaning the time for appeal expired as late as mid-February of 2015. Aplt. App. at 277-78. Thus, the Colorado state proceedings ended in mid-February of 2015. Neither party contests that the state proceedings have ended.

         Seven months later, on August 12, 2015, the district court granted the Secretary's motion to dismiss, again finding abstention proper. Id. at 279-90. In doing so, the district court stated that "the parties to this case are involved in a parallel state proceeding." Id. at 286 (emphasis added). This was a clear misstatement of fact, as both parties had previously alerted the district court to the fact that the OAC proceedings had terminated. In particular, Plaintiffs stated in their brief in opposition to the motion to dismiss that "[o]n December 23, 2014, the [OAC] ruled that Plaintiffs failed to report electioneering communications and ordered them to each pay a civil penalty of $8, 450." Id. at 177. Likewise, the Secretary acknowledged in his reply in support of the motion to dismiss that "the underlying administrative court action ended with a final adjudication" on December 23, 2014, and attached a copy of the OAC's order to his reply. Id. at 265. In addition, the Secretary stated that Plaintiffs "ha[d] until February 16, 2015, to appeal." Id. Notwithstanding the district court's misstatement regarding the continued pendency of the state proceedings, however, neither party alerted the district court to its error.

         On appeal, Plaintiffs now argue that the district court applied the incorrect abstention standard, citing the Supreme Court's most recent abstention case, Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 584 (2013). Aplt. Br. at 2. Plaintiffs would have this court conclude that the private enforcement action CEW brought is not a type of state proceeding from which federal courts must abstain. Id. at 15-35. Defendants contest this characterization and also argue that the entire case is moot. Aplee. Br. at 1; Aplee. Reply Br. at 8-22.

         Thus, the issues before us are whether the district court properly abstained and whether the underlying constitutional claims are moot.

         II. Standard of Review

         We review de novo a district court's decision to abstain based on Younger. Yellowbear v. Wyo. Atty. Gen., 525 F.3d 921, 923 (10th Cir. 2008). However, we review findings of fact for clear error. Highmark Inc. v. Allcare ...

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