Too Long a Litigation, Over Too Little:

Six years ago, the Rhode Island Republican Party aired a campaign commercial that the State Board of Elections claimed violated campaign finance laws. The details of the alleged violation are in yesterday's Rhode Island Supreme Court opinion on the subject, but what struck me as most interesting is the court did with it. Here's a court's discussion of the remedies available at this date, after six years of slow litigation, and what should be done as a result:

[I]f the board concludes that either party violated the state’s election laws, the remaining remedies available to the board at this late date are so insignificant and of such minimal import as to warrant the dismissal of this case in its entirety....

With respect to alleged violations of the contribution and expenditures provisions, § 17- 25-13(a) provides that “[a]ny person who willfully and knowingly violates the provisions of this chapter shall, upon conviction, be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be fined not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000) per violation.” General Laws 1956 § 12-12-17(c) sets the statute of limitations for a misdemeanor at three years, a period that expired long ago.

However, “[t]he fact that one remedy... may have been rendered moot does not affect the viability of the case or the remaining remedies.” Section 17-25-13(b) allows the board independently to impose a fine of up to $100 for each violation of the provisions of chapter 25 of title 17. Thus, whether the advertisement constitutes a single offense or a separate violation for each of the few times that it was aired, the available remedy is de minimis.

There is much wisdom in the ancient maxim, “de minimis non curat lex.” (The law does not concern itself with trifles.). In view of what little remains at stake in this case and the negligible impact a decision would have on the parties, it would be jurisprudentially unwise for us to venture into the thicket of constitutional interpretation and statutory construction that surrounded this case when it was in its infancy. The advertisement at issue was aired for only six days, and the Republican Party immediately complied with the cease-and-desist order, raising the question whether any sanction is appropriate.

The board’s remaining remedy ... permits referral of alleged violations to the Attorney General for civil enforcement. It has been six years since the advertisement aired and the board has not referred this matter to the Attorney General for any type of action, civil or criminal. The board failed to act on the special counsel’s recommendation to refer to the Attorney General the alleged campaign contribution violation, notwithstanding the fact that the trial justice’s order specifically permitted the board to transfer any documents or information in its possession to the Attorney General.

In light of this exceptional context and the painful travel of this controversy, this case no longer presents a sufficiently genuine case or controversy to warrant further review, and it is our judgment that it should therefore be dismissed. To remand this aged case to the board for further proceedings would require this Court to decide the constitutional issues raised by the parties. We would have to wade into an ocean of First Amendment law that has become even more voluminous and complex since the events that gave rise to this case first occurred. In light of the little that remains at stake in this case and the negligible impact (if any) that a decision would have on the parties, we decline to embark on such a journey of constitutional adjudication....

The advertisement that is at the heart of this dispute was aired for several days in October 2002. Six years later, the potential for a satisfactory resolution has long since passed; the stake that each party has in the dispute has declined to virtual insignificance -- leading us to wonder, what is left? The answer is nothing. Accordingly, “we invoke our inherent power to ‘fashion an appropriate remedy that would serve the ends of justice.’” In light of the record before us, justice requires that we dismiss this unending saga and assign this election to its place in history.