John Lane, communications lawyer who won legal battle for Jimmy Carter, dies at 90

John Lane, a longtime communications lawyer in Washington who led several courtroom fights for greater access to radio and television airwaves for broadcasters and public officials, including President Jimmy Carter, died Aug. 18 at George Washington University Hospital. He was 90 and had congestive heart failure, his daughter-in-law Julie Lane said.

In October 1979, Carter asked the three major networks to sell him 30 minutes of air time in December of that year, when he planned to announce his intention to run for reelection. The networks denied the request for various reasons.

(Family Photo) - John Lane.

CBS said it didn’t want to interrupt prime-time schedules, NBC and ABC said it was too early to sell broadcast time for the 1980 election, and all three said it was burdensome to give airtime to Carter when other candidates would ask for similar arrangements.

In a hearing of the Federal Communications Commission, Mr. Lane argued that the networks had a legal obligation to provide broadcast time because the president had the expectation of “reasonable access” to the airwaves to discuss matters of public interest.

Mr. Lane won his arguments before the FCC and a federal appeals court. In the appeal, a lawyer for CBS said the networks should have the “discretion” to determine when they wanted to begin airing political commercials.

“Congress never intended to allow the three networks to determine when a presidential campaign can begin,” Mr. Lane replied.

His argument was upheld in 1981 by the U.S. Supreme Court, enshrining the “reasonable access” rule in law.

Throughout his career, Mr. Lane played a role in other far-reaching decisions. In the 1970s, he represented independent television station owners in a protracted legal battle with major television networks over programming and syndication rights.

He argued before the FCC that the networks were acting as a monopoly, preventing the smaller UHF stations from having access to the airwaves. Ultimately, the FCC upheld his views, leading to a proliferation of programming beyond that offered by the three major networks.

In another case, he successfully argued that certain channels of the radio spectrum be reserved for police and public safety communications. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, which Mr. Lane represented for more than 20 years, presented him with its J. Rhett McMillian Jr. Award of Distinction.

John Dennis Lane was born Nov. 23, 1921, in Norwalk, Conn., and was a 1943 graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He served with the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater of World War II.

He graduated from Georgetown law school in 1948 and served on the staff of Sen. Brien McMahon (D-Conn.) from 1949 until McMahon’s death in 1952.

That year, Mr. Lane founded the Hedrick & Lane law firm, which after a merger became known as Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane.

He chaired several American Bar Association committees and was a member of its Committee on the Federal Judiciary, which evaluates nominees for federal judgeships. He offered supporting testimony before the Senate for the 1986 nomination of William H. Rehnquist to be chief justice.

Mr. Lane also advised President Bill Clinton on judicial nominees. In 1995, he traveled with Clinton to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in observance of the 50th anniversary of V-J Day, which brought an end to World War II.

As an ABA representative to the United Nations, Mr. Lane participated in a 1998 conference in Rome that established the International Criminal Court.

Mr. Lane was a member of Georgetown University’s board of regents and served on Georgetown’s endowment investment committee. He was also a lecturer at Catholic University’s Institute for Communications Law Studies and was board chairman of a family business.

He was a D.C. resident and a member of the Metropolitan Club, Army-Navy Club, Columbia Country Club and the Catholic Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda.

His wife of 61 years, Elizabeth Galliher Lane, died in 2011.

Survivors include five children, John D. Lane Jr. of Great Falls, Margaret L. Rauth of Washington and Elizabeth L. Brown, Robert E. Lane and Paul G. Lane, all of Bethesda; a brother; a sister; and 11 grandchildren.