Election Panel Can Be Sued
By Richard Carelli
Associated Press Writer
Monday, June 1, 1998; 11:31 a.m. EDT WASHINGTON (AP) Private citizens can sue the Federal Election Commission over its decision not to require certain groups to disclose their election campaign spending, the Supreme Court ruled today.
But the 6-3 decision spared, at least for now, a pro-Israel lobbying group from telling how much money it contributed to political candidates' election campaigns.
Writing for the court, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the commission should determine under its new rules whether expenditures made by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) were "membership communications" that would not have to be reported to the federal agency.
That left undecided the major issue the justices had under study: Whether AIPAC should be considered a political committee subject to federal campaign regulations on spending and reporting.
Such a ruling could have provided important new guidelines for spending "dos" and "don'ts" under the complex federal campaign funding system now in place.
In other action today, the court:
In the campaign spending case, a group of politically active individuals opposed to AIPAC's views on foreign policy in the Middle East filed a complaint with the commission in 1989, alleging that AIPAC had violated the Federal Election Campaign Act. Denied satisfaction by the commission, they then sued.
Today's decision said those individuals correctly were allowed to pursue the lawsuit.
Under federal campaign law, groups found to be political committees must file periodic reports with the FEC, among other things identifying anyone from whom they receive more than $200. Political committees also are banned from contributing more than $1,000 to any candidate.
One of the complaining individuals who sued the commission is Paul Findlay, a former congressman from Illinois whose 1982 election defeat AIPAC allegedly aided. Another is James Akins, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
The commission determined that AIPAC probably had made campaign contributions exceeding $1,000 but found that the lobbying group was not a political committee within the meaning of the federal campaign law because its campaign-related activities were only a small part of its overall mission not its major purpose.
A federal judge found the commission's interpretation of the campaign law to be a reasonable one, but the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the percentage of a group's campaign-related activities should not be a factor.
"An organization spending its entire $1 million budget on campaign activity would be a political committee while another organization spending $1 million of its $100 million budget on campaign activity would not," the appeals court said in a 9-2 decision in late 1996.
The appeals court had sent the case back to the federal judge for further study but said the commission's factual findings "indicate that AIPAC should be classified as a political committee."
In today's decision, Breyer said cited the "unusual and complex circumstances" of the case that requires further study by the commission.
"The FEC should proceed to determine whether or not AIPAC's expenditures qualify as 'membership communications' and thereby fall outside the scope of 'expenditures' that could qualify it as a political committee," Breyer said.
He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas dissented. Writing for the three, Scalia said private citizens should not be allowed to challenge FEC determinations not to require financial reports by certain groups.
The case is FEC vs. Akins, 96-1590.
© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press