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  • Supreme Court Report: FEC v. Akins
  • Supreme Court Report

  •   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:

  • Agreed to use the government's effort to deport a group of Palestinians to clarify a 1996 immigration law's limits on court review of such cases. The justices said they will hear the government's contention that lower courts lacked authority to hear the Palestinians' argument that they were singled out for selective enforcement of immigration laws. The Palestinians are accused of supporting a foreign terrorist organization.

  • Ruled that people cannot be prosecuted on federal money-laundering charges in one state if the transactions occurred entirely in another state. The unanimous ruling rejected the Clinton administration's effort to reinstate charges in Missouri against a woman accused of using a Florida bank to launder the proceeds of illegal cocaine sales.

  • Refused to shield two California policemen from a lawsuit seeking to hold them legally responsible for the 1994 death of man they encountered after responding to a 911 call. The justices, without comment, let stand rulings that said the two officers are not immune from being sued by the man's family because they left him "in a more dangerous position than the one in which they found him."

  • Refused to require a Massachusetts high school's student newspaper and yearbook to run advertisements promoting sexual abstinence. The court, without comment, turned away arguments by the man who submitted the ads that the publications' refusal to run them amounted to government action violating his free-speech rights.

  • Agreed to decide whether federal agencies are required to bargain with the unions representing their employees over subjects the unions raise during the life of a contract agreement.

    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

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