Supreme Court to Review Disclosure of Lobbying Groups' Political Spending
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court announced yesterday it would decide whether lobbying groups that spend money on political campaigns must disclose their financial dealings under federal election law.
The justices agreed to review a lower court ruling that a pro-Israeli lobbying group, because it spent more than $1,000 a year on campaigns, should be classified as a political committee and forced to disclose how it gets and spends money.
A decision in the case could give new clarity to the complex rules and regulations controlling campaign financing at a time when Congress is exploring ways to reform the system and trying to end the runaway funding of political campaigns.
In a day of varied court business, the justices also let Montana enforce a law that forbids physician assistants to carry out abortions. By a 6 to 3 vote, the court effectively endorsed the statute, similar to rules in 40 other states, restricting the performance of abortions to licensed physicians.
In the campaign finance case, the Federal Election Commission argued that the lower court decision breaches the privacy and speech rights of lobbying groups whose campaign-related activities constitute a small percentage of their overall operation. The FEC said that the group in question, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, was primarily an advocacy group for improving U.S.-Israel relations, not a political committee subject to disclosure rules.
Under federal election law, a "political committee" that spends more than $1,000 a year must file periodic reports that identify anyone from whom it receives more than $200. Such organizations are also banned from contributing more than $1,000 to any candidate.
In its decision last December, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals said the FEC's interpretation focusing on what portion of an organization's resources goes to campaigns "would . . . allow a large organization to contribute substantial sums to campaign activity, as long as the contributions are a small portion of the organization's overall budget. . . .
"Thus, 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 lower court said.
In its appeal, the FEC said "political committees" should be groups whose "major purpose" is the election of a candidate. It said that unless the lower court is reversed, advocacy groups would be hit with a substantial reporting burden.
The case began in 1989 when a group of former government officials critical of AIPAC's pro-Israeli activities filed a complaint against AIPAC alleging it had violated federal election laws. Among the challengers were former ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Akins, former ambassador to Qatar Andrew Killgore and former Illinois representative Paul Findley (R), who claimed he was defeated for reelection in 1982 because of AIPAC's campaign contributions to his opponent. In their current challenge at the high court to the FEC position, the former officials said "it makes no sense to exempt a dual-purpose organization simply because election spending is its `minor' purpose. . . . This is particularly true if the organization's major purpose is lobbying for favors from legislators to whose campaigns the organization contributes."
The case of Federal Election Commission v. Akins will be heard in the term that begins in October and a decision is likely to be handed down sometime in 1998.
In the Montana abortion case, the justices reversed a federal appeals court ruling that blocked a law banning physician assistants from performing abortions. Before its enactment, Montana had allowed licensed physician assistants under the supervision of a physician to do abortions. The new law apparently targeted the only physician assistant in the state who performed abortions, Susan Cahill, who worked with physician James Armstrong in Kalispell. They, as well as other physicians, challenged the law as an undue burden on abortion rights.
Although the justices were reviewing a preliminary injunction against the statute, rather than the merits of the physicians-only law itself, they noted that past cases have given the states broad latitude to decide what medical procedures may be performed only by physicians.
The court noted in its unsigned opinion in Mazurek v. Armstrong that the District Court had found insufficient evidence that the law was an obstacle to women seeking to end their pregnancies. Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer dissented, saying the high court had prematurely intervened in the case.
Separately, the high court without comment turned down an appeal by Utah to revive a law that would have prohibited most abortions for women more than 20 weeks pregnant. A lower court said the law violated a woman's constitutional right to abortion.
In other action, the court ruled unanimously that a 1986 "whistle-blower" law that enhanced the ability of private citizens to sue federal contractors for allegedly defrauding the government could not be used against alleged misconduct that occurred before the law was passed (Hughes Aircraft Co. v. United States).
And the justices said they would use a case brought by a prisoner in the District of Columbia, Leonard Rollon Crawford-El, to decide when government officials can be immune from lawsuits for allegedly retaliating against someone who speaks out against the government. Convicted murderer Crawford-El accused prison official Patricia Britton of withholding personal items of his during a prison transfer in retaliation for his talking to news reporters about poor prison conditions and filing lawsuits over prison conditions (Crawford-El v. Britton).
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