U.S. District Court Judge John J. Sirica has ruled that consumer organizations founded and run by Ralph Nader have no legal right to file lawsuits on behalf of the general public.
The decision was described as "unprecedented" and "unfortunate" by Nader aides, who said it could restrict the power of public interest groups to challenge government authorities in court.
Implicitly criticizing Nader's oneman rule over the consumer groups he heads, Sirica said a democratically organized group, with dues-paying members and elected officers, would have a legitimate right to sue on behalf of its members, representing the public at large.
But Sirica noted, the Nader groups involved in the case have no dues-paying members and no elected officers. "Mr. Nader would hardly be in a position to seriously argue that his contributors or supporters exercise any substantial degree of even indirect control over his organizations," Sirica said.
Since Nader started the organizations, appointed their officers and runs them under tight personal control, the groups cannot claim to represent consumers as a whole, Sirica said.
Sirica's decision came in a lawsuit against Food and Drug Administrator Donald Kennedy by two of Nader's Washington organizations, Public Citizen, Nader's umbrella fund-raising agency, and Health Research Group, a medical consumers association.
Public Citizen [and in turn HRG] was founded by Ralph Nader and is operated by Mr. Nader, the board of directors he appoints, and the employes hired by that board," Sirica said in this opinion.
Sirica added he "does not doubt that [the Nader groups] have been and would continue to be competent and effective advocates" of the interests of consumers. "But such abilities are not sufficient to confer standing" to sue.
Although Sirica's ruling applies only to the case against the FDA, it could have a far-ranging impact if upheld in other jurisdictions.
Dismissing the suit filed by the two groups, Sirica said yesterday he will decide later whether the case can be kept alive by substituting three individuals as plaintiffs, as the Nader group proposed.
Acknowledging that "no one has ever made a ruling like this on standing before," Gerry Spann, acting director of Nader's Public Citizen Litigation Project, said the decision could make it more difficult to sue the government.
He said no decision has been made on appealing the ruling.
The role of the Nader organizations was challenged by the Propriety Association, a trade group representing the over-the-counter drug industry. The drug makers hired the Washington law firm of Clifford & Warnke to intervene in the lawsuit which Nader's associates filed against Kennedy.
The lawsuit sought to overturn FDA regulations that allow drug manufacturers to continue for several years to sell products containing ingredients that have not been proven effective.
If successful, said Nader aide Sidney Wolfe the lawsuit would have removed from the market or required changes in the formulation of such common remedies as Contac, Dristan and Coricidin.
These cold remedies and many other nonprescription drugs contain ingredients whose effectiveness has been challenged. The FDA proposed letting the drugs be sold and giving their manufacturers more time to prove their effectiveness.
Contending the FDA ruling would lead consumers to spend million of dollars a year on worthless nostrums, the two Nader groups went to court.