The Justice Department last week continued its fight against the U.S. Postal Service's operation of an electronic mail service by responding to Postal Service briefs filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, Sens. Steven D. Symms (R-Idaho), Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) and Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.) filed briefs in support of the Justice Department's opposition to the electronic mail system, called E-COM. The senators said Congress had never given the Postal Service the authority to begin E-COM. The Postal Service, the senators contend, said because Congress authorized them to operate "modern" service they could begin electronic mail.

However, the senators said, "if the bare term 'modern' permits the Postal Service entrance into telecommunications and data processing, it would permit any other type of vertical integration which the Postal Service might deem modern. Obviously, such a prospect enhances the dangers of inappropriate governmental intrusion into the private marketplace.

"This difficulty arises precisely because the Postal Service has failed to seek, and wait for, proper and explicit congressional guidance," the senators said.

The Postal Service told the court the senators shouldn't be allowed to participate in the case because they lack standing--that is, a direct relationship to the case.

The Justice Department earlier this month had attempted to halt temporarily the inauguration of E-COM on Jan. 4, claiming the Postal Service hadn't participated in the required hearings. However, two federal courts rebuffed those attempts and E-COM started as scheduled. The case is now pending at the appeals court.

The Justice and Commerce departments have opposed the service because they said it unfairly prohibits private industry from entering the business of delivering electronic messages.

In its brief filed last week, the Justice Department said the Postal Service had only been granted permission to begin an experimental electronic mail system, not a permanent one. The Postal Service can implement a permanent E-COM system as soon as it receives a recommendation from the Independent Postal Rate Commission to do so, Justice argued.