The Supreme Court refused yesterday to halt enforcement of a new federal ethics law that prohibits federal workers from taking payment for appearances, speeches or articles.
In a one-sentence order, the court said the request to have the honoraria ban stayed while the federal appeals court here considers the case was referred by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to the full court and was denied.
The appeals court, which also refused to block enforcement of the law in the meantime, is scheduled to hear arguments in the case Jan. 29. U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson had said the law presented a "substantial legal question" but refused to halt it from taking effect because there was not proof of irreparable harm.
The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents about 140,000 federal workers, is challenging the law along with several federal workers who engage in outside activities, such as writing free-lance articles or performing weddings.
The union argues that the law, which took effect Jan. 1, represents "an impermissible burden on employees' First Amendment right to freedom of speech." It argues that because the law does not restrict all outside activities by federal employees -- for example, allowing them to sell prize-winning roses but not to take money for articles about rose-growing -- it "specifically targets speech" in violation of the First Amendment.
As interpreted by the Office of Government Ethics, the law applies to all compensation for "any appearance, speech or article, regardless of the subject matter or circumstance."
For example, one of those challenging the law, a GS-7 tax examining assistant at the Internal Revenue Service, could not take payment for free-lance articles on environmental topics or speeches to local church groups on earthquake preparedness.
NTEU President Robert M. Tobias said he was "disappointed that the Supreme Court did not act but we're encouraged by the expedited treatment given the case by the court of appeals and we're hopeful that the court will act quickly in our favor."
The head of the Office of Government Ethics has said the ban on receipt of honoraria by federal employees is "not necessary to protect the integrity of the government" and "was just a mistake" by Congress. Various lawmakers have said they will move to fix the statute.