A federal judge yesterday dismissed a lawsuit filed by 26 members of Congress who contended that President Clinton has had no legal authority to continue U.S. participation in the airstrikes against Yugoslavia.
The bipartisan lawsuit sought to enforce timetables in the largely ignored Vietnam-era War Powers Act, which would have required Clinton to obtain congressional approval or terminate U.S. involvement in Kosovo by May 25, two months after the start of the action.
Although the airstrikes could end soon as a result of a Kosovo peace agreement, the House members wanted the judge to hear the case in hopes of receiving a ruling that would govern future use of military force.
In throwing out the case, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman noted that the courts traditionally have been reluctant to intervene in political disputes concerning matters of war. Friedman said he saw no evidence of a constitutional impasse between the Clinton administration and Congress that would warrant the court's action.
The House members, led by Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.), wanted the judge to demand that Clinton immediately seek congressional approval to continue U.S. involvement in the war. Their lawsuit, filed April 30, contended the war is illegal because Clinton never obtained a declaration of war or other authority from Congress.
During a hearing last week, lawyers representing the House members pointed to two votes taken by Congress on April 28: a resolution to support the air war that failed on a tie vote, 213 to 213, and a measure calling for a declaration of war against Yugoslavia that was resoundingly defeated.
But, as the judge pointed out, Congress sent seemingly contradictory messages in two other votes on the matter. The House defeated a third resolution calling upon Clinton to remove troops, and later passed an emergency spending bill that helps pay for the U.S. role in the NATO-led military action.
"Had the four votes been consistent and against the President's position, and had he nevertheless persisted with airstrikes in the face of such votes, there may well have been a constitutional impasse," Friedman wrote in his 22-page opinion. "But Congress has not sent such a clear, consistent message."
Although the 26 members filed suit in their official capacities, Friedman said they lacked legal standing to act on behalf of the entire Congress. His ruling echoed arguments raised by lawyers for the Clinton administration, who contended the lawsuit represented the views of only a handful of members.
Campbell, a war opponent who spurred the House debates on the issue, said the decision will be appealed.