First lady's role, panel secrecy upheld

June 23, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Ruling yesterday that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a full-time government official, a federal appeals court approved the secrecy of her task force on health care and essentially acquiesced in Mrs. Clinton's ambitious views about the role and powers of the first lady.

The ruling, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, came in a case filed by doctors and others seeking to force the panel, the Task Force on National Health Care Reform, to conduct its business in public.

The judges ruled that the secrecy was legal, but the practical effect of the ruling is uncertain, because the task force and its staff of more than 500, which did most of the work, were disbanded last month.

The court sent the case back to a federal district judge to determine whether the staff might have to make its voluminous records and working papers public.

The decision on Mrs. Clinton's status represents a victory for the administration and may remove a potential obstacle if the president wants to appoint his wife to head other advisory groups. She has, for instance, been mentioned as a possible leader of the administration's effort to overhaul the welfare system.

But the rationale of the ruling is not limited to Mrs. Clinton. It would seem to permit any presidential spouse to engage in official and semiofficial activities of a type normally performed by employees.

Mrs. Clinton is more powerful than many of her predecessors, and she is certainly more open in exercising that power. The appeals court acknowledged that it was stretching the definition of "officer or employee" of the government to include Mrs. Clinton in her role as first lady. But it said such a strained interpretation of the law was necessary to avoid the difficult constitutional problems that would arise if she had no official status.

Moreover, it said, "Congress itself has recognized that the president's spouse acts as the functional equivalent of an assistant to the president."

Therefore, the judges said, it is reasonable to treat the president's spouse as "a de facto officer or employee" of the government.

In March, federal District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled that Mrs. Clinton was not a government official, officer or employee. As a result, he said, the task force she headed was a federal advisory committee.

Under a 1972 law, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, such panels, when not composed wholly of government officials, must conduct their meetings in public and must make their work papers available to the public.

The appeals court rejected Judge Lamberth's logic and said that the first lady's status, though ambiguous, qualified her as a government official. Thus, it said, "the task force is a committee wholly composed of government officials."

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