WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court refused yesterday to give the Federal Election Commission any relief from a serious constitutional problem that leaves a number of the agency's election law enforcement cases in doubt.
Ruling 7-1 that the FEC had no right to take its problem to the justices, the court threw out its appeal and left the agency with no apparent recourse in court.
The FEC's constitutional difficulty arose in a federal appeals court ruling 14 months ago that the agency had been operating unconstitutionally since its founding in 1974 as part of the executive branch.
The problem, the appeals court said, was that it had two congressional staff members as nonvoting members of the eight-member commission. That arrangement, the appeals court said, violated the Constitution's requirement that the branches of government be kept separate.
That ruling, which becomes final with the Supreme Court's rejection yesterday of the FEC's appeal, had cast uncertainty over almost everything the agency had done to enforce campaign finance reform laws. The agency has been working to try to validate any case that had not become final.
On still-open cases, the agency's regular commissioners, after requiring the two nonvoting members to stand aside, tried to reratify every major enforcement action.
Those involved cases filed but not yet acted upon, cases still under investigation and cases being fought out in court -- overall, about 200 cases.
FEC Chairman Trevor Potter, in a telephone interview yesterday, said there may be only "a dozen to two dozen" cases still in court that raise the question of whether the reratification process solved the constitutional problem. He said federal judges have decided in conflicting ways on that question.
Meanwhile, he said, the FEC has decided to accept the appeals court ruling that its membership as set up was invalid.