WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court and the Federal Communications Commission cleared the way yesterday for President Clinton and Bob Dole to debate tomorrow night with no other candidates on the stage.
Ross Perot, the Reform Party candidate for president, and John Hagelin, the Natural Law Party candidate, lost their bids in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to stop the debate from taking place without them.
Although their legal options are not exhausted, Perot has decided not to go on to the Supreme Court at this stage, and Hagelin will not do so at least until early next week -- thus eliminating any legal barrier to the debate tomorrow between the two major-party nominees.
Both minor-party candidates had argued that the arrangement for the debates was illegal under federal law. Perot also asserted that the arrangement violated his constitutional rights.
A second Perot maneuver also failed yesterday. That was a complaint that his right to equal time on television would be violated if the debates were broadcast without him. The FCC rejected that bid by a 4-0 vote in a decision released yesterday.
The FCC also decided that the TV networks have sold as much broadcast time to Perot as they are obligated to do, rejecting his claim that he has not been given "reasonable" access to paid time.
The appeals court decision, reached unanimously by a three-judge panel, said the courts have no authority at this point to rule on most of the challenges that Perot and Hagelin had raised about the format of the debates.
But the court left Perot with the option of filing a new lawsuit to challenge the Federal Election Commission's rules governing presidential debates, raising a potential threat to the second Clinton-Dole debate, set for Oct. 16.
The presidential encounters are set up by a private Commission on Presidential Debates, operating under a regulation issued by the election commission. The appeals court said any claim that this arrangement violates the FEC regulation must be pursued first with the FEC, not in court.
Last month, the debates commission decided that only Clinton and Dole would be included in the debate, because Perot, Hagelin and other third-party candidates lack a "realistic chance" of being elected next month.
The appeals court flatly rejected Perot's claim that the debates arrangement was unconstitutional. But the court said that Perot may return to court with a new lawsuit that makes a different argument: that federal election law bars the debates commission from having any role in managing the debates.
Jamin B. Raskin, a constitutional law professor at American University who is one of Perot's lawyers, said that "we are not going to go to the Supreme Court" at this stage.
But, Raskin added, the campaign will continue to press its challenge to the debate arrangement before the FEC and will "explore" the possibility of a new lawsuit.
Hagelin's lawyers said they would ask the full 11-member appeals court to reconsider his challenge. But they conceded that the appeals court would not act on that plea until next week -- after the debate tomorrow. They said they might yet ask the Supreme Court to hear the challenge next week.
Unlike the appeals court, which had to rule on the Perot and Hagelin challenges, the Supreme Court has discretion simply to bypass any appeals taken to it.
Pub Date: 10/05/96