House members' challenge to Balkans policy dismissed

Judge says Congress sending `mixed messages'

June 09, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sparing the Clinton administration for now from having to defend in court the U.S. role in the airstrikes against Yugoslavia, a federal judge dismissed yesterday a constitutional challenge by 31 members of the House.

The lawmakers promised an immediate appeal of the decision by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman.

In his ruling, Friedman said the courts could not get involved unless Congress and the White House reached "a constitutional impasse" on the use of U.S. armed forces in the Kosovo crisis, and that has not happened.

The other two branches of government, he said, have not come to "an actual confrontation" about Yugoslavia policy. At most, he said, Congress has sent "distinctly mixed messages" about whether it supports or opposes the commitment of forces by President Clinton that began in March.

Unless Congress takes a firm stand on one side of the issue, and the president firmly resists that stand, members of Congress have no legal right to sue over Clinton's military actions, the judge ruled.

The judge also suggested that an individual member of the U.S. armed forces taking part in the Kosovo operation might have a right to contest its legality.

Rep. Tom Campbell, a California Republican who led the House members' court fight, said the lawmakers will appeal. He said the judge's ruling "destroys the War Powers Act" -- the 1973 law that seeks to restrict the president's power to use military force without Congress' approval.

"The Act is of no use if the president can ignore it, which he has, and no member of Congress can do anything about that violation," Campbell said in a statement.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican who joined the lawsuit, said the members will file appeals both to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and directly in the Supreme Court, in hopes of getting a quick, final ruling. He said in an interview that the dispute over presidential war-making powers involves "a big gray area in the Constitution that really needs to be spelled out."

He noted, however, that the dispute might disappear as a legal matter if peace is worked out in Yugoslavia and the airstrikes end.

The Justice Department said the administration was pleased with the ruling, noting that it has "believed all along that this was an issue to be resolved between Congress and the executive branch, not the court."

Beyond the situation in Yugoslavia, Friedman's ruling amounted to a sweeping denial of the right of individual members of Congress to file lawsuits when they disagree with the president's actions.

Noting that judges in Washington for years had been quite tolerant of lawsuits by members of Congress, Friedman said all of that was swept away when the Supreme Court refused in 1997 to let six members of Congress sue to challenge the constitutionality of the law giving the president the right to veto individual line items of federal spending.

Pub Date: 6/09/99

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