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U.S. Supreme Court Prepares to Hear Case Involving Aipac

January 12, 1998
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The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is putting on a confident face as the Supreme Court prepares to consider a case that observers say could have important implications for the pro-Israel lobby.

The justices are scheduled to hear arguments on Wednesday in FEC vs. Akins, culminating a 9-year-old battle involving allegations of improper political activity by AIPAC.

The case stems from 1989, when a group of former government officials, all known as staunch opponents of Israel, began battling to convince the Federal Election Commission to regulate AIPAC as a political action committee and thereby subject it to restrictive campaign-finance laws.

Such a designation would limit contributions to and expenditures by AIPAC, which in spite of its name is not a political action committee.

The case is being watched closely not only by the Jewish community but by a variety of political forces anxious to see whether the case will have broader implications for campaign-finance practices.

Political action committees, commonly known as PACs, raise funds to support political candidates.

AIPAC, which makes no such expenditures, defines itself as a registered lobby on behalf of legislation affecting U.S.-Israel relations.

“As a practical matter, I don’t think any of the likely outcomes are going to have an impact on AIPAC,” said Tom Hungar, a partner in the law firm representing AIPAC.

AIPAC is not a direct party to the case, but submitted a friend-of-the court brief asking the court to dismiss the complaint.

In 1992, the FEC, which monitors compliance with campaign laws, found that AIPAC spent money in an effort to influence congressional elections.

But the FEC also ruled that this was not AIPAC’s “major purpose” and determined that the pro-Israel lobby did not have to register as a PAC.

A lower court and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia initially upheld the FEC’s decision.

But in December 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FEC misapplied the law.

The court said the percentage of an organization’s work that is campaign- related should not determine the definition of a PAC.

If the Supreme Court overturns the lower court’s ruling and allows a group’s “major purpose” to determine if it is a PAC, then the case against AIPAC would end.

But if the court upholds the appeals court and strikes down the major purpose test, AIPAC’s fate would once again lie with the FEC.

The FEC could, according to some legal observers, restrict the organization’s ability to raise and spend money and force the lobby to open its books for public disclosure.

For their part, AIPAC officials and lawyers for the organization envision no such scenario.

They have long maintained that AIPAC, as a membership organization, has the constitutional right to communicate with its members on any subject.

A decision could come anytime before the court’s term ends in June.

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