WASHINGTON -- Tugging at the cloak of secrecy that has shrouded the administration's maneuverings on health care reform, a federal judge ordered the government yesterday to open up to the public the fact-gathering sessions of Hillary Rodham Clinton's task force.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled, in a 30-page decision, that the task force headed by the first lady may meet in private when it actually drafts new reform ideas for the president and that its existing working groups may continue to meet in private.
But, he said, when the task force itself moves into gathering facts --
before it starts drafting final proposals for the president -- the public must be allowed to sit in and take part.
The Lamberth decision throws a spotlight on the unprecedented role of the nation's new first lady, the only "private citizen" on a task force otherwise made up of Cabinet and administration officials.
If she were not a private citizen, the group would have no duty under the law to hold any meetings in the open.
The judge almost apologized to President Clinton for concluding that he had broken the law in the technical arrangements for the task force's work, but he said that the law was clear and that the president had not followed it entirely.
"While the court takes no pleasure in determining that one of the first actions taken by a new president is in direct violation of a statute enacted by Congress, the court's duty is to apply the laws to all individuals," Judge Lamberth wrote.
Although the court decision was a public relations blow to the first lady's historic role in government, the White House treated it as a matter of little significance.
White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos said yesterday that the court ruling had "no practical effect" on the health care reform effort since the working groups are still free to operate as before.
Another White House official said that he does not expect the administration to appeal the decision.
The judge ruled yesterday that the advisory task force appointed by Mr. Clinton "may not conduct any fact-finding or information-gathering meetings" until it has complied with federal laws that require such meetings to be held in the open and publicly advertised in advance.
"The public has the right to know what information is being
presented to the task force and by whom it is being given; to learn of the costs involved in the gathering of the facts; and to attend these meetings."
The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), enacted in 1972 to prevent special interest groups from secretly exerting influence on government decisions, requires all meetings of advisory committees and subcommittees that include any non-federal employees to be held in public.
The White House, hoping to reserve for Mrs. Clinton's task force the right to meet in private, argued to the court that the first lady is the "functional equivalent of a federal employee."
In a letter to Rep. William F. Clinger Jr., a Pennsylvania Republican who took issue with the makeup and operation of the health care task force, White House counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum wrote that "the participation of the first lady on the task force does not trigger application of the [Advisory Committee] Act."
But Judge Lamberth disagreed, saying that Congress, in crafting the Advisory Committee Act, "did not exclude the first lady; nor did it then decree (and it has not decreed since) that the president's spouse qualifies as an employee -- or even a 'quasi-employee' of the federal government."
Congress could cure the entire legal problem the judge found yesterday, simply by passing a new law to ensure privacy for all of the task force's workings.
A move to get such a bill passed will be started today by Mr. Clinger, who plans to propose legislation that would include the spouses of the president and vice-president under the definition of "federal officer" for the purposes of the Advisory Committee Act.
Yesterday's ruling came in response to a lawsuit brought last month by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, the American Council for Health Care Reform and the National Legal and Policy Center, all of whom had asked for admittance to the task force meetings.
They are among various health care organizations, including the American Medical Association, that have complained of being excluded from the proceedings.
Judge Lamberth's ruling does not apply to the 300 to 400 health care specialists and government employees who have been meeting behind closed doors -- clustered in nearly three dozen "working groups" -- and whose identities the White House has refused to disclose.
Although the task force itself, comprising Mrs. Clinton, six Cabinet secretaries and several senior White House officials, has not yet held a formal meeting, Mrs. Clinton has met with some of the task force and working group members.
In a victory for the administration side, Judge Lamberth ruled that the task force may meet in private when it formulates or presents its recommendations to the president.