WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot turned to a federal court yesterday to get himself included in presidential campaign debates, asking a judge to bar any encounter between President Clinton and Bob Dole unless Perot is on the stage, too.
Perot, the Reform Party's presidential candidate, will continue his legal challenge "through the Supreme Court, if necessary," his national campaign coordinator Russell Verney told reporters here.
The lawsuit complained: "Declaring the election essentially over for all candidates but two before a single debate takes place will only deepen the nation's cynicism about government."
The court case was the second of two legal maneuvers by Perot and running mate Pat Choate after a presidential debate commission recommended last week that they be excluded. The first move was to ask the Federal Election Commission for help, but the FEC has conceded that it cannot act in time.
Under an agreement between the Clinton and Dole campaigns, the first presidential debate is to be Oct. 6 in Hartford, Conn., with Perot excluded.
The lawsuit itself will be on a tight schedule: U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who is handling the case, yesterday set a court hearing for Oct. 1, five days before the first debate. The judge told lawyers he would decide swiftly after the hearing.
Even a ruling that same day would put added pressure on a federal appeals court and the Supreme Court, should they become involved, to act in advance of the initial scheduled debate.
A second presidential debate, also without Perot, is scheduled for Oct. 16 in San Diego. A vice presidential debate, excluding Perot running mate Choate, is set for Oct. 9 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Yesterday, the Perot campaign disclosed another tactic: appealing for public sympathy via television. Perot was negotiating to buy network TV time to air three 30-second commercials denouncing his exclusion. "Where's Ross?" asks an announcer in one. In another, the announcer asks, "What are they afraid of?"
To back up that request for time, the campaign said it will go to the Federal Election Commission today to get "reasonable access to network facilities and equal time."
Perot's lawyers face significant legal obstacles in preparing their court case: In the past, challenges to presidential campaign debates have failed in court, and the debate commission that manages these events is a private group not directly controlled by any federal laws or by any clause in the Constitution.
But Perot's lawyers sought to get around those difficulties by arguing that federal law has changed since earlier presidential campaigns, and by suing the Federal Election Commission -- a government agency -- along with the debate commission.
They argued that the FEC has issued new rules that the debate commission must obey but did not, and contended that the debate commission is in effect acting as an arm of the government with a direct duty of its own to obey the Constitution.
The FEC rules, the lawsuit contended, forbid the debate panel from picking participants solely because of their party and requires it to use fair, "objective" standards in deciding who gets to participate.
The commission illegally invited Clinton and Dole solely because they represent the Democratic and Republican parties, the Perot complaint argued. The commission also acted unlawfully, it added, by using special criteria to keep Perot out on the theory that he is too far behind in the polls and in news media coverage -- criteria that are subject to abuse.
By any standard that the FEC rules allow, the lawsuit contended, Perot qualifies as a debate participant.
The Reform Party candidate thus complained that the FEC and the commission are violating federal campaign laws, FEC rules, and several rights that Perot claims under the Constitution.
Those constitutional rights include the opportunity to create and develop a new political party, a right to be treated equally by the government, a right not to be excluded from an open public forum, a guarantee of fair procedures by the government and a right to join in the political process.
One part of the lawsuit struck at the legality of the entire scheme for presidential debates by arguing that the debate panel is a corporation, and as such is flatly forbidden by federal law to spend any money in connection with federal elections. It is not entitled to have that ban waived, especially if it violates FEC rules governing the debates, according to Perot's claim.
Discrimination is alleged
Moreover, the complaint said that the commission itself is merely an extension of the two major political parties, and thus is geared -- in its present form -- to discriminate against third parties.
His advisers and lawyers turned the filing of the lawsuit into a mini-rally on the steps outside the U.S. Courthouse here.
Coordinator Verney cited a poll that showed 76 percent of those who replied want Perot included in the presidential debate. Lawyer Jamin Raskin, a constitutional law professor at the American University, said the debate commission requires any third-party candidate "to run through a gantlet" to get included.
Verney accused the Dole campaign of working "against the public's interest" by demanding that Perot be left out. And he said that, despite claims by the Clinton campaign that they wanted Perot included, it had joined in a pact behind closed doors "locking Ross Perot out."
Dole, asked about Perot's legal challenge, commented: "He has a right to file. The commission voted. I didn't vote."
Clinton campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart rejected Verney's criticism, saying: "We pushed very hard to have Mr. Perot included in the debate."
Perot's lawsuit is being handled by Judge Hogan along with a separate challenge filed last week by another candidate left out of the debates, Natural Law Party nominee John Hagelin.
Pub Date: 9/24/96