WASHINGTON (AP) â€” A federal appeals court said Friday a judge acted inappropriately when he found that President Clinton committed a criminal violation of the privacy law by releasing the letters of presidential accuser Kathleen Willey.
But the three-member appeals panel, turning down a White House request, refused to intervene in the lawsuit filed by a conservative group that spawned the ruling against Clinton.
``It was inappropriate'' for U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, a Reagan appointee, to invoke ``sweeping pronouncements on alleged criminal activity,'' but ``the members of the White House Office are under no real threat of criminal prosecution,'' said the appeals ruling.
``We do not take seriously'' the White House's argument that the president and his aides ``are now disabled from functioning because of an implicit threat,'' the appeals court added. At the same time, the appeals court said Lamberth had acted ``gratuitously'' and that his decision about Clinton's alleged criminality was ``superfluous.''
The appeals court ruling means that Clinton's closest adviser, deputy White House counsel Bruce Lindsay, must respond to demands from the conservative group Judicial Watch to reveal deliberations that led to the president releasing friendly correspondence from Willey. Clinton issued the letters the day after Willey, a former White House volunteer, accused the president on national television of making an unwelcome sexual advance. Many of Willey's letters to Clinton were written after the alleged 1993 incident.
The appeals court judges, Harry Edwards, a Carter appointee; David Tatel, a Clinton appointee; and Douglas Ginsburg, a Reagan appointee, said the ruling against Clinton and the question of whether Privacy Act restrictions apply to the Executive Office of the President could be dealt with by an appeals court once the case is over. It is highly unusual for appeals courts to step into ongoing lawsuits.
``The White House, as it has done for many years on the advice and counsel of the Department of Justice, remains free to adhere to the position that the Privacy Act does not cover members of the White House Office,'' said the appeals court.
The White House had argued that Lamberth's ruling would chill confidential discussions between the president and his top aides including his White House attorneys.
White House spokesman Jim Kennedy expressed disappointment that the appeals court declined to intervene. But he said ``we are very pleased'' because the court criticized Lamberth's ruling against Clinton and also ``made clear that we could continue to operate under the long-established principle that the Privacy Act does not apply to the White House.''
Judicial Watch chairman Larry Klayman said the ruling ``affirms that the President of the United States is not above the law.''
The lawsuit concerns the Clinton administration's alleged violation of the Privacy Act by gathering hundreds of FBI background files of former Reagan and Bush appointees.
Although the case began with the FBI files issue, Lamberth gave Judicial Watch latitude to explore whether the White House routinely gathered and released damaging information about its political opponents, a decision that led to inclusion of the Willey letters even though Willey is not a party to the suit.