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Obama lobbying ban faces setback in court

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency from the Justice Department in Washington January 17, 2014. REUTERS/Ke
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency from the Justice Department in Washington January 17, 2014. REUTERS/Ke

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's attempt to minimize the influence of "special interests" on his administration received a setback on Friday when a U.S. judge reinstated a lawsuit challenging his ban on lobbyists serving on government advisory boards.

The ruling amounts to a partial victory for Washington's 12,000 registered lobbyists, many of whom feel they have been unfairly tarred by Obama's efforts to keep them out of public service.

At issue is whether registered lobbyists can serve on the 1,000 or so advisory committees that help the federal government shape policy on everything from nuclear waste to housing. Obama banned lobbyists from serving on such boards in 2010, arguing in a memorandum that "special interests" had "drowned out the voices of ordinary Americans."

Six lobbyists filed a lawsuit arguing that the ban unfairly penalizes them for exercising their right to petition the government, but a U.S. District Court judge in Washington ruled in 2012 that Obama was acting within his authority and dismissed the case.

On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned that ruling and asked the lower court to take up the case again.

Appeals Court Judge David Tatel asked the lower court to examine whether the ban made sense, given that the trade committees the lobbyists sought to join were designed to reflect the concerns of private industry and is currently populated with corporate officials who happen not to be registered as lobbyists.

"The court may also want to ask the government to explain how banning lobbyists from committees composed of representatives of the likes of Boeing and General Electric protects the 'voices of ordinary Americans,'" Tatel wrote.

Obama can keep lobbyists out of top decision-making positions at the White House if he wishes, but at the advisory-board level the ban unfairly restricts free speech rights, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said.

"I think the court was very clear that you can't have a one-size-fits-all kind of rule," said Charles Rothfield, a lawyer with Mayer Brown.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Obama signed a decree on his first day in office in 2009 that restricted lobbyists from serving in his administration, though he has made plenty of exceptions.

White House Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Munoz and former national security adviser Tom Donilon are among the current and former White House aides who had previously worked as lobbyists. Steve Ricchetti, Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff, ran his own lobbying shop before joining the White House.

The head of a lobbying-industry trade group said Obama's ban unfairly singles out those who had registered as lobbyists while missing others who spend as much time talking to lawmakers on Capitol Hill but work in fundraising, communications or another policy-influencing capacity.

"They might be up there on the Hill maybe once or twice a week maybe at the most, but all the other parts of the job they're doing, it's all part of the process," said Monte Ward, president of the Association of Government Relations Professionals.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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