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ABC News

Friday, August 13, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The Commission on Presidential Debates may have violated federal election laws when it refused to allow any third-party presidential candidates into the debate halls to watch the 2000 presidential debates, a federal judge has ruled.

In a decision issued late Thursday, U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. said the Federal Election Commission, which initially dismissed the claims in March, should open a full investigation into whether the debate commission acted in a partisan manner. But he said the FEC is under no obligation to make its findings before the first presidential debate, scheduled to take place on Sept. 30 at the University of Miami.

Current and former third-party candidates contend that the debate commission is partisan toward Republican and Democratic candidates and, under federal law, should not be permitted to sponsor the debates.

The debate commission argued that it excluded third-party candidates such as Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan from the audience in 2000 because it feared they would disrupt the live telecast of the debates.

Kennedy said there may have been valid reasons to exclude Nader and Buchanan, but found there was no basis to prevent every other third-party candidate from attending. Nader and Buchanan are among those who filed the lawsuit, along with candidates from the Natural Law, Constitution and Green parties.

Jason Adkins, a lawyer representing the third-party candidates, said the decision "creates a huge cloud over the legitimacy of the CPD to sponsor these upcoming debates."

A spokeswoman for the debate commission did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The debate commission, which has sponsored all presidential debates since 1988, only allows candidates with at least 15 percent support in national polls to participate in its debates. None of the third-party candidates qualified in 2000.