WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court yesterday ruled a review board overseeing the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is unconstiutional, casting some doubt on the ability of the authority to move forward on a $1.9 billion, bond-financed capital improvement project.
The court held that the board violates the Constitution's separation of powers requirement because it is composed of nine members of Congress who can veto actions taken by the authority's board of directors.
But authority officials said the court's ruling did not touch on whether the authority can proceed with bond issues already authorized by the review board. "Nothing the board of review has done has been invalidated," said Edward S. Faggen, legal counsel to the authority.
"We're still very optimistic about it," said E. Lynn Hampton, the authority's chief financial officer. "The authority is fine. It was the review board that was deemed unconstitutional."
Ms. Hampton said authority officials will go to Capitol Hill discuss how the law can be fixed to pass constitutional muster. She said the authority currently plans to sell about $250 million of bonds in January, which should be enough time to get legislation through Congress.
Mr. Faggen added that the authority will continue to honor outstanding obligations and will continue to meet the debt service on the roughly $500 million of bonds the authority already has issued.
Legal sources said a federal district court now will likely have to enter an order implementing the high court's ruling, an order that could more clearly spell out the impact of the decision.
The invalidated board -- which consisted of nine members of Congress -- reviewed such actions as the adoption of budgets and authorization of bonds. The board already has given approval for the issuance of $1.9 billion of bonds, of which about $500 million already have been issued.
The court ruled 6-to-3, in an opinion delivered by Justice John Paul Stevens, to invalidate the board even though it "might prove to be innocuous," because of concerns Congress could develop similar boards to control the activities of the states.
"Given the scope of the federal power to dispense benefits to the states in a variety of forms and subject to a host of statutory conditions, Congress could, if this board of review were valid, use similar expedients to enable its members or its agents to retain control, outside the ordinary legislative process, of the activities of state grant recipients charged with executing virtually every aspect of national policy," the court majority said.
Last October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled the board was unconstitutional because it allowed Congress to exercise veto power over executive actions, a violation of the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine.
The review board was established in 1987 by the District of Columbia and Virginia. Establishment of the board was a congressionally imposed prerequisite to transferring control of the airports to the regional authority from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The board was mandated by Congress in part because of concerns that opponents of the refurbishing might try to forestall renovations when control of the facilities was transferred to the authority.
Justice Byron R. White, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Thurgood Marshall, took sharp aim at the majority ruling.
"For the first time in its history, the court employs separation-of-powers doctrine to invalidate a body created under state law," Justice White said. "The court's reasoning fails . . . because it ignores the plain terms of every instrument relevant to this case."
But Justice Stevens said the arrangement "provides a blueprint for extensive expansion of the legislative power beyond its constitutionally confined role."
Justice White, however, said that argument "utterly ignores the executive's ability to protect itself through, among other things, the ample power of the veto.
"Should Congress ever undertake such improbable projects as transferring national park lands to the states on the condition that its agents control their oversight . . . there is little doubt that the President would be equal to the task of safeguarding his or her interests," Justice White said.
The lawsuit challenging the review board was brought by Citizens for the Abatement of Aircraft Noise Inc., a group composed in large part by individuals who live under flight paths of aircraft departing and arriving from Washington National Airport.
A federal district court had ruled the board did not violate the Constitution, but the appeals court reversed that ruling. The appeals court ruling was set aside pending the outcome of the Supreme Court ruling.