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Rep. Jim McDermott said Friday he will ask the Supreme Court to decide whether he had a right to disclose contents of an illegally taped telephone call involving House Republican leaders a decade ago.

A federal appeals court ruled in May that the Washington state Democrat should not have given reporters access to the tape-recorded telephone call of Republican leaders discussing the House ethics case against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

McDermott's offense was especially egregious since he was a senior member of the House ethics committee, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said in a 5-4 ruling.

The congressman called the ruling an infringement of his free speech rights.

"With all due respect to the Court of Appeals, the constitutional issues involved here are much too important to be confused by a split decision," he said in a statement Friday.

"The protections afforded all Americans by the First Amendment have been placed on a very slippery slope by this (appeals court) decision," McDermott said, adding that the May 1 ruling "endangers freedom of speech and the press across America."

In its ruling, the appeals court said that when McDermott became a member of the House ethics panel, he "voluntarily accepted a duty of confidentiality" and therefore had no First Amendment right to disclose the tape to journalists.

The ruling upheld a previous decision ordering McDermott to pay House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, more than $700,000 for leaking the taped conversation. The figure includes $60,000 in damages and more than $600,000 in legal costs.

Boehner was among several GOP leaders heard on the December 1996 call, which involved ethics allegations against Gingrich. Then the House speaker, Gingrich was heard on the call telling Boehner and others how to react to allegations. He was later fined $300,000 and reprimanded by the House.

McDermott, who was then serving on the ethics panel, leaked the tape to two newspapers, which published stories on the case in January 1997.

In a sharp dissent, Judge David B. Sentelle said that under the majority's ruling, "no one in the United States could communicate on this topic of public interest because of the defect in the chain of title," that is, the fact that the tape was obtained illegally.


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