WASHINGTON - A decade-long feud between Reps. John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) and Jim McDermott (D., Wash.) appeared to end in Boehner's favor yesterday when a court ruled McDermott liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and legal fees over an illegally taped conference call he leaked to reporters.

In a 5-4 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the offense was especially egregious because McDermott was a senior member of the House ethics panel at the time.

The case stretches back to December 1996, when a couple using a police scanner illegally taped a cell-phone conference call between House Republican leaders discussing ethics allegations against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.). The couple gave the tape to McDermott, who turned it over to news outlets.

When McDermott became a member of the ethics panel, he "voluntarily accepted a duty of confidentiality that covered his receipt and handling of the . . . illegal recording," Judge A. Raymond Randolph wrote for the majority. "He therefore had no First Amendment right to disclose the tape to the media."

In his dissent, Judge David Sentelle said that under the ruling, "no one in the United States could communicate on this topic of public interest" because the information was illegally obtained.

The ruling upheld an earlier court decision assessing $60,000 in damages against McDermott and making him liable for more than $600,000 of Boehner's legal fees.

"When you break the law in pursuit of a political opponent, you've gone too far," Boehner said in a statement.

McDermott hinted that he may pursue an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Yesterday's ruling, McDermott said, "sharply limited the free-speech protections of the First Amendment in violation of binding Supreme Court precedent."