U.S. Court Won't
by James Vicini, Reuters
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court refused Thursday to require Vice President Dick Cheney to disclose records of a 2001 task force he headed that critics say secretly formed energy policy favorable to the industry.
In a temporary victory for the government, the justices set aside a ruling that Cheney, a former energy industry executive, must comply with a federal judge's order to produce the internal White House documents or give a detailed explanation of what was withheld and why.
Democrats accuse the administration of excessive secrecy surrounding the task force of which President Bush put Cheney in charge. They said the force, which endorsed more oil and gas drilling and a revived nuclear energy program, favored the industry over environmental concerns.
The 7-2 ruling sent the case back to a U.S. appeals court for more hearings on the government's arguments. That means the case will remain active in the months leading up to the November elections.
"The Nixon legacy of secrecy is alive and well in the Bush White House," Phil Singer, a campaign spokesman for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, said in a statement. "The president should come clean and make this information public."
The Supreme Court case received widespread attention when Justice Antonin Scalia went on a duck-hunting trip with Cheney in January and then refused to remove himself from the case. He maintained his impartiality could not be questioned.
Scalia was among the justices in the majority. He joined a separate opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas that would go even further than the majority and order the federal judge to rule for the government.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the majority that the appeals court was wrong in concluding it lacked jurisdiction over the case.
"We note only that all courts should be mindful of the burdens imposed on the executive branch in any future proceedings," he wrote in the 21-page opinion. "Special considerations applicable to the president and the vice president suggest that the courts should be sensitive to requests by the government," Kennedy said.
White House Welcomes Ruling
White House spokesman Scott McClellan welcomed the ruling. "We believe that the president should be able to receive candid and unvarnished advice from his staff and advisers. It's an important principle."
The Sierra Club environmental group and the watchdog group Judicial Watch had sued to find out the names and positions of the task force members and to learn about their contacts with industry executives. They claimed Cheney, the former chief executive of energy and construction company Halliburton Co., drafted a policy that favored the industry by consulting executives, including Ken Lay, then a top Enron Corp. executive.
"The Supreme Court is essentially ducking the issue by sending it back to a lower court," said David Bookbinder, the Sierra Club's Washington legal director. "This ruling means that for now the public will remain in the dark about the Bush administration and energy industry executives' secret meetings about national energy policy," he said.
Kennedy ruled for the government in holding the appeals court has jurisdiction over the case, but he did not go as far as the government wanted in its second argument: that the law at issue, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, does not apply to the task force.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter said in dissent that the lawsuit should go forward and the federal judge should be allowed to consider what records should be released.
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