updated 12/16/2003 12:58:22 AM ET 2003-12-16T05:58:22

The Supreme Court said Monday it will settle a fight over whether Vice President Dick Cheney must disclose details about secret contacts with energy industry officials as the Bush administration drafted its energy policy.

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The court agreed to hear an appeal from the administration, which is fighting a lawsuit brought by watchdog and environmental groups over the energy task force Cheney assembled. The panel met for several months in 2001 and issued a report that favored opening more public lands to oil and gas drilling and proposed a range of other steps supported by industry.

The lawsuit seeks to force the administration to provide details about the panel’s records and inner workings. The groups allege the industry representatives in effect functioned as members of the government panel, which included Cabinet secretaries and lower-level administration employees.

The watchdog group Judicial Watch and an environmental organization, the Sierra Club, had won permission from a lower court to gather records related to the energy task force.

Judicial Watch sued in July 2001, asking for names of task force participants, details of the group’s workings and information about Cheney’s involvement. The Sierra Club sued later, seeking similar information, and the two lawsuits were joined.

“We’re hoping at the end of this process the court is going to remind the vice president that he’s not above the law,” said Sierra Club lawyer David Bookbinder. “That’s the claim he’s been making throughout this process, that he is simply immune from any inquiry into his activities.”

Focus on confidentiality
The administration argues that the constitutional need for the president to receive candid advice demands confidentiality. If the lawsuit is successful, the administration says people may be unwilling to talk openly for fear the comments will become public.

Moreover, the administration said turning over the documents would mark a dangerous erosion of presidential power.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan sided with the groups and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit declined to intervene. The Supreme Court will hear the case sometime in the spring, with a ruling expected by July.

Demands for disclosure present serious constitutional issues about the separation of powers among the branches of government, Solicitor General Theodore Olson told the justices in an appeal. When Sullivan ordered some records released he engaged in a “wholesale expansion” of federal law, Olson wrote.

“Legislative power and judicial power cannot extend to compelling the vice president to disclose ... the details of the process by which a president obtains information and advice from the vice president,” Olson said.

Claims of a constitutional conflict are overblown, and the government is merely delaying, lawyers for Judicial Watch told the high court. The administration has “not been ordered to disclose any privileged or other information,” and the government’s objections are premature, the group’s lawyers wrote.

Federal agencies have disclosed 39,000 pages of internal documents related to the work of Cheney’s energy task force. The task force itself has turned over no materials.

Among the proposals in the Cheney energy plan: drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge and possibly reviving nuclear fuel reprocessing, which was abandoned in the 1970s as a nuclear proliferation threat. Neither idea has been adopted.

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