NBC News and news services
updated 3/18/2004 1:11:20 PM ET 2004-03-18T18:11:20

A defiant Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia refused Thursday to remove himself from a case involving Vice President Dick Cheney, a close friend, dismissing questions about a possible conflict of interest.

In a 21-page explanation of his decision, Scalia rejected a request by the Sierra Club, which said it was improper for Scalia to take a hunting trip with Cheney while the environmental group’s lawsuit involving the vice president was pending before the court.

Scalia said the remote Louisiana hunting camp used for a duck hunting and fishing trip “was not an intimate setting” and that the energy case was never discussed.

The justice said he was guilty only of hunting with a friend and taking a free plane ride to get there. “If it is reasonable to think that a Supreme Court justice can be bought so cheap, the nation is in deeper trouble than I had imagined,” Scalia wrote.

“My recusal is required if ... my impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” he said. “Why would that result follow from my being in a sizable group of persons, in a hunting camp with the vice president, where I never hunted with him in the same blind or had other opportunity for private conversation?”

Given the circumstances of the trip, Scalia wrote, the only possible reason for recusal would be his friendship with Cheney.

“A rule that required members of this court to remove themselves from cases in which the official actions of friends were at issue would be utterly disabling,” Scalia wrote.

Many Supreme Court justices get their jobs “precisely because they were friends of the incumbent president or other senior officials,” he wrote.

Supreme Court justices, unlike judges on other courts, decide for themselves if they have conflicts, and their decisions are final.

Justice says nothing improper about hunting trip
In its lawsuit before the Supreme Court, the Sierra Club is seeking information about private meetings of Cheney’s energy task force.

Pressure on Scalia to stay out of the case had mounted in recent weeks, with calls from dozens of newspapers for the conservative Reagan administration appointee to recuse to protect the court’s image of impartiality.

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Road map to the Supreme CourtSupreme Court justices, unlike judges on other courts, decide for themselves if they have conflicts, and their decisions are final.

Judges must disqualify themselves from cases in which their impartiality “might reasonably be questioned.” The Sierra Club asked for Scalia’s recusal in February, pointing to the “American public’s great concern about the continuing damage this affair is doing to the prestige and credibility of this court.”

Cheney wants to shield meeting details
Cheney is fighting to keep private the details of closed-door White House strategy sessions that produced the administration's energy policy. The Sierra Club and a watchdog group contend that industry executives helped shape the administration's energy policy. Supreme Court arguments in the case are scheduled for April 27.

In addition to the Sierra Club, Democrats in Congress and some legal ethicists have called on Scalia to stay out of the case.

In his unusual memo, Scalia cited past Supreme Court justices who socialized with administration officials and then decided cases in which those people were involved:

  • Byron White was close friends with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and went on skiing vacations with the Kennedy family to Colorado.
  • Robert Jackson had a close friendship with Franklin D. Roosevelt, spending a weekend at a country house with the president.

He also noted that the hunting trip to Louisiana was planned before the energy case reached the court.

The situation might be different if he were an appeals court judge, but on the Supreme Court that would leave eight justices to consider the case and create the possibility of a tie, Scalia wrote.

Cheney case involves ‘official action’
He also said his friendship with Cheney might be grounds for recusal if the personal fortune or freedom of Cheney was at stake.  But, he continued, "It has traditionally not been a ground for recusal where official action is at issue."

Scalia noted that he has stepped aside in another case this term -- one testing the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

For the first time, Scalia revealed details of his hunting trip with Cheney. Scalia was the go-between to invite Cheney to hunt with a Scalia friend, Wallace Carline, who owns an oil rig services firm, he wrote.

"I conveyed the invitation, with my own warm recommendation, in the spring of 2003 and received an acceptance," Scalia wrote.

When the time came for the January trip, Scalia and Cheney flew to Louisiana together on a government jet, accompanied by one of Scalia's sons and a son-in-law, Scalia wrote.

Scalia and Cheney are friends from their days working in the Ford administration, the justice  noted.

Scalia's explanation is online at www.supremecourtus.gov/whatsnew.html.

NBC News' correspondent Pete Williams and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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