Video: Decision on Cheney records staff and news service reports
updated 6/24/2004 2:41:29 PM ET 2004-06-24T18:41:29

The Supreme Court refused Thursday to order the Bush administration to make public secret details of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, but kept the case alive by sending it back to a lower court.

The justices, in a 7-2 decision, said a lower court should consider whether a federal open government law could be used to get documents of the task force.

The decision extends the legal fight over the information.

Justices could have allowed a judge to immediately move ahead with ordering the release of the papers.

The issues in the case have been overshadowed by conflict-of-interest questions about one justice.

Scalia refused to recuse himself
Justice Antonin Scalia had defiantly refused to step down from hearing the case involving Cheney, despite criticism that his impartiality has been brought into question because of a hunting vacation that he took with Cheney will the court was considering the vice president's appeal.

"Special considerations applicable to the president and the vice president suggest that the courts should be sensitive to requests by the government" in such special appeals, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Thursday that while the White House hasn't had a chance to review the decision, it is pleased with the 7-2 decision that he says affirms the Bush administration's decision. "We believe the president should be able to receive candid and unvarnished advice from his staff and advisers. It's an important principle," McClellan said.

But the Sierra Club, one of two parties that brought the lawsuit, said the high court ducked the issue by sending the case back to the lower court.

"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," said David Bookbinder, the environmental organization's legal director.

At issue was a 1972 open government law, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires government panels to conduct their business in public, unless all members are government officials.

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Until the government produces some records, it won't be clear who drafted the government's policies, lawyers for the suing groups argued.

Bush put Cheney in charge of task force
Shortly after taking office, President Bush put Cheney, a former energy industry executive, in charge of the task force which, after a series of private meetings in 2001, produced recommendations generally friendly to industry.

Road map to the Supreme Court

The Sierra Club and Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group, sued, arguing that the industry representatives in effect functioned as members of the government panel, which included Cabinet secretaries and lower-level administration employees. The open government law requires advisory committees with non-government members to conduct their business in public, and allow the public to inspect their records.

The organizations contended that environmentalists were shut out of the meetings, while executives like former Enron Corp. Chairman Kenneth Lay were key task force players.

The Bush administration argued that privacy is important for candid White House discussions on difficult issues. The high court did not specifically address that question, however.

Case was potential election-year problem
The case had become a potentially embarrassing election-year problem for the administration.

Thursday's decision buys the administration more time. If it loses in the appeals court, the administration can return to the Supreme Court in another extended appeal before having to release information as to whether Cheney's task force was cozy with energy executives, including those with his former company, Halliburton.

The campaign of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry urged the administration to short-circuit the appeals process by releasing the documents.

“The Nixon legacy of secrecy is alive and well in the Bush White House,” Phil Singer, a John Kerry spokesman, said in a statement. “The president should come clean and make this information public.”

The Sierra Club had asked Scalia to stay out of the case, because the justice flew with Cheney to hunt in Louisiana in January, weeks after the high court agreed to hear the vice president's appeal. Dozens of newspapers also called for his recusal.

Scalia, a Reagan administration appointee and close friend of the vice president, had said the duck hunting trip was acceptable socializing that wouldn't cloud his judgment. "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," he wrote in an unusual 21-page memo.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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