Justices to rule on secrecy of energy task force

Supreme Court to decide whether Cheney panel must reveal its workings

December 16, 2003|By Jan C. Greenburg | Jan C. Greenburg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to step into a lawsuit by two public interest groups that argue that Vice President Dick Cheney cannot flatly refuse to disclose information about the workings of his confidential energy task force.

The groups, Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club, say energy industry officials might have had undue influence on the task force's recommendations and administration energy policy.

They sued in 2001 to get more details about the task force's membership and how it made its recommendations.

The White House makes sweeping constitutional arguments against disclosure, saying that revealing details about the task force's operations would interfere with the president's authority, including his ability to get confidential advice.

The decision yesterday raises the prospect of White House lawyers arguing before the justices next spring that giving activist groups access to such information as whom the task force consulted and what was discussed would violate the Constitution's view of how the presidency should operate.

Lower courts rejected those arguments, noting that the administration had never claimed that any of the disputed material was privileged and therefore protected from disclosure.

One federal appeals court judge said the administration's broad assertion of confidentiality was an "extraordinary proposition" supported by "no legal authority."

The energy task force, created by President Bush shortly after he took office, was politically sensitive from the outset. To critics, it highlighted the Bush team's close ties to the oil industry: both Bush and Cheney had been oil company executives.

The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, at one point filed an unprecedented lawsuit against Cheney's office in an attempt to get more information about the task force, though that suit was ultimately thrown out.

The collapse of energy giant Enron Corp. intensified the scrutiny, and the White House acknowledged under pressure that Cheney or his staff met six times with representatives from that Houston-based company as policy was being developed.

The task force's report ultimately led to a broad energy bill, which critics say is far too generous in its tax breaks to the oil and gas industry. Democrats, and a handful of Republicans, succeeded in blocking the bill in late November, but GOP congressional leaders promise to try to push it through next year.

The suit that the Supreme Court will consider was filed by two groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum - the generally liberal Sierra Club and the generally conservative Judicial Watch, a government ethics watchdog.

Despite their differing political stands, both insist the White House needs to disclose more about the task force.

Administration lawyers sharply disagree, arguing in court papers that the case presents "fundamental separation-of-powers questions" arising from the lower court's order that the White House must comply with the groups' document requests.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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