WASHINGTON – The Bush administration ran into strong opposition in a federal appeals court Thursday as government lawyers tried to stop a lawsuit delving into Vice President Dick Cheney's contacts with energy industry executives and lobbyists.
Appeals judges Harry Edwards and David Tatel suggested the White House had no legal basis for asking them to block a lower court judge from letting the case proceed.
"You have no authority" to ask the appeals court to intervene, Edwards told a government attorney during arguments. He added later, "You have no case."
The appeals judges gave no indication when they would issue a ruling. The administration has taken the unusual step of coming to the appeals court in the midst of the case.
Federal agencies have disclosed 39,000 pages of internal documents related to the work of Cheney's energy task force, which itself has produced nothing, claiming the need for confidential advice to the president from his top advisers.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan has ruled that the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch may be entitled to a limited amount of information about the meetings that Cheney and his aides had with the energy industry in formulating the White House's energy plan.
The plan, adopted four months after President Bush took office, favored opening up public lands to oil and gas drilling and a wide range of other steps backed by industry.
The few meetings the Bush White House has acknowledged having relating to the work of Cheney's task force were those with Enron Corp. executives. Company representatives met six times with Cheney or his aides on the nation's energy policy, including a half-hour discussion between the vice president and then-Enron chairman Ken Lay. After meeting with Lay, Cheney said the administration would not support price caps on wholesale energy sales in California.
Edwards, a Carter-era appointee, and Tatel, an appointee of President Clinton, said the administration has failed to show that it is suffering legal harm at the hands of the lower court.
The third member of the panel, Appeals Judge A. Raymond Randolph, expressed doubt that the Cheney task force is required under the law to disclose information about its inner workings. However, Randolph, an appointee of Bush's father, questioned whether the administration should be seeking appeals court intervention.
Tatel and Edwards pressed the government on why it hadn't sought to narrow the scope of information requests rather than simply trying to block them altogether.
The government's position is that the current record in the case is sufficient.
The administration says it has demonstrated that the makeup of the task force was limited to government officials. But the groups that are suing allege that participants from industry effectively became members of the task force in assembling the White House's energy policy.