WASHINGTON – The legal fight over access to the records of Vice President Dick Cheney's 2001 energy task force is back before a federal appeals court, seven months after the Supreme Court sidestepped the issue.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (search) was hearing arguments Thursday in the nearly 4-year-old fight over whether a federal open government law can be used to compel the Bush administration to publicly release records from meetings of the task force.
The Sierra Club (search) and Judicial Watch (search) are suing to get access to the records, claiming the public has a right to know what role energy company executives who met with task force officials played in crafting industry-friendly recommendations.
The Bush administration opposes producing any records, saying that privacy is important to ensure members of such panels can speak candidly. The administration also maintains that the formal makeup of the task force was limited to government officials. Federal law requires government panels to conduct their business in public, unless all members are government officials.
The groups that are suing allege that participants from industry effectively became members of the task force formulating the White House's energy policy. They complain they were shut out of the meetings.
When the case was last considered by the appeals court in 2003, a three-judge panel rejected government arguments that the lawsuit would be an unconstitutional intrusion on the operations of the presidency.
Democrats had hoped the Supreme Court would uphold that ruling and force the administration to reveal potentially embarrassing details about its relationship with energy company executives ahead of the November election.
But the court sent the case back last June, saying a federal district judge who ruled against the Bush administration demanded the opening of too much task force information. The high court also warned that the White House must be protected from "vexatious litigation" that might distract it from its duties.
This time, the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch say they will heed the Supreme Court's concerns and narrow the focus of the records they will seek.
The legal issues in the dispute were accompanied last year by questions about whether Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (search) should remove himself from the case because he had gone on a hunting trip with Cheney while the court was considering the case. Scalia refused to do so, and ultimately sided with the 7-2 majority opinion.
The task force 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. Most of the recommendations stalled in Congress.