WASHINGTON – Government watchdogs are raising concerns about a potential conflict of interest for Justice Antonin Scalia (search) because he had dinner and went on a hunting trip with Dick Cheney (search) while the Supreme Court was involved in a case about the vice president's energy task force.
Scalia and Cheney, longtime friends, had dinner at a restaurant on Maryland's Eastern Shore in November, two months after the Bush administration asked the justices to overrule a lower court's decision requiring White House to identify task force members.
The men went duck hunting in Louisiana this month, not long after the court agreed to hear the case.
Scalia says there is no reason to question his ability to judge the case fairly. Cheney's office referred questions about the propriety of the social encounters to Scalia and the court.
Watchdogs said Scalia and Cheney should have kept their distance until the court had ruled.
"It gives the appearance of a tainted process where decisions are not made on the merits where you have judges fraternizing with people before the court," said Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity (search).
Rogan Kersh, a Syracuse University political science professor, said Scalia should withdraw from the case. He said questions remain about the court's evenhandedness in the aftermath of its decision to stop the Florida recount, which gave the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush.
"There's the adage of where there's smoke, there's fire," Kersh said. "There may be no fire in this case. Supreme Court justices, more than any other actors in national politics, want to avoid even a whiff of smoke."
"It certainly raises questions about the appearance of impropriety, which is the standard that judges are held to," said David Bookbinder, the Sierra Club's Washington legal director.
The groups contend that industry executives, including former Enron chairman Ken Lay, helped shape the administration's energy policy.
Scalia, in a written statement to the Los Angeles Times for its story Saturday on the duck hunting trip, said: "I do not think my impartiality could reasonably be questioned." A court spokeswoman, Kathy Arberg, confirmed the statement Saturday and said Scalia would have nothing more to say.
In September, the administration asked the Supreme Court to overrule a lower court's ruling requiring public disclosure of task force members.
Two months later, Scalia and Cheney joined Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others for foie gras, lamb and crab cakes at a restaurant on Maryland's Eastern Shore, according to accounts of the dinner in The Star Democrat of Easton, Md., and The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md.
The court agreed to hear the case in December. Earlier this month, Cheney and Scalia spent several days in south Louisiana on a duck hunting trip.
Both Cheney and Bush are former energy company executives, and the administration-backed energy bill, which passed the House but stalled in the Senate, provides $21.5 billion in tax breaks for the energy industry.
The energy industry has contributed $4.7 million to Bush's two presidential campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group.
Scalia withdrew in October from the court's consideration of whether it is unconstitutional for public school children to pledge their allegiance to "one nation under God."
Scalia had told a religious group that courts went too far to keep religion out of public schools and other forums, and lawmakers rather than judges were better suited to decide the pledge question.