WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court refused Thursday to order the Bush administration to make public secret details of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force (search), but kept the case alive by sending it back to a lower court.
Justices said 7-2 that 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.
Justice Antonin Scalia (search) 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 M. Kennedy (search) wrote for the majority.
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.
The Sierra Club (search), a liberal environmental club, and Judicial Watch (search), a conservative legal group, sued. They argued that the public has a right to information about committees like Cheney's. 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.
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 suing groups allege 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.
Until the government produces some records it won't be clear who drafted the government's policies, lawyers for the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch argued.
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.