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US Supreme Court Takes Up Presidential Secrecy Case - 2004-04-27


The U.S. Supreme Court has heard an appeal Tuesday asking that Vice President Dick Cheney be forced to release information about an energy task force he chaired in 2001. National Correspondent Jim Malone has more on an important legal challenge concerning how much the public has a right to know about private policy deliberations within the government.

At issue is an energy task force Vice President Cheney headed in 2001. The task force was composed of government officials. But a watchdog group, called Judicial Watch, and an environmental organization, the Sierra Club, want to know how much influence officials from the energy industry had forming the Bush administration's energy policy.

During the nearly three-year legal battle over the task force, two federal courts have ruled against the administration, ordering the vice president to release the names of those who participated in the task force discussions.

Lawyers for the Sierra Club urged the Supreme Court to uphold those lower court rulings, and force the vice president to release information to the public.

Alan Morrison argued the case before the high court on behalf of the Sierra Club.

"The question is, do we have a product that was the product of duly elected and duly appointed government officials, or do we have a product that is a product of the energy industry? And I think that Congress is entitled to know that," he said. "I think the American people are entitled to know that."

The Sierra Club was joined in the lawsuit by the conservative legal watchdog group, Judicial Watch. The group's president, Tom Fitton, wants the high court to strike a blow for openness against an administration that he says appears to be obsessed with secrecy.

"This administration has taken this unnatural penchant for secrecy to an extreme, and we just hope they will, in the end, release the documents to the American people," he said. "There is no harm in providing a list of those who were involved in the task force."

A top lawyer in the Justice Department argued the administration's case before the high court. Solicitor General Ted Olson said the Constitution gives presidents and vice presidents the power to gather advice and make decisions, without having to reveal every detail of how they are made.

Vice President Cheney sees the case as a major test of the principle of separation of powers within the U.S. system of government, allowing the president to get frank advice, without concern that the information will be made available to the Congress, the courts or the public.

"If we start down that road, we are setting a terrible precedent," he said. "We are saying the vice president cannot have confidential meetings."

Justice Antonin Scalia was among the nine justices present for the oral argument. Justice Scalia rejected an earlier request from the Sierra Club that he not take part in the case because he had gone on a duck-hunting trip with Vice President Cheney in January. He said his friendship with the vice president would not undermine his ability to be impartial in the case.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in the case before the end of June.

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