WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court refused Thursday to force Vice President Cheney to turn over secret details about a secret energy task force.
The 7-2 ruling gave the Bush administration a temporary victory in an election year by sending the case back to an appeals court for more arguments.
The Sierra Club, a liberal environmental organization, and Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group, sought information about the members of the task force, which helped devise President Bush's energy plan in 2001.
The groups are critical of the task force because they believe Cheney invited energy industry leaders to participate in discussions but excluded environmentalists. Cheney is former chief executive of Halliburton, an energy and construction company.
The dispute has been overshadowed by Justice Antonin Scalia's refusal to recuse himself from the case. Scalia, a friend of Cheney's, went duck hunting with the vice president after the court decided to hear the case.
Scalia sided with the majority Thursday. He also joined a concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, who said the case should have been thrown out by the trial judge early on.
At issue is the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires agencies to conduct public meetings unless all members of a panel are government officials.
The Sierra Club and Judicial Watch need the records to determine who was involved — and to what extent — in task force recommendations that were viewed as friendly to the energy industry.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan welcomed the court decision. "We believe that the president should be able to receive candid and unvarnished advice from staff and advisers. It's an important principle," he said. "We'll be looking at the decision."
Lawyers for the Sierra Club also viewed the ruling as a victory because the case goes back to the lower court. "We're still alive," Alan Morrison said.
The appeals court in Washington must now decide whether a trial judge allowed the public-interest groups to ask for too much information from the government.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the appeals court was wrong when it ruled that it lacked jurisdiction because the government had not asserted executive privilege in resisting the information requests.
He said the lower court should conduct further arguments while giving deference to the government when it is faced with broad requests for details about its deliberations.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a dissent that the government did not ask the trial judge to narrow the so-called discovery request. Nor, she said, did the government provide specific reasons for refusing the requests.
Instead, Ginsburg said, the government argued that the groups "could have no discovery at all."
Other top court action
Underscored, on a 5-4 vote, that the constitutional right to a jury trial means a judge cannot act alone to tack additional time onto a convict's sentence. The court overturned the sentence of a Washington state man for kidnapping his estranged wife in 1998.
Refused on a 5-4 vote to overturn the death sentences of more than 100 inmates who were sentenced by judges. The court refused to retroactively apply a 2002 ruling that found that jurors, not judges, should consider factors that determine whether a conviction merits the death sentence or life in prison.
Ruled 6-3 that Texas death row inmate Robert Tennard deserves another chance to challenge his sentence. The decision could affect several dozen Texas death row inmates who claim they have very low IQs and were not given enough chance to present mitigating evidence to a jury.