WASHINGTON, DC, July 12, 2002 (ENS) - A federal judge has ruled that a public interest lawsuit seeking documents from the White House Energy Task Force may proceed.
Judge Emmet Sullivan issued an opinion Wednesday allowing the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch to proceed with their suits challenging the administration's attempts to keep Vice President Richard Cheney's task force meetings with energy industry executives secret. Last year, the task force produced a national energy policy that relies heavily on energy production from fossil fuels like oil and coal, and from nuclear power plants.
The Sierra Club filed its lawsuit after the Bush administration refused to divulge how much influence energy companies had in crafting the nation's energy policy. The administration refused to release information about meetings with industry representatives, despite numerous requests from Congress and a variety of public interest groups.
In his opinion, Judge Sullivan wrote that Cheney and his co-defendants were seeking a ruling from him that "would eviscerate the understanding of checks and balances between the three branches of government on which our constitutional order depends."
The judge chastised the Justice Department lawyers for attempting to mislead the court, writing that, "the fact that the government has stubbornly refused to acknowledge the existing controlling law in at least two cases, does not strike this Court as a coincidence. One or two isolated mis-citations or misleading interpretations of precedent are forgivable mistakes of busy counsel, but a consistent pattern of misconstruing precedent presents a much more serious concern."
Before explaining precisely why further factual development is necessary to effectively resolve the constitutional question here, first the Court must briefly discuss the proper legal standard to apply to separation of powers conflicts. Defendants have repeatedly invoked an incorrect constitutional standard in this case, a standard that would increase Executive power at the expense of the other branches of government. Defendants have made these arguments despite previous concessions of defense counsel that their preferred standard did not reflect the governing law. The government's oscillations before this Court reflect what appears to be a problematic and unprecedented assertion, even in the face of contrary precedent, of Executive power. To borrow the words of the D.C. Circuit in Nixon v. Sirica, "[s]upport for this kind of mischief simply cannot be spun from incantation of the doctrine of separation of powers." 487 F.2d 700, 715 (D.C. Cir. 1973).
The implications of the bright-line rule advocated by the government are stunning. Even if this Court were to consider the question of what separation of powers standard to apply without the benefit of precedent, it would reach the conclusion that the government's position is untenable. Any action by Congress or the Judiciary that intrudes on the president's ability to recommend legislation to Congress or get advice from Cabinet members in any way would necessarily violate the Constitution. The Freedom of Information Act and other open government laws would therefore constitute an unconstitutional interference with Executive authority. [...] Clearly, this is not the law. Such a ruling would eviscerate the understanding of checks and balances between the three branches of government on which our constitutional order depends.