Supreme Court to rule on Cheney's right to withhold sources

The White House yesterday argued that the US Constitution gave President George Bush and his deputy Dick Cheney authority to make executive decisions without revealing to the public how they were made or who was consulted.

In what could be the most serious clash yet between the Bush administration and the US judicial system, the Supreme Court was yesterday asked to decide whether Mr Cheney should reveal the names of the industry executives he consulted when drawing up controversial energy policy. For almost three years, Mr Cheney has repeatedly refused to do this.

"This is a case about the separation of powers," the administration's senior lawyer, Solicitor General Theodore Olson, told the justices yesterday. The White House is portraying the case as a test of executive power, arguing that the forced disclosure of confidential records intrudes on a president's power to obtain honest information and advice.

Environmentalists and others interested in more transparent government claim that disclosure is the only way to ensure the administration did not provide special favours to energy industry groups that have made thousands of dollars in donations to Republican campaigns.

Controversy has been fuelled further by Justice Antonin Scalia's decision not to excuse himself from the hearing over his friendship with Mr Cheney. Several months ago it was revealed the two went on a duck-hunting trip in Louisiana on a government jet paid for by taxpayers.

In an unusual 21-page memorandum, Mr Scalia rejected a request by the environmental group, the Sierra Club, to step down. "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.

"A rule that required members of this court to remove themselves from cases in which the official actions of friends were at issue would be utterly disabling. [Many Supreme Court justices get their jobs] precisely because they were friends of the incumbent president or other senior officials."

The Supreme Court is the administration's last hope of keeping the records private. It has already lost two rounds of legal action in lower courts. A ruling is expected by July and if it supports a lower court's previous decision that the papers must be released, the administration would have to do so, just as the presidential election campaign hots up.

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