The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U. S. Supreme Court today in the dispute over the denial of public access to the meetings of the national energy task force chaired by Vice-President Dick Cheney.
The media groups argue that news media and public access to the meetings would provide an invaluable window into the workings of the federal government and a check upon corruption and misconduct, and would not significantly interfere with the Constitutional duties of the President.
“The public needs to be assured that the government’s energy policy is not the subject of undue influence from any particular interest,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “The only way this can happen is if the public has access to the proceedings of the energy task force.”
The suit arose out of the January 2001 creation of the National Energy Policy Development Group by President George W. Bush, commonly called the energy task force. The task force, chaired by Vice-President Cheney, was exempted from the open meetings and open records requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act because it was supposed to consist entirely of full-time government employees.
The public interest groups Judicial Watch and Sierra Club filed separate lawsuits alleging that members of the energy industry were allowed to participate in the task force, making it an advisory committee subject to the act’s openness requirements. The lawsuits were combined in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
Cheney and the other federal defendants argued that the case against them should be dismissed because it would violate the constitutional principle of “separation of powers” for a court to apply the act to a group providing advice to the president. The district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. rejected this argument and ordered the defendants to proceed with discovery in the district court. The defendants then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The media groups filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to allow the case to proceed to trial so that the open government issues could be properly litigated.
In the brief, the Reporters Committee argues that the defendants’ interpretation of the doctrine of separation of powers and presidential privilege “not only totally ignores the doctrine of checks and balances, but would render FACA ineffective or useless. All the government would have to do to hide the activities of an advisory committee from the news media and the public would be to associate it with upper-level executive officials, and no court could even look behind that assertion into the actual workings of the committee.”
Oral argument is scheduled for April 27, 2004.
The friend-of-the-court brief can be found on the front page of the Reporters Committee Web site, or by going directly to www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20040311-cheneyvusd.pdf.html