Justices were being asked by the Bush administration Tuesday to let it keep private the records of Vice President Dick Cheney's work on a national energy strategy.
The White House is framing the case as a major test of executive power, arguing that the forced disclosure of confidential records intrudes on a president's power to get truthful advice.
"The case is another confrontation in a series of recent confrontations between the judicial and executive branches," says CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. "The federal courts have ordered the White House to turn over this information. Not only does the White House say it won't — it says the courts have no right to ask in the first place. But the Supreme Court gets the last word on that question and now they'll begin to answer it."
The dispute began in July 2001 when a government watchdog group sued over Cheney's private meetings. The case has never gone to trial, but a federal judge ordered the White House to begin turning over records two years ago.
The Bush administration has lost two rounds in federal court. If the Supreme Court makes it three, Cheney could have to reveal potentially embarrassing records just in time for the presidential election.
"They don't want anybody to know anything. What they are advocating is a view of the imperial presidency that we have not seen since the worst days of Watergate," David Bookbinder, the Sierra Club legal director, told CBS News. "This is not an issue of principle. The only principle that the Bush administration is expounding here is that no one is entitled to know anything about how it conducts its business."
The Sierra Club accuses the administration of shutting environmentalists out of the meetings while catering to energy industry executives and lobbyists.
"The vice president invited in the coal industry, the oil industry, the nuclear industry, to write the administration's energy policy," said Bookbinder. "If you look at the policy itself, it reads as if it were written by the oil, coal and nuclear industries."
Solicitor General Theodore Olson told the justices in court filings that no energy industry officials participated improperly in meetings. He maintains that forcing information about the sessions into the open violates the separation of powers among the branches of government.
"We don't think that our requests are burdensome," said Bookbinder. "All we're asking for is who attended the meetings."
The case requires the court to clarify a federal open-government law.
"It's hard to see much room for middle ground in this case," said Cohen. "Either the Justices are going to order the vice president to turn over this information or they won't. Either the concept of separation of powers applies to protect the White House from this requirement or it doesn't."
All nine members were hearing arguments, despite a controversy over a hunting trip Cheney took with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, an old friend, weeks after the high court agreed to hear Cheney's appeal.
Scalia, the vice president and two of Scalia's relatives flew together on a government jet to Louisiana for the duck hunt at a camp owned by an oil rig services executive.
CBS News Correspondent Barry Bagnato reports Scalia refuses to step down, insisting he will be impartial.
"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," Scalia wrote in rejecting the Sierra Club's request that he disqualify himself.
The case is Cheney v. U.S. District Court, 03-475.