If the court demands the release of the 10 pictures of Vincent Foster, it would set precedent for the Internet posting of autopsy photographs of U.S. soldiers killed overseas and public access to other private records, a Bush administration lawyer argued.
Attorney Patricia Millett said government files are packed with sensitive and personal information, and that an open records law requires "not maximum disclosure, but responsible disclosure."
The government and Foster's relatives are fighting the release of the photographs sought by a California attorney who says he suspects Foster was murdered.
"It's been 10 years. It's time to give this family some peace," the Fosters' attorney, James Hamilton, told the justices.
Foster, 48, was found dead of a gunshot to the head in a park in Virginia in 1993. The longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton was handling several personal legal matters for them at the time, including their investment in the Whitewater real estate venture.
Foster's widow, Lisa, has said he was severely depressed and afraid that seeking treatment could jeopardize his career.
The Supreme Court is weighing the family's privacy interest and the public's right to the information under the open records law known as the Freedom of Information Act.
The court's intervention brings fresh attention to conspiracy theories that Foster's death was part of a White House cover-up.
Allan Favish, the attorney who sought the information, said it was clear that officials made mistakes in declaring the death a suicide.
"I think the government can no longer be trusted to filter the raw evidence to the public in this case," he said during Wednesday's argument before the court.
The court's ruling, expected before next summer, will determine how much information the government can keep off-limits because of privacy concerns. Many of the justices said they were concerned about potential harm to family members.
The Bush administration told the court in a filing that thousands of pages of reports about the Foster death and more than 100 photographs have already been released, and five government investigations unanimously concluded that the death in 1993 was a suicide.
Favish says he believes that 10 photographs taken when Foster's body was discovered could reveal evidence that points to murder. He already has reviewed the photographs that have been released, and some are posted on his Web site.
Favish sought the pictures under the Freedom of Information Act, a law that allows reporters and others to get unclassified government records that officials would not otherwise release.
The Supreme Court will clarify the part of the law that allows officials to withhold information that could cause "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
Favish, 48, says he has spent $5,000 of his own money pursuing the photos.
"I'm just a citizen who's very concerned about the integrity of the nation's law enforcement agencies," he said. "The dominant media totally dropped the ball on this case."
He is specifically interested in seeing patterns of blood at the scene and a possible bullet hole in Foster's neck. That hole was reported by one of the first paramedics on scene, an observation that conflicts with official reports of a single shot fired into the mouth.
The case is Office of Independent Counsel v. Favish, 02-954.