Scalia told a gathering at Amherst College on Tuesday night there was nothing improper about his accompanying Cheney to Louisiana last month to hunt ducks. The trip came three weeks after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Bush administration's appeal in a case involving private meetings of Cheney's energy task force.
"It did not involve a lawsuit against Dick Cheney as a private individual," Scalia said in response to a question from the audience of about 600 people. "This was a government issue. It's acceptable practice to socialize with executive branch officials when there are not personal claims against them. That's all I'm going to say for now. Quack, quack."
Cheney wants to keep private the details of closed-door White House strategy sessions that produced the administration's energy policy. The administration is fighting a lawsuit brought by watchdog and environmental groups that contend that industry executives helped shape the administration's energy policy.
Democrats in Congress, some legal ethicists and dozens of newspaper editorials have called on Scalia to stay out of the case. None of the groups in the case has formally asked Scalia to recuse himself, though the Sierra Club has said it might.
Supreme Court justices, unlike judges on other courts, decide for themselves if they have conflicts, and their decisions are final.
Scalia had not publicly addressed the issue before his Tuesday speech in Amherst, Mass., where about a dozen people wearing black armbands protested. One held a sign that said "Let's go hunting."
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist had rebuffed Senate Democratic leaders last month who questioned the trip, saying that justices strive to follow federal laws that require judges to stay out of cases in which their impartiality might be questioned.
Other justices have been asked about the Cheney appeal. In Hawaii on Tuesday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would not say whether she thought Scalia should stay out of the case. While Ginsburg is one of the more liberal members of the court, she and the conservative Scalia are longtime friends.
Complimenting Scalia's hunting skills, Ginsburg told more than 300 people at a Rotary Club of Honolulu luncheon that a deer killed by her colleague made for mouthwatering venison served for New Year's, which the Scalias and Ginsburgs typically spend together.
"Justice Scalia has been more successful at deer hunting than he has at duck hunting," Ginsburg said to laughter.