The Supreme Court said Monday it will settle a fight stemming from Vice President Dick Cheney's contacts with the energy industry as the Bush administration was drafting its energy policy.
The court agreed to hear an appeal from the administration, which is fighting a lawsuit over the relationships between industry and the panel Cheney assembled.
The watchdog group Judicial Watch and an environmental organization, the Sierra Club, had won permission from a lower court to gather records related to the energy task force.
The interest groups claim the task force's dealings should be open to the public.
The task force met for several months in 2001, and issued a report that favored opening more public lands to oil and gas drilling and proposes a wide range of other steps supported by industry.
The interest groups allege the industry representatives functioned as members of the government panel, which included Cabinet secretaries and lower-level government employees.
Judicial Watch sued the task force in July 2001, asking for names of task force participants, details of the group's workings and information about Cheney's involvement. The mainly conservative Judicial Watch made its name suing the Clinton administration, but has applied the same tactics to the Bush administration.
The Sierra Club sued later, seeking similar information, and the two lawsuits were joined.
The groups say the government is stonewalling, but the Bush administration claims its top leaders must be able to get candid information in private. Moreover, the administration claims that turning over the documents would mark a dangerous erosion of presidential power.
The high court will hear the case sometime in the spring, with a ruling expected by July.
The administration lost two rounds in federal court before appealing to the Supreme Court.
Demands for disclosure present serious constitutional issues about the separation of powers among the branches of government, Solicitor General Theodore Olson told the justices in an appeal. A federal judge who ordered some records released engaged in a "wholesale expansion" of federal law, he wrote.
"Legislative power and judicial power cannot extend to compelling the vice president to disclose ... the details of the process by which a president obtains information and advice from the vice president," the government's filing argued.
The Justice Department also said a federal appeals court erred when it rejected the government's arguments that the lawsuit would be an unconstitutional intrusion into White House business.
Claims of a constitutional conflict are overblown, and the government is merely delaying, lawyers for Judicial Watch told the high court.
The administration has "not been ordered to disclose any privileged or other information," and the government's objections are premature, the group's lawyers wrote.
Federal agencies have disclosed 39,000 pages of internal documents related to the work of Cheney's energy task force. The task force itself has turned over no materials.
Among the proposals in the Cheney energy plan: drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge and possibly reviving nuclear fuel reprocessing, which was abandoned in the 1970s as a nuclear proliferation threat.
The case is In re Cheney, 03-475.