It has been 30 years since Watergate and a time when the public eye closely watched a court battle between the executive branch and Congress over disclosure of documents. In 1973, the special prosecutor investigating secretly recorded conversations in the Oval Office subpoenaed the tape recordings. President Nixon refused to release them, asserting executive privilege and a risk to national security. Some of the political backlash from Watergate resulted in the erosion of the doctrine of executive privilege.
Twenty years after Watergate, Bill Clinton took office as President in January 1993. Few would disagree that his was a scandal-ridden presidency that ultimately also resulted in legal decisions that weakened the presidency vis-a-vis the other branches of government.
Now, a court battle between the executive and legislative branches over what many constitutional scholars perceived as a case with significant separation of powers implications ends with the pendulum swinging in favor this time of the executive branch. Last Friday, the U.S. General Accounting Office dropped its lawsuit aimed at forcing Vice President Dick Cheney to publicly name his private advisers on an energy task force.
By declining to appeal a recent court ruling in favor of Mr. Cheney, Comptroller David Walker said he made his decision after consulting with congressional leaders and others, but added that "[w]e hope the GAO is never again put in the position of having to resort to the courts to obtain information that Congress needs to perform its constitutional duties." U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled in December that the GAO's lawsuit lacked the authority to force Mr. Cheney to surrender the records.
Representative John Dingell (D-MI), who joined Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) in seeking the information about the task force meetings, said he "would have preferred to keep fighting." Some constitutional scholars see the GAO's withdrawal as a "face saving" tactic that sets no bad appellate precedent for the GAO should it choose to fight at another time with the executive branch when there is not a GOP White House, a GOP Congress and a GOP-appointed Supreme Court majority.
The decision by the GAO not to appeal the federal court ruling does not affect a similar lawsuit seeking the same energy policy group information filed by several environmental and private watchdog groups.
To read more about Judge Bates' December decision, click here.February 12, 2003
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