The Supreme Court Monday let stand a ruling that says presidential confidant Bruce Lindsey and other White House lawyers cannot refuse to answer a federal grand jury's questions about possible criminal conduct by government officials.
Rejecting a White House appeal that stems from an investigation of the president's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the court turned away arguments that the attorney-client privilege of confidentiality extends to a president's White House lawyers.
CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller reports that Counsel to the President Charles Ruff says the White House is disppointed by the decision.
"We continue to believe that the attorney-client privilege should protect conversations between government officials and government attorneys," Ruff said in a written statement.
"The American people benefit from decisions made by government officials, including the president, on the basis of full and frank information and discussion," Ruff's statement said.
A federal appeals court panel, voting 2-1 last July, ruled that Lindsey cannot invoke the privilege "to withhold information relating to a federal criminal offense."
In a separate case, the court refused to shield Secret Service officers from having to testify to federal grand juries about information they learn while protecting the president.
Both cases were rejected by 7-2 votes.
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A federal judge and a three-judge appeals court panel previously ruled against the administration's claim of privilege, and more than a dozen Secret Service members testified before the grand jury investigating Mr. Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky, a former White House intern.
In the lawyer-privilege case, the justices were told, "We stand now upon the brink of the most serious confrontation between branches of government contemplated in our constitutional order.
"The president's need for confidential consultations with White House counsel in preparation for proceedings designed to remove him from office can scarcely be questioned," the justices were told by W. Neil Eggleston, a private lawyer for Clinton, and by White House lawyer Charles Ruff.
The appeals court panel ruled that the privilege does not apply to the official legal advice given by government lawyers. "The public interest in honest government and in exposing wrongdoing by government officials ... leato the conclusion that a government attorney may not invoke the attorney-client privilege" in criminal investigations, the lower court said.
Judges Judith Rogers, a Clinton appointee, and Bush appointee A. Raymond Randolph comprised the panel's majority. Judge David Tatel, another Clinton appointee, dissented. He said the ruling would force presidents to confide in private lawyers rather than White House counsel.
The July decision left open the possibility that Lindsey could invoke executive privilege in refusing to answer grand jury questions.
Lindsey, who advised Mr. Clinton throughout the Lewinsky investigation conducted by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, has appeared before a federal grand jury four times, most recently in August. He has refused to answer certain questions each time.
Two other White House lawyers also have balked at answering Starr's questions.
Starr urged the justices to reject the appeal. "The historical and legal foundations for the White House's privilege claim are nonexistent," he argued. "To our knowledge, no case, statute, rule or agency opinion ever has concluded that a department or agency of the United States (or any state government entity) can maintain a governmental attorney-client privilege in federal criminal or grand jury proceedings," he said.
Such privileges shield spouses from having to testify against each other, and also protect confidentiality between lawyers and their clients, doctors and their patients, clergy and the people they give spiritual advice.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, the highest court's only two Clinton appointees, voted to grant review to both administration appeals.