In a pair of rulings likely to have a profound impact on bedrock principles of American law, the Supreme Court on Thursday took away President Clinton's line-item veto authority - but also put some limits on the authority of Mr. Clinton's pursuer, independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
The line-item veto decision negated a 1997 law that potentially represented one of the largest shifts in power between branches of the US government since members of Congress wore knee breeches and wigs.
High Court justices ruled that there's no way around it: The Constitution says the president can only veto bills in their entirety. Striking out individual projects, as provided for by the line-item veto law, constitutes undue presidential intrusion into the congressional legislative process.
"This case was a big victory for framers of the Constitution," says Jamin Raskin, a law professor at American University here.
The decision involving Mr. Starr, by contrast, could be seen as a big victory for privacy and the US legal profession. Justices thwarted Starr's efforts to obtain notes taken by White House aide Vincent Foster's lawyer during a meeting just before Foster's 1993 suicide. The 6-to-3 decision means that the attorney-client privilege of secrecy holds even after the client's passing. If successful, Starr's attempt to break that shield would have had a lasting impact on the US legal profession, and on all Americans who at some point in their lives seek help for matters that have aspects they wish to keep confidential.
"Most experts in this field would have been dismayed by a contrary decision," says Kathleen Clark, an ethics professor at Washington University School of Law. "It is very significant ... it's not often that the Supreme Court rules on these legal ethics issues."
The line-item veto is the only piece of the original GOP Contract With America that Clinton supported. Indeed, the power to ink out parts of bills is something presidents of both parties have sought for decades. President Clinton and its GOP congressional backers billed the veto as a tool that could help keep the nation's budget in check, by making it harder to get expensive pork-barrel projects passed into law. They noted that many state governors have line-item authority - and that it has seldom been used as a bludgeon.
But opponents worried that all Congress had done was hand the president the new weapon to use in the longest-running institutional battle in America: Congress and the White House clashing on the budget. The president could finesse deals for almost everything he wanted, went this theory, by threatening key lawmakers with the demise of cherished district spending.
The veto was voted into law and went into effect Jan. 1, 1997. Immediately it was challenged by several members of Congress led by Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. A federal appeals judge supported Mr. Byrd, arguing the veto act was a "revolutionary" violation of the Constitution's requirement that powers of the executive and legislative bodies exist in separate spheres of influence.
The line-item case first reached the Supreme Court last spring. But the nine justices ruled 6-to-3 that until some damage or injury comes from the law, members of Congress do not have standing to sue. This year the court took up the case again when New York City and Western potato growers filed suit, arguing their interests were harmed by line-item cuts. By a 6-to-3 vote the justices said the Constitution does not allow for partial vetoes.
"This court takes a fairly strict view of the separation of powers where the Constitution's text is clear," says Michael Dorf, a constitutional expert at Columbia University.
"Congress tried to bend the Constitution. But that bend ... was really a break," says Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan.
Meanwhile, on the Foster case, the court said the attorney-client privilege "ordinarily will survive the death of the client," though it will not always trump the need for information in a criminal case. Starr is investigating whether administration aides lied about Hillary Clinton's role in the purge of the White House travel staff. There is evidence Foster discussed this matter with his attorney James Hamilton before his death.
* Staff writer Lawrence J. Goodrich contributed to this report.