INSLAW, a small computer software company in this city, has been involved in a legal dispute with the Justice Department for more than six years. This week the matter was taken up in a new forum, the House Judiciary Committee, and the potential for a clash between the legislative and executive branches is escalating. The company developed software that enabled U.S. Attorneys' offices all across the country to keep track of cases and signed a contract with the government in March of 1982. There were problems from the beginning, and the agreement was terminated two years later. The company was forced to file for bankruptcy, and its officers charged that they were driven out of business by Justice Department lawyers who wanted, in effect, to steal their product and award the contract to friends with contacts inside the department. A bankruptcy judge ruled in favor of INSLAW, finding that the department "took, converted and stole" INSLAW's property "by trickery, fraud and deceit." The U.S. District Court here upheld that finding and ordered the government to pay millions in damages. That case is now on appeal.

Not surprisingly, Congress became concerned about this apparent scandal. The Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations conducted an inquiry, but it was hamstrung by the refusal of Justice Department officials to cooperate. The House Judiciary Committee is proving to be a tougher adversary. While Attorney General Dick Thornburgh initially promised to assist the committee, he has now taken a position that hundreds of documents relevant to the investigation cannot be made available because the case is still in litigation. On Wednesday chairman Jack Brooks held a public hearing on the matter at which Steven Ross, the institutional lawyer for the House, cited numerous precedents against the department's reasoning. It's a good bet that when Congress reconvenes, the committee will subpoena the documents.

It's hard to understand why the attorney general is refusing to cooperate. No one has asked that the material sought be made public or shared with INSLAW's lawyers. The investigation is not about the conduct of private citizens but alleged wrongdoing by government lawyers, and the charges are extremely serious. The Judiciary Committee has not only the right but the responsibility to look into these allegations, and the department's stonewalling only undermines its own credibility, not just with the committee that oversees the department's operations but with the public as well.