U.S. District Court Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer, calling a controversy over five coal leases in North Dakota a "Supreme Court-sized problem," heard arguments here yesterday on whether Interior Secretary James G. Watt acted properly in issuing the leases in defiance of a House Interior Committee resolution to postpone the sales.
Watt has argued that the panel's directive in August is invalid and cited a Supreme Court ruling June 23 that struck down the right of either congressional chamber to veto actions by the executive branch.
Lawyers for committee Chairman Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) and the National Wildlife Federation argued yesterday at a two-hour hearing that the Supreme Court decision does not extend to Congress' constitutional powers to exert absolute control over the disposition of federal lands.
Oberdorfer, who temporarily blocked the leases Sept. 16, said yesterday that he would act so either side can appeal his decision by Friday, the date Watt has said he will issue the leases. Oberdorfer's 10-day restraining order expires Thursday.
Oberdorfer, who called himself a "way station in this matter," said the case, which raises a constitutional question involving powers of the executive and legislative branches, is not something he believes that he will decide.
"I'm not going to duck" the issue, Oberdorfer told both sides at the end of the hearing, "but I'm not the last word any more than the secretary is . . . . I don't know how the Supreme Court will resolve this case."
The House and Senate, in response to growing controversy about Watt's coal leasing program, have passed legislation declaring a moratorium on coal leasing starting Saturday. That legislation is in conference committee. G. Robert Witmer Jr., an attorney for the wildlife organization, and House counsel Stanley Brand argued that Congress in this case was not exercising its legislative veto powers, the subject of the Supreme Court ruling, but rather its broad police powers to control federal lands and its powers to collect information or subpoena witnesses before passing a law.
Article IV of the Constitution says, "The Congress shall have the power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States."
In this instance, Brand and Witmer argued, Congress was not challenging Watt's authority to issue leases, only asking that he wait a limited period of time to report to Congress and allow it to assess the situation.
Justice Department attorney Robert D. Daniel said the Supreme Court ruling clearly applies to the Interior Committee's resolution.
Daniel said the committee acted after the Senate and House declined to pass a moratorium on coal leasing for the current fiscal year, which ends Friday.
He argued that, if the Supreme Court held that the full House could not veto a specific action by the executive branch, then one committee of one chamber could not do so.