The Obama administration doesn’t hide its contempt for Congress, independent agencies, watchdog groups, the media and whistle-blowers. Now a federal judge has found the administration in contempt of court. It’s about time.
The case, Hornbeck Offshore Services v. Salazar, centers on a company challenging the moratorium on deep-water drilling imposed after the BP oil spill. On June 22, U.S. District Judge Martin L.C. Feldman ordered Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar not to enforce the moratorium because it appeared “arbitrary and capricious and, therefore, unlawful.” The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the order. Mr. Salazar got around the injunction by rewording a few technical terms and issuing a second moratorium four days later. Even after that second moratorium was lifted on Oct. 12, no deep-water and only a few shallow-water permits have been issued.
Suffering from loss of business, Hornbeck asked Judge Feldman to force the government to pay its attorneys fees, and on Wednesday he agreed on the basis that the administration was in civil contempt. “Each step the government took following the Court’s imposition of a preliminary injunction showcases its defiance,” the judge wrote. “Such dismissive conduct, viewed in tandem with the re-imposition of a second blanket and substantively identical moratorium … provides this Court with clear and convincing evidence of the government’s contempt.”
When the executive branch is in contempt, it tempts a constitutional confrontation. In this drilling case, more than a balanced separation of powers is at stake; our faltering economy is involved too. “As a result [of the moratorium],” said Jim Adams, president of the Offshore Marine Service Association, “thousands of workers are out of jobs, Americans are paying more for gasoline and heating oil, and our nation is becoming even more dependent on unstable nations for our energy needs.” The last thing Americans need is for everyday prices to go up. Before the unrest in Egypt, gasoline already had jumped above $3 per gallon. Mr. Obama’s policies against domestic fuel production hardly relieve demand pressures.
The White House is not a supreme branch of government. The administration must play by the same rules as everyone else. Judge Feldman has warned Mr. Obama that presidential authority is limited by the law.