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Fired U.S. attorneys case hits judicial roadblock

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Panel members say they need that information to help determine whether the Bush White House improperly politicized some of the nation's top federal prosecutor jobs.

The Bush administration argues that Mr. Bolten and Ms. Miers are immune from such requests due to executive privilege – the legal doctrine stating that discussions between a president and his advisers can be kept secret.

Congessional-White House disputes over executive privilege are fairly common, but most are settled short of a lawsuit, say analysts. Courts don't like to handle them, and for the disputants they take too much time, money, and attention away from other business.

They are generally settled in the political arena, with either Congress or the White House backing down. Or Congress can use other methods of trying to enforce compliance, including employing its power of the purse to withhold funds requested by the administration.

Judge leery of White House claims

At times in the June 23 hearing, Bates seemed skeptical of the administration's claims. In the case, the Justice Department is holding that senior presidential advisers under all circumstances are immune from congressional subpoenas.

But the judge also appeared to side with the argument that Congress perhaps had issued its subpoenas too quickly. Lawmakers could have refused to confirm further judicial nominees, he said, and waited to see if such pressure produced the desired testimony before rushing to the courthouse.

Bates even mentioned that the House could hold Miers and Bolten in contempt, and order their arrest and detention in the Capitol.

In response, House counsel Irvin B. Nathan said he doubted that arresting a member of the administration would bring a tidy end to such a dispute, and filing a lawsuit was a better way to proceed.

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