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US judge: White House aides can be subpoenaed
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    WASHINGTON — President Bush’s top advisers are not immune from congressional subpoenas, a federal judge ruled Thursday in an unprecedented dispute between the two political branches.
    Congressional Democrats called the ruling a ringing endorsement of the principle that nobody is above the law. They swiftly announced that the Bush officials who have defied their subpoenas, including Bush’s former top adviser Karl Rove, must appear as part of a probe of whether the White House directed the firings of nine federal prosecutors. Democrats announced plans to open hearings at the height of election season.
    The Bush administration was expected to appeal.
    In his ruling, U.S. District Judge John Bates said there’s no legal basis for Bush’s argument and that his former legal counsel, Harriet Miers, must appear before Congress. If she wants to refuse to testify, he said, she must do so in person. The committee also has sought to force testimony from White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten.
    ‘‘Harriet Miers is not immune from compelled congressional process; she is legally required to testify pursuant to a duly issued congressional subpoena,’’ Bates wrote. He said that both Bolten and Miers must give Congress all nonprivileged documents related to the firings.
    The ruling is a blow to the Bush administration’s efforts to bolster the power of the executive branch at the expense of the legislative branch. Disputes over congressional subpoenas are normally resolved through political compromise, not through the court system. Had Bush prevailed, it would have dramatically weakened congressional authority in oversight investigations.
    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called it ‘‘very good news for anyone who believes in the Constitution of the United States and the separation of powers, and checks and balances’’ and said the ruling applies as well to Rove, who like Miers and Bolten has been cited by the Judiciary Committee for contempt.
    ‘‘This decision should send a clear signal to the Bush administration that it must cooperate fully with Congress and that former administration officials Harriet Miers and Karl Rove must testify before Congress,’’ Pelosi said.
    White House spokesman Tony Fratto and Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said they were reviewing the opinion and declined immediate comment.
    The House Judiciary Committee’s senior Republican, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, said he was pleased the court ruled in Congress’ favor, but he cautioned that an ongoing showdown in federal court could ultimately curtail Congress’ powers, and he urged Democrats and the White House to strike an agreement.
    ‘‘Unfortunately, today’s victory may be short-lived,’’ Smith said in a statement. ‘‘If the administration appeals the ruling, our congressional prerogatives will once again be put at risk.’’
    The chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees quickly demanded that the White House officials subpoenaed appear before their panels.
    Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, signaled that hearings would commence in September on the controversy that scandalized the Justice Department and led to the resignation of a longtime presidential confidant, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
    ‘‘We look forward to the White House complying with this ruling and to scheduling future hearings with Ms. Miers and other witnesses who have relied on such claims,’’ Conyers said in a statement. ‘‘We hope that the defendants will accept this decision and expect that we will receive relevant documents and call Ms. Miers to testify in September.’’
    ‘‘I look forward to working with the White House and the Justice Department to coordinate the long overdue appearances,’’ said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
    Bates, who was appointed to the bench by Bush, issued a 93-page opinion that strongly rejected the administration’s legal arguments. He noted that the executive branch could not point to a single case in which courts held that White House aides were immune from congressional subpoenas.
    ‘‘That simple yet critical fact bears repeating: the asserted absolute immunity claim here is entirely unsupported by existing case law,’’ Bates wrote.
    Associated Press reporter Laurie Kellman contributed to this story.

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