Majority Democrats and the Bush administration are assessing a ruling Thursday by a federal court judge who said former White House aides do not enjoy absolute immunity from having to appear before Congress in response to a subpoena. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, the development comes after months of efforts by Democrats to compel testimony, and obtain documents from President Bush's former legal counsel and his current chief of staff.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received news of the judge's ruling just before she faced reporters at her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill.
"That is very good news for anyone who believes in the constitution of the United States, the separation of powers, and the system of checks and balances, so we will look forward to reading that ruling more closely and of course it has ramifications for other contempt initiatives that we are considering in the House," said Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi referred to the effort by Democratic-controlled committees to compel testimony by high-level former Bush administration officials on issues ranging from the Iraq war to allegations of politicization of the U.S. Justice Department.
Democrats have sought testimony from former presidential counsel Harriet Miers, and current chief of staff Joshua Bolten, in connection with the controversial firing of nine U.S. prosecutors nearly two years ago.
At issue is whether political motivations were behind the dismissals, something the White House strongly denies. But the matter was among the issues that forced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez from his position.
In refusing to testify to Congress, Miers cited the executive privilege claim protecting confidentiality of conversations involving top presidential aides, while Bolten refused hand over key documents.
Ruling on a case brought by the House Judiciary Committee, Federal District Court Judge John Bates said Miers is legally required to appear in person to assert any claim of immunity.
Another part of the struggle between Congress and the Executive branch over the question of immunity played out this past week.
The House Judiciary Committee followed its Senate counterpart in voting to cite the president's former key political advisor, Karl Rove, for contempt of Congress.
COMMITTEE CLERK: "Resolution recommending that the House of Representatives find Karl Rove in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply."
CONYERS: "This resolution recommends that the House pursue statutory contempt against Mr. Rove and pursue other legal remedies to enforce the subpoena as appropriate. It is regrettable, but it has become necessary to pursue this course because we have been left with no other option."
Rove refused to appear even to merely assert his claim that he is not bound by congressional subpoenas. Conyers called this a breach of process.
While the judge's Thursday ruling rejected the absolute immunity claim for senior presidential aides, it did not address and takes no position on what he called specific claims of executive privilege Miers and Bolten may assert.
Speaking to reporter, White House press secretary Dana Perino said the ruling does not mean senior advisors to the President are not entitled to immunity under any circumstances.
The administration can appeal the judge's decision, and Perino said it is under review by the White House Office of Legal Counsel and the Justice Department.
Congressman Conyers says he plans further hearings, hopefully to include Harriet Miers and, as he put it, others who have relied on such claims, while House Speaker Pelosi says she will be consulting with Conyers about next steps.