A federal judge on Thursday rejected President Bush's contention that senior White House advisers are immune from subpoenas, siding with Congress' power to investigate the executive branch and handing a victory to Democrats probing the dismissal of nine federal prosecutors.
The unprecedented ruling undercut three presidential confidants who have defied congressional subpoenas for information that Bush says is protected by executive privilege. Democrats swiftly announced they would schedule hearings in September, at the height of election season.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House could soon vote on a contempt citation against one of the three officials, Karl Rove, formerly Bush's top adviser.
“It certainly strengthens our hand,” she said of the ruling. “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.”
That wasn't clear at all to the White House or Rove's attorney. Bush administration lawyers were reviewing the ruling and were widely expected to appeal. They also could seek a stay that would suspend any further congressional proceedings.
“We disagree with the district court's decision,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
With only a few months left in Bush's presidency, there appeared to be no sense of urgency to make the next move.
“I have not yet talked with anyone at the White House … and don't expect that this matter will be finally resolved in the very near future,” Rove attorney Robert Luskin said in an e-mail.
The case marked the first time Congress ever has gone to court to demand the testimony of White House aides.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge John Bates said there's no legal basis for Bush's argument and that Bush's former legal counsel, Miers, must appear before Congress.
If she wants to refuse to testify, Bates said, she must do so in person. The committee also has sought to force White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten to release documents on any role the White House may have played in the prosecutor firings.
Bates said that both Bolten and Miers must give Congress all nonprivileged documents related to the firings.
Bates, who was appointed to the bench by Bush, issued a 93-page opinion that strongly rejected the administration's legal arguments.
He said 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.