WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Monday rejected House Democrats' demands to force two of President Bush's top aides to cooperate with an investigation about the firings of nine federal prosecutors in 2006.
Time will run out on this year's congressional session before the battle between two branches of government can be resolved, according to the ruling by a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The ruling essentially pushes any resolution on the politically charged case until next year.
"The present dispute is of potentially great significance for the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches," wrote the panel of judges, two of whom were appointed by Republicans.
Still, the judges wrote, "Even if expedited, this controversy will not be fully and finally resolved by the judicial branch ... before the 110th Congress ends on January 3, 2009. At that time, the 110th House of Representatives will cease to exist as a legal entity, and the subpoenas it has issued will expire."
"In view of the above considerations, we see no reason to set the appeal," the panel concluded. "If the case becomes moot, we would be wasting the time of the court and the parties."
Monday's ruling blocks a July order by U.S. District Judge John Bates to force former White House counsel Harriet Miers to testify before the House Judiciary Committee and current presidential chief of staff Josh Bolten to turn over documents about the controversial firings.
Democrats say the firings, which led to the resignation of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last year, were politically motivated. That charge was backed up by an internal Justice Department investigation, which last week found "substantial evidence that partisan political considerations played a part in the removal of several of the U.S. attorneys."
The Justice Department has maintained that Congress can't force top White House aides to testify because it infringes on the executive branch's independence.
In a statement, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers indicated his committee would appeal, although he did not say whether it would do so after the start of the new congressional session in January.
"While the delay caused by this incorrect decision is unfortunate, at the end of the day, I believe Judge Bates' decision will be affirmed and that Harriet Miers and other key witness will appear before the House Judiciary Committee, and that we will get to the bottom of the Bush administration's disgraceful politicization of the Justice Department," said Conyers, D-Mich.
Lawyers for House Democrats have said they plan to continue the investigation during the next session _ meaning they will likely refile the subpoenas and demand anew to hear from Miers and Bolten. They also can appeal for a hearing by the full circuit court, but have acknowledged that would not likely happen before the end of the year.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the House panel, urged his Democratic counterparts to drop the case.
"The facts continue to show that there was no grand administration conspiracy in the dismissal of several U.S. attorneys," Smith said in a statement. "Rather than continue to waste the American people's time and money, I hope that next year House Democrats put partisan politics aside and focus on a real agenda that serves the American people."