WASHINGTON -- In a broadly worded legal opinion, the Justice Department has concluded that President Bush's former top lawyer, and possibly other senior White House officials, can ignore subpoenas from Congress to testify about the firings of U.S. attorneys.
The three-page opinion raises questions about whether the Justice Department would prosecute senior administration officials if Congress voted to hold them in contempt for not cooperating with the investigation into the firing last year of eight top prosecutors.
The opinion was prepared this week by the department's Office of Legal Counsel, in response to questions from former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers. She was subpoenaed to testify today before the House Judiciary Committee.
Miers told the committee in a letter faxed Tuesday night that she would not be appearing, citing the Justice memo and advice from the White House.
Under the law, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia decides whether to pursue contempt of Congress cases. While that official can exercise independent judgment, some legal experts said it might hard to ignore the opinion from the legal counsel office, whose decisions are often viewed as controlling throughout the federal government.
Others said that, as an alternative, lawmakers might seek the appointment of an independent special counsel to investigate any contempt charges.
The legal opinion surfaced as another former White House official, Sara M. Taylor, testified yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the U.S. attorney case. Taylor was the White House political director and reported to long-time Bush counselor Karl Rove.
Like Miers, Taylor was ordered by the White House this week not to answer Congress's questions concerning internal deliberations about the fired prosecutors.
During her appearance, however, and periodically consulting with her lawyer, she tried to walk a legal tightrope, answering what she described as "fact-based" questions, in an apparent effort to dissuade lawmakers from finding her in contempt.
She testified, for example, that she had never discussed the firings with Bush or attended meetings with the president where the issue was discussed.
"I don't believe that anybody in the White House did any wrongdoing," she said, describing the firings as "awkwardly handled."
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.