Claims of cronyism force Bush to defend choice for Supreme Court

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The Independent US

As he tries to emerge from the roughest stretch of his presidency, Mr Bush was hoping that, by choosing his White House Counsel, Harriet Miers, for the Supreme Court, he would secure another much-needed political boost to add to the convincing confirmation of John Roberts as the new Chief Justice.

Instead, he is being assailed by some conservatives - normally his most steadfast supporters - for missing a chance to set the court on a firmly rightward path and seeming to indulge, yet again, in the vice of cronyism.

The President had been handed "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to return the court to constitutionalism", the staunch conservative Patrick Buchanan, a former White House candidate, commented accidly. But "George Bush passed over a dozen of the finest jurists of his day - to name his personal lawyer."

Mr Bush was forced to devote fully half of his hour-long press conference to making the conservative case for Ms Miers, calling her a "strict constitutionalist" who would not seek to broaden the law by legislating from the bench. And, he insisted, "She won't change."

Mr Bush also rejected charges of cronyism, saying: "I picked the best person I could find." He described Ms Miers as "enormously qualified", even though she has never sat on the bench and seems less obviously qualified than several other candidates touted for the vacancy.

The appointment could drag the White House into another bruising political battle. Although Democrats have generally given a cautious welcome to Ms Miers - to the irritation of conservatives - they are bound to seek documents setting out her advice to Mr Bush, to gain an idea of her thinking on the main issues.

Mr Bush made clear yesterday he would refuse any such move. To do so, the President contended, would violate the doctrine of "executive privilege," and discourage people from giving frank advice to the President.

Polls in recent days suggest Mr Bush's ratings have recovered from the nadir they reached after Hurricane Katrina, edging up to about 45 per cent from under 40 per cent when the criticism of the administration's botched response to the storm was at its height.

But the new charges against Mr DeLay could again sap the authority of the White House by further discrediting the Republican leader who did more than anyone to drive through Mr Bush's legislative agenda on Capitol Hill.

The second indictment involves the same alleged campaign finance irregularities in his home state of Texas that forced Mr DeLay to step down as House majority leader last week - and drew a similar scornful dismissal from Mr DeLay.

"An abomination of justice" and "unbelievable" was how Mr DeLay described the new charge, which relates to $190,000 (£90,000) raised by a Texas political action committee that he founded. The money was was sent to Washington and then back to Texas to fund the Republican campaign in the 2002 elections to the state legislature, in breach of Texas law.

But some experts say the second indictment, for money-laundering, is more serious than the first alleging conspiracy, always a difficult charge to prove. Mr DeLay's arraignment has been set for 21 October but his lawyers have been claiming a judge would throw out the charge and he would soon be back in his old job as if nothing had happened.

That now looks less likely. Mr Delay may also have a fight on his hands to retain his House seat, in a suburban Houston district where his majority has narrowed in recent years, to just 55 per cent in 2004.

Unless he is swiftly exonerated, political analysts say, he could be defeated in November 2006.