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Land deal gets new scrutiny as Bush resists requests on Miers' work

WASHINGTON—The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Monday that he wanted to probe a land-condemnation proceeding in 1999 that awarded Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers more than $100,000 for a half-acre of family-owned land in Dallas.

The amount, more than 10 times the land's market value, was determined by a three-person panel that included a close associate of Miers' and that was appointed by a judge who'd received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from her law firm. The transaction was described in a Knight Ridder article Sunday.

"The story contained some allegations that I think require investigation," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

The land deal added a new wrinkle to a nomination that appeared Monday to put President Bush on a collision course with Senate Democrats and Republicans over the release of documentation about Miers' work as White House counsel.

Providing such documents, Bush said Monday, "would make it impossible for me and other presidents to be able to make sound decisions."

"In other words, they've asked for paperwork about the decision-making process, what her recommendations were," Bush said. "And that would breach very important confidentiality, and it's a red line I'm not willing to cross."

Specter said he was willing to limit his request to a description of the issues Miers handled at the White House, not details of her advice on those topics. He said that even a list of subject matters would help the Senate determine what legal cases Miers might have to decline to hear if she were to become a Supreme Court justice.

"We're very mindful of executive privilege," Specter said. "If you take, say, advice that Ms. Miers gave the president on his constitutional authority to hold detainees in Guantanamo, that would be executive privilege. If on the other hand you want to know if she gave him advice on Guantanamo, that would not be executive privilege."

Specter and the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, asked Miers last week to submit expanded answers to an earlier committee questionnaire. One of the questions requested "all reports, memoranda or policy statements prepared, produced with your participation, or produced under your guidance during the time in which you served in any public office, including ... any of your positions in the White House."

The deadline for her response is Wednesday.

Lawmakers have been circulating a letter from 75 law professors that argues that executive privilege isn't absolute. They said Miers' scant public record made it important for the White House to provide the Senate with some documentation of her work.

"President Bush should not be able to invoke executive privilege to prevent the Senate from fulfilling its constitutional duty to evaluate a nominee for the nation's highest court," the professors wrote.

In a statement after he spoke to reporters Monday, Specter said: "I believe that if Ms. Miers does well at her hearing that she can be confirmed without touching on the issue of executive privilege. The Senate has not asked for anything falling under executive privilege."

Miers also took another hit from conservative critics Monday, who launched a Web site, WithdrawMiers.org, calling on her to step aside and let Bush nominate a proven conservative to the court.

"The president promised to nominate jurists in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. To date, there is no objective evidence confirming that Ms. Miers holds a judicial philosophy consistent with those two justices," said Ken Connor, former president of the Family Research Council and now chairman of the social conservative Center for a Just Society.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, called on Miers to submit copies of her tax returns to the Senate as part of the confirmation process. Baucus had asked Chief Justice John G. Roberts to submit his tax documents during his confirmation hearing, but Miers, who led the White House vetting of Roberts, refused to turn over Roberts' returns.

The land transaction in West Dallas also attracted interest from watchdog groups.

"I think it raises questions that need to be looked into," said Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice. "Miers apparently got paid a heck of a lot more than the property was worth, and it is valid to ask the question how and why."

Russell Verney, the Dallas director of Judicial Watch, a conservative public-interest law group, said he expected the committee to pay special attention to the condemnation proceeding and other private transactions because of Miers' lack of a judicial record.

"I think we can anticipate that the Senate confirmation hearings will be radically different than for any other recent nominee," he said.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Max Baker of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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