A Moment Of Truth For Scooter -- And The White House

Peter Maer is a CBS News White House Correspondent. He covered part of the Libby trial.
(AP)
The outcome of the next court hearing in the CIA leak case will be a moment of truth for the Bush White House. The judge who sentenced Lewis Scooter Libby to 30 months in prison for perjury and obstructing the investigation has set a Thursday hearing to determine when Libby will start his term. Federal Judge Reggie Walton, known as a tough by-the-book jurist, has indicated he sees no reason to delay Libby's trip to prison. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald strongly opposes any delay. Libby's lawyers contend he should remain free because his conviction could be overturned.

Unless Judge Walton grants Libby's request for a hold on the sentence during appeals, the president will have to decide whether to pardon the former loyal aide or see him to go to prison. While the stakes are obviously highest for Libby, there's a lot on the line for the White House. A delay in Libby's sentence would give the president and his legal advisors more time to ponder the sensitive pardon issue. Libby's supporters have stepped up efforts to beg the president's pardon for Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. The conservative publication National Review carried an on-line editorial with the demanding headline "Pardon Him."

George W. Bush has pardoned 113 people. He has never taken the action for anyone who had not finished a prison sentence. He has commuted three sentences. A former federal prosecutor and member of the George H.W. Bush administration believes the current president should choose the commutation route in the Libby case. In a June 7, 2007 Washington Post op-ed piece, William Otis said the president could commute the sentence and erase the prison time while keeping the $250,000 fine imposed on Libby. Otis, a veteran of the federal Advisory Committee on Sentencing Guidelines under both parties, said, " Scooter Libby should not be pardoned." Describing Libby's sentence as "excessive," Otis wrote, "The case was proved and the conviction should not be wiped away." Otis said, "Neither vindication of the rule of law nor any other aspect of the public interest requires that Libby go to prison."

Questions about a possible pardon for Libby elicit a terse response from the White House. Officials will only say the President will wait for the legal process to play out. A turning point in that process appears to be imminent.

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    Peter Maer is a CBS News White House Correspondent.