By Nick Brown
(Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Monday refused to dismiss a lawsuit by Republican lawmakers who accuse Attorney General Eric Holder of wrongfully withholding documents tied to an investigation into a botched probe of gun trafficking on the U.S.-Mexican border.
"Neither legal nor prudential considerations support the dismissal of this action," District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote in a ruling rejecting the Department of Justice's request to dismiss the lawsuit in federal court in Washington.
The Republican-led House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sued Holder in August 2012, seeking to enforce its subpoena connected to the gun trafficking probe dubbed "Operation Fast and Furious" after the Obama administration refused to turn over related documents.
The federal operation aimed to build a case against major gun traffickers who supplied firearms to Mexican drug cartels, electing not to immediately prosecute low-level traffickers even as they bought 2,000 potentially illegal guns.
It came to light after two of those firearms were found in Arizona at the scene of the fatal shooting of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
In asking that the case be thrown out, Holder contended that courts should not get involved in political disputes between two branches of government, an argument rejected by the judge.
"Supreme Court precedent establishes that the third branch has an equally fundamental role to play, and that judges not only may, but sometimes must, exercise their responsibility to interpret the Constitution and determine whether another branch has exceeded its power," Jackson ruled.
The decision is a small victory for House Republicans because it keeps alive their case against Holder, though Jackson's ruling does not render a finding on the merits of the allegations.
"This decision reflects only the determination that the court has jurisdiction to adjudicate the case. As the court specifically noted, this was not a decision about the validity of the assertion of executive privilege," Department of Justice spokesman Brian Fallon said in a statement.
Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House Committee on Oversight, called the ruling "a repudiation of the Obama Justice Department."
"This ruling is an important step toward the transparency and accountability the Obama Administration has refused to provide," Issa said in a statement.
The sides tried unsuccessfully to settle the case late last year and early this year.
(Reporting by Nick Brown in New York; Additional reporting by David Ingram in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao)
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- Attorney General Eric Holder