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The federal judges who appointed Kenneth W. Starr have decided to intercede in an escalating dispute between the independent counsel and Attorney General Janet Reno over her intent to investigate Starr’s handling of the Monica S. Lewinsky matter.

In a one-sentence order made public yesterday, the judges agreed to decide whether Reno’s probe should be halted, setting the stage for a court battle that will bring to public light a legal feud thus far conducted in secret and that could produce new revelations about the origins of the investigation that led to President Clinton’s impeachment.

The three federal appellate judges charged with overseeing the independent counsel process acted in response to court papers filed Feb. 16 by the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative advocacy organization based in Herndon. The group claimed that the Justice Department lacks the authority to investigate an independent counsel and asked that the judges order Reno to halt her inquiry because of its potential to interfere with Starr’s work.

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