Supreme Court Declines Capitol Hill Search and Seizure Case

By Richey, Warren | The Christian Science Monitor, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Declines Capitol Hill Search and Seizure Case


Richey, Warren, The Christian Science Monitor


The US Supreme Court has declined to take up a case examining whether federal agents investigating corruption in Congress can seize thousands of documents from a lawmaker's office without violating the Constitution's speech or debate clause.

On Monday, the high court said it would not hear an appeal of a case involving the bribery investigation of Rep. William Jefferson (D) of Louisiana. At issue was whether US agents violated a constitutional safeguard when they searched Mr. Jefferson's office in May 2006, and seized 47,000 pages of documents - including papers related to the congressman's legislative work.

The high court's refusal to hear the case means that an August 2007 decision by a federal appeals court panel in Washington will remain in place. The appeals court ruled that federal agents violated the speech or debate clause when they conducted a wide- ranging search of the congressman's Capitol Hill office.

The search marked the first time a congressional office was raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And it raised a specific legal question that has never been addressed by the Supreme Court, analysts say.

Section I, Article 6 of the Constitution says in part: "For any speech or debate in either House, [Senators and Representatives] shall not be questioned in any other place."

The clause is designed to enforce the separation of powers and to promote robust speech, debate, and deliberation in the legislative branch of government without intimidation or threats from the executive branch. Members of Congress may not be harassed or prosecuted for things they say or official acts related to the legislative process.

But influence-peddling, bribery, and other forms of corruption are not protected by the speech or debate clause.

The central question in the appeal had been whether federal agents investigating suspected corruption are entitled to scoop up all the documents in a congressional office or just those documents unrelated to legitimate legislative acts.

A federal judge upheld the FBI search and seizure. But the US appeals court panel ruled against the agents, saying they violated the speech or debate clause by failing to afford Congressman Jefferson an opportunity to dispute which of his office documents must remain private and which documents can be seized.

In urging the high court to take up the case, Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Garre said the appeals court had wrongly extended the speech or debate clause protections to cover search warrants. "The speech or debate clause by its terms protects 'speech or debate;' it does not protect against the disclosure of information through a criminal search warrant, which involves no questioning of a member of Congress," Mr. Garre said in his brief to the court.

"Only this court can resolve this important question," he said. "Until it does so, investigations of corruption in the nation's capital and elsewhere will be seriously and perhaps even fatally stymied."

Jefferson's lawyers dismissed the government's comments as hyperbole. "[Justice Department] claims that the court of appeals' decision will jeopardize other investigations or the use of other investigative techniques are substantially exaggerated," said Robert Trout in his brief urging the court not to take up the case.

Mr. Trout said the issue was not whether all searches of congressional offices were barred. The real question, he said, was whether the FBI's search procedures were sufficiently protective of the legislative privilege created by the speech or debate clause. …

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Supreme Court Declines Capitol Hill Search and Seizure Case
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