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
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
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. …