From Talking Points Memo: Susan Crabtree | June 23, 2011, 2:08PM – The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has firmly rejected former Rep. Rick Renzi’s (R-AZ) claim that Constitutional protections granted to members of Congress prevented him from having to defend himself from charges that he used his position to enrich himself in a land deal.
The court’s decision on Thursday strikes a debilitating blow to federal lawmakers’ broad claims of immunity from prosecution on anything dealing with legislative activity. If Renzi appeals, it also could set up a Supreme Court showdown over exactly what level of protection from investigation and prosecution the Constitution provides members of Congress.
In recent years, several members of Congress, with the support of House Democratic and Republican leadership and the House general counsel, have tried to wrap themselves in the Speech or Debate clause of the Constitution in order to bar the Justice Department from gaining access to evidence on their Congressional computers or in their offices.
The clause was written to protect the legislative branch from unwarranted intrusion by the executive, but watchdogs and some legal scholars have argued that it has become a way for lawmakers to try to protect themselves from being thoroughly investigated for charges of corruption and unethical behavior.
The case against Renzi stems from his efforts his efforts to force a private company to buy land from his business partner as part of a land exchange that required his approval as a member of the House Natural Resources Committee.
In its decision, the 9th Circuit determined that negotiations regarding future legislation are not legislative activity protected by the Speech or Debate Clause. Similarly, the court decided that documents and correspondence related to those negotiations are not protected.
The Court upheld Renzi’s indictment even though some protected material was shown to the grand jury, ruling that because those documents were not the basis for the indictment, they did not constitute a violation of Renzi’s Constitutional protections.
The court also declined to follow the D.C. Circuit Court’s decision in Rayburn House Office Building case involving the FBI raid of ex-Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-LA) Capitol Hill office. In that case, House Democrats and Republicans stepped in to condemn the unprecedented raid, filed suit on Jefferson’s behalf, and the D.C. Circuit eventually ruled that the Speech and Debate clause precluded the review any documents related to legislative acts that were seized during the FBI raid.
Even though that ruling hurt the prosecutor’s case, Jefferson was still found guilty on multiple corruption charges.
Further, in the Renzi case, the appeals court found that the Speech and Debate clause does not prevent the executive branch from even examining legislative material.
Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed an amicus brief in the Renzi case supporting the government’s position that the Speech or Debate Clause did not preclude the prosecution of Rep. Renzi. Melanie Sloan, the group’s executive director, applauded the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision.
“…The Speech or Debate Clause was never intended to turn legislators into ‘super-citizens immune from criminal responsibility,'” she said in a statement. “Happily, the Court soundly rejected Rayburn, putting legislators on notice that the 9th Circuit at least will not protect them should they engage in bribery or extortion.”