Off Limits

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An appellate court decision on the constitutionality of a search of Rep. William Jefferson's office in connection with a bribery investigation may significantly hamper investigations into other members of Congress. The court's ruling may prevent the future use of wiretapping, staff interviews, and office searches.

In question is the "speech or debate" clause:

The speech-or-debate clause states that "for any speech or debate in either House, [members of Congress] shall not be questioned in any other place." In practice, it has limited the use of bribery statutes in the prosecution of lawmakers because legislative acts cannot be used as evidence. Prosecutors have instead pursued cases by uncovering corrupt agreements between lawmakers and those seeking their favors.

Justice Department officials contend that the appellate court ruling expands the interpretation of the clause to mean prosecutors cannot even obtain information that might possibly include legislative deliberations. That could call into question evidence that has already been collected in the various offshoots of the Abramoff investigation and in other big public-corruption cases.


The article has the lawyer for Re. John Doolittle heartily endorsing the appellate court's wider view of the protections offered under the speech-or-debate clause (surprise, suprise).

Even as the FBI is beefing up its team of public corruption investigators, this decision puts up even more barriers to accountability between lawmakers and the public.