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How the Senate Ethics Committee (and Everybody Else) Got Access to the Burris Transcript

           Since Watergate, congressional committees have from time to time sought access to confidential federal law enforcement information protected by either the rules of grand jury secrecy or by statutory limitations on disclosure of intercepted wire or oral communications.  In some cases the committee will apply directly to the court.  For example, during the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, the House Judiciary Committee wanted to get access to memoranda prepared by the Justice Department in connection with a grand jury investigation of campaign finance violations in the 1996 presidential campaign.  As counsel to the House, I represented the committee in applying to the chief judge of the D.C. District Court for permission to access these memoranda. 

Where law enforcement officials are supportive of the congressional request, however, the normal procedure has been for the Department of Justice to file a motion seeking permission of the court to release the materials to the committee.  This was the process followed by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, which wrote Attorney General Holder on March 19, informing him that the committee is “conducting a preliminary inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the appointment and seating of Senator Roland W. Burris.”  It requested access to wiretap and other evidence relevant to that inquiry and asked that the Department of Justice seek such court order as might necessary to respond favorably to the request.  The committee also explained that any evidence received would be treated confidentially under the committee’s rules and expressed its willingness to enter into an agreement with the Department regarding non-disclosure. 

The Justice Department subsequently filed a motion as requested, and Judge James Holderman, chief judge of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, issued an order on May 26 granting the motion.  The legal issue before the court was whether the committee qualified as an “investigative or law enforcement officer” entitled to receive wiretap evidence under 18 U.S.C. § 2517(1). 

An “investigative or law enforcement officer” is defined as “any officer of the United States . . . who is empowered by law to conduct investigations of or to make arrests for offenses enumerated in this chapter, and any attorney authorized by law to prosecute or participate in the prosecution of such offenses.”  18 U.S.C. § 2510(7).  This definition raises three issues with respect to the Senate Ethics Committee. 

First, although not considered by Judge Holderman, is the issue of whether the committee consists of “officers of the United States.”  Depending on the context, laws using this or similar terms have sometimes been interpreted as including Members of Congress, and sometimes not.  See generally Operation Rescue Nat’l v. United States, 147 F.3d 68 (1st Cir. 1998).  The term itself is therefore ambiguous as applied to Members. 

The second issue is whether the committee is empowered “by law” to conduct investigations (it is clear that it is not empowered to make arrests).  Here the court found  the constitutional authority of disciplining Members, which is granted to each House under article I, § 5, cl. 2, implies an investigative authority, and this, combined with the delegation of this investigative authority to the committee pursuant to Senate Resolution 338, satisfies this requirement.  One might quibble with this conclusion on the grounds that the committee’s authority has been authorized by “resolution,” rather than by “law,”  but the court’s conclusion seems to me to be better view.  After all, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and even congressional rules have been considered to have the force of law. 

The final, and most difficult, issue is whether the committee is authorized to investigate violations of federal criminal law.  The court rested its affirmative conclusion on Senate Resolution 388, which provides in pertinent part  that the committee is to “receive complaints and investigate allegations of improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate, violations of law, violations of the Senate Code of Official Conduct and violations of rules and regulations of the Senate, relating to the conduct of individuals in the performance of their duties as Members of the Senate, or as officers or employees of the Senate, and to make appropriate findings of fact and conclusions with respect thereto.”  The court concluded that “because the members of the Senate Ethics Committee are authorized by law to conduct investigations into misconduct that may reflect upon the Senate, including allegations of misconduct by a United States Senator that may violate the criminal laws of the United States, the members of the Senate Ethics Committee are investigative officers as defined by section 2510(7) and thus are qualified to receive disclosures under section 2517(1) for use in the performance of their official duties.” 

The problem with the court’s reasoning is that while the Senate Ethics Committee is clearly authorized to investigate whether a Senator (or Senate officer or employee) has committed a violation of law in the performance of official duties, this is rather different from an authority to investigate violations of law per se.  One could argue that the statutory definition in 2510(7) is meant to include only those who have a role in investigating offenses for the purpose of enforcing the law, while the committee’s authority is to investigate persons, not offenses, for purposes of determining whether their conduct merits discipline.  The fact that this conduct may or may not have violated a criminal statute, while relevant to the committee’s conclusion, is not determinative.   

Nonetheless, I think that the court reached the correct result here.  Because each House of Congress has broad powers to investigate and obtain information for purposes of carrying out its constitutional functions, courts should be extremely reluctant to read a statute as applying in such a way as to limit the congressional investigatory authority.  It is this overriding constitutional consideration, rather than the statutory language, which is most supportive of Judge Holderman’s ruling. 

This explains how the Senate Ethics Committee got access to the Burris transcript.  Less explicable is how that transcript got released to the general public.  The reason is that the Justice Department, in its sealed motion to Judge Holderman, attached a copy of the transcript.  When the judge decided to unseal the motion (which seems appropriate in the absence of any objection from lawyers for Senator Burris or former Governor Blagojevich), the transcript was unsealed as well. 

It seems to me that this has to have been an error.  The whole reason for the motion was that the law severely restricts the dissemination of evidence collected by wiretaps.  The Senate Ethics Committee was entitled to access only because it was found to be within the statutory exception for “law enforcement and investigative officers.”  The fortuity that the Justice Department attached the transcript to its motion certainly should not transform that exception into one for the entire world.

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