Legislative Privilege in Britain

Legislative privilege is a concept that long pre-dates the Constitution, and was inherited from the British Parliament by the colonial legislatures, then by the state legislatures and finally by the Congress.  As Jefferson wrote in opening the discussion of privilege in his Manual of Parliamentary Practice (a work he prepared for his own guidance as President of the Senate from 1797 to 1801): “The privileges of members of Parliament, from small and obscure beginnings, have been advancing for centuries with a firm and never yielding pace.”                


          In Britain, questions of parliamentary privilege were considered separate and apart from the common law.Although breaches of parliamentary privilege were initially punished by application to the King, by the sixteenth century the Houses of Parliament themselves began punishing contempt.By the seventeenth century, Parliament had rejected the notion that the common law courts had any proper role with regard to matters of parliamentary privilege.For example, in 1604 a committee of the House of Commons declared the House to be a court with regard to issues of parliamentary privilege and opined that the common law courts cannot “bring any prejudice to this High Court of Parliament, whose power being above the law, is not founded on the Common Law, but have their Rights and Privileges peculiar to themselves.”Similarly, one of the grievances set forth by Parliament in the preamble to the 1689 English Bill of Rights was that of “prosecutions in the court of Kings bench, for matters and causes cognizable only in parliament.”

         When the courts attempted to interfere in matters of parliamentary privilege, the Houses of Parliament would typically respond with a forceful—in a literal sense—defense of their prerogatives.As described in J.Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few, not only would the Houses imprison litigants who attempted to seek judicial redress with regard to matters the Houses considered to involve parliamentary privilege, they would imprison officials carrying out court orders and, on occasion, even the judges themselves.With regard to the House of Commons, Chafetz explains that the theory of legislative privilege “denied that the courts (whose judges were royally appointed and whose highest court of appeals was the entire body of the House of Lords) could have any say as to the content, or even the extent, of the House’s privileges; [and] it allowed the House to use its punitive powers to attack anyone who threatened its power and prestige. . . .”Democracy’s Privileged Few 237.

         It is difficult to translate this recognition of a nearly unlimited right of Parliament to define its own privileges into a limitation on the legislature’s ability to seek judicial relief or assistance if it is so inclined.Certainly the purpose of the doctrine was to protect Parliament from the courts and other outsiders, not to protect the courts from Parliament.

         Nor was there any relationship between the doctrine of legislative privilege and the concreteness of the injury that was suffered.Chafetz describes, for example, how Parliament maintained that legislative privilege prohibited the courts from punishing several Members who assaulted the Speaker of the House of Commons on the floor in 1629.Democracy’s Privileged Few73-74.Needless to say, the assault produced a concrete, not an abstract, injury, but this was not thought to have any bearing on the application of legislative privilege.

          Nevertheless, it remains the case that questions of legislative privilege were, by the late eighteenth century, viewed as beyond the province of the British courts. But, as I will discuss in a future post, this broad separation between legislative privilege and the courts, which might be described as a kind of political question doctrine on steroids, was never transplanted to American soil.

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