Jefferson Round 3

As I predicted in earlier posts, the Justice Department is finding it hard to live with the implications of the DC Circuit’s decision in United States v. Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2113 (the Jefferson search case).  It is now seeking a rehearing by the full court, contending that the decision hampers its ability not only to search congressional offices, but also to use other law enforcement tools in investigations of Members of Congress.  As described by John Bresnahan of the Politico:

“By interpreting the Clause to include an absolute non-disclosure privilege, the panel has not only frustrated the execution of search warrants supported by probable cause, it has invited questions concerning the lawfulness of essential tools in investigating and prosecuting corruption  – including electronic surveillance, consensual monitoring, searches of home offices, and voluntary interviews of staffers – ‘that have never been considered problematic,'” Justice Dept. prosecutors wrote in their filing.

It is not surprising that the DC Circuit’s decision is being interpreted to apply to searches of locations other than congressional offices.  As I noted in a prior post: “Although the majority seems to assume that its rationale is limited to congressional offices, it would seem, as the concurring opinion points out, that it could apply equally to searches of a Member’s home, car, etc.  (The lawyers for Senator Stevens, among others, may be considering this issue as we speak). There certainly is a strong likelihood that Members will have Speech or Debate privileged materials in their homes.  If Congressman Jefferson had wrapped his $90,000 in a copy of legislation he had introduced, would that have rendered the search of his home unconstitutional?” 

The extension of the DC Circuit’s decision to electronic surveillance also seems logical.  If the Speech or Debate Clause forbids the FBI from conducting a search that might cause it to see Speech or Debate privileged documents, it is not obvious why the same principle forbids it from listening in on conversations that might contain a Speech or Debate privileged discussion.  Of course, under the logic of the DC Circuit’s opinion, the FBI could record the conversations (without listening to them) and then send the tape to the Member to separate the privileged from the non-privileged portions, but the Justice Department might view this as a tad problematic from an investigative standpoint. 

The application of the decision to staffer interviews is less clear.  From talking with the Hill, I know that there are those who are interpreting the decision to forbid the Justice Department from conducting voluntary staff interviews without a Member’s consent, but this seems like a stretch.  Since there is no compulsion in a voluntary interview, it is difficult to see where the constitutionally proscribed “questioning” occurs (unless the Speech or Debate Clause is to be interpreted to forbid staff from talking with the press or others outside of Congress on a voluntary basis). 

Regardless, the Justice Department may face a significant hurdle in obtaining en banc review of the DC Circuit’s decision.  Technically, it won the appeal to the DC Circuit because Jefferson did not get any of the relief that he was seeking.  Normally, the victorious party cannot appeal a decision, even if it may be adversely impacted by the reasoning of the decision in the future.  I will have to review the DOJ brief to see if there is some exception applicable here.   

Parliamentary Procedure

This webpage from the House Committee on Rules provides a very helpful series of newsletters summarizing key points of parliamentary procedure.  Thanks to John Wonderlich and the Open House Project for the tip.  

Is this Really Legal? (Part 2)

           As noted in my prior post, Representative Cleaver’s office defends Scaglia’s lobbying business on the grounds that “he does not contract with, or lobby on behalf of, a client on federal matters.”    Scaglia himself told a Kansas City newspaper that he lobbies only on local issues. 

            This is fortunate because it is a crime for a federal employee to represent the interests of others in their dealings with the United States (18 USC § 205).  Thus, for example, it would be a criminal offense for a low-level employee in one federal agency to assist a friend or relative (even on an uncompensated basis) by negotiating a contract with a completely unrelated part of the government.  The fact that a senior congressional staffer is refraining from lobbying the federal government on behalf of private clients is therefore not exactly evidence of a desire to avoid any appearance of impropriety. 

            In order to avoid violating 18 USC § 205, it is not enough that Scaglia confine his lobbying to local issues.  He has to be exceedingly careful that his clients do not present him or his work product to any federal agency or entity.  He also must be careful that none of the fees that he receives from his clients are themselves derived from federal lobbying because, another statutory provision, 18 USC § 203, prohibits any federal employee from accepting compensation from federal representational activities conducted either by the employee or someone else.  This could be a particular problem to the extent that Scaglia represents clients, such as the Overton Group, which themselves engage in lobbying activities. 

            Even if Scaglia has been successful in structuring his activities so as to avoid violating any statutory prohibition, this does not mean that his outside employment is consistent with the ethical standards mandated by House Rules.  As the House Ethics Manual states, “[i]n addition to statutory restraints limiting particular types and amounts of outside income, general ethical standards and rules restrict any outside activities that are inconsistent with congressional responsibilities.”  The Manual also notes that outside employment limitations are designed to “avoid any possible conflict between the narrow interests of private employers and the broader interests of the general public.”  Among the reasons for the outside employment limitations are the concerns that a Member or employee receiving from a private company would be vulnerable to overt attempts to curry favor or “subtle distortions” of judgment on particular issues, the “time conflict” between congressional duties and the demands of outside employment, and the appearance of impropriety which can result from such private employment. 

            Judged by these standards, it is difficult to see how Scaglia’s lobbying practice could  pass muster.   At the outset, if as indicated by the articles Scaglia functions as Cleaver’s chief of staff, the fact that he is paid less than the statutory minimum does not in any way reduce the potential for an actual or apparent conflict of interest.  The salary cutoff is intended as a rough means of identifying the most influential congressional staffers, but no one on the Hill thinks that salary and influence are the same.  As Cleaver’s chief of staff, Scaglia should be assumed to have considerable influence over the congressman’s activities and thus his personal financial interests pose a greater risk of conflict of interest than would those of a more junior staffer.  

            There are at least two types of potential conflicts from Scaglia’s lobbying activities.  The first is that his clients will have an advantage, or be perceived to have an advantage, should they seek support or favors from Representative Cleaver or his staff.  The fact that Scaglia does not lobby on federal issues does not mean that his clients have not lobbied Cleaver, or will not seek to lobby him in the future.  It does not mean that the Overton Group, or the Overton Group’s clients, have not or will not engage in such lobbying.  Even if Scaglia were to recuse himself in such situations (which one would certainly hope and expect that he would), the fact of his financial relationship could very well lead these clients to expect special treatment from Cleaver or his staff, or create the appearance that they enjoyed undue influence with this congressional office. 

            The second type of potential conflict relates to the state legislators and other state or local officials that Scaglia lobbies on behalf of his private clients.  Many of these officials certainly deal with Cleaver’s office on a regular basis, seeking federal support on various state and local matters.  Common sense suggests that these officials have an incentive to assist Scaglia’s clients in the hope or expectation that this will benefit them when they are dealing with Cleaver’s office.  At a minimum, the arrangement creates the type of appearance
of impropriety that the ethics rules were designed to prevent. 
 

As the Roll Call article indicates, an internet search will turn up a record of a meeting Scaglia attended for one of his clients: 

According to the minutes of a November 2005 meeting of the city council of Sugar Creek, Mo., Mayor Stan Salva opened the meeting with a discussion of Cleaver’s willingness to help the town obtain funding for an expressway.

Later in the meeting, according to the minutes, “Phil Scaglia of American Traffic Solutions” responded to questions about the town’s plan to install red-light enforcement cameras. American Traffic Solutions makes the cameras, and is listed as one of Scaglia’s clients.

This illustrates the problem.  The very people Scaglia is lobbying on behalf of a private client are also seeking the support of his boss for funding of an expressway.  It is difficult to imagine how the conflict of interest could be any more apparent.  No matter how diligent Scaglia is in attempting to separate his lobbying and congressional work, any reasonable person would expect that his congressional position gives him an advantage in lobbying for his private clients.

           

            According to Cleaver’s spokesman, Scaglia’s lobbying work has been “cleared” by the House Ethics Committee.  If so, there is a written opinion that Cleaver’s office can release to demonstrate this clearance.  It would be interesting to know what it says.

Is this Really Legal?

This is the sort of thing that breeds cynicism about “congressional ethics.”  Roll Call reported this week that a high-ranking staffer for Representative Emmanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) is a lobbyist “on the side.”  The staffer, Phil Scaglia, who made nearly $100,000 last year, is Cleaver’s highest paid staffer, and functions essentially as his chief of staff.  Although he evidently has a full-time congressional position, Scaglia also represents private clients, such as the American Diabetes Association, American Traffic Solutions and L-S Commercial Real Estate, as a paid lobbyist in Missouri.  He also represents an entity called the Overton Group, Inc., which is itself run by a lobbyist named Glen Overton, who represents major clients like the Corrections Corporation of America and Great Plains Energy.

 Both statute and House rules sharply limit the amount of outside income that Members, officers and certain senior staffers can earn, and prohibit them from receiving any compensation from the performance of most professional services.  As the House Ethics Manual explains, these restrictions were enacted in order to prevent outside compensation from being used a subterfuge for the reemergence of “honoraria” and  “because these professional activities were believed to pose a particular risk of conflict of interest.”  The House Ethics Committee has construed the ban on professional services broadly to cover generally activities such as law practice, insurance, accounting, real estate, consulting and even medicine.  The practice of lobbying, which on its face seems more problematic than any of those examples, is surely also covered.

 Nonetheless, a spokesman for Representative Cleaver maintains that Scaglia is not subject to these rules because he does not earn enough to qualify as an employee covered by the statute and rule.  Although all House Members and officers are subject to these restrictions, only employees making over a certain amount (currently about $111,000 per year) are covered.  Thus, while most other congressional chiefs of staff would be subject to these rules (a quick check of Legistorm indicates that all of the identified chiefs of staff in the Missouri delegation earned more than the required amount), because Cleaver and Scaglia chose to set his salary at a lower rate (presumably with full knowledge of the implications for his lobbying practice), he is not.  Very clever.

 Or maybe not so clever.  Because while it is true that Scaglia earned less than the requisite annual amount for all of 2006, he was paid $28,769 for the period October 1, 2006 through December 31, 2006 (according to Legistorm).  House Rule XXV defines a covered employee as one who is paid “at a rate equal to or greater than [specified amount]” and is “so employed for more than 90 days in a calendar year.”  Scaglia’s salary for the 92 days comprising the last quarter of 2006 annualizes to more than $115,000 and therefore would seem to qualify him for the prohibition.

 It is likely, however, that a portion of Scaglia’s salary for the final quarter of 2006 was in the form of a lump sum payment, which, according to a October 15, 1999 advisory opinion of the House Ethics Committee, is not generally to be counted in an employee’s salary for purposes of the outside earned income limitation and restrictions.  Thus, assuming that a lump sum payment was properly made to Scaglia, this payment would not cause him to be subject to the rule.

Even if Cleaver and Scaglia have successfully evaded the prohibitions of the statute and rule, however, serious questions remain.  As the Committee’s advisory opinion notes, Members and staff are required “to adhere not only to the letter, but also the spirit, of the Rules of the House.”  Allowing one’s staff to engage in outside professional activities which pose a low risk of conflict of interest, like the practice of medicine, might be consistent with the spirit of the rules, but it is difficult to imagine a situation more antithetical to the spirit of the rules than for any congressional employee, even one less senior than Scaglia, to conduct a private lobbying practice.

 In my next post I will consider the contention by Representative Cleaver’s spokesman that the lobbying practice is permissible because it is limited to state and local officials.

Inherent Contempt 101

There is an interesting article from the Politico regarding the enforcement options available to Congress with respect to the refusal of Harriet Miers and other former or current Administration officials to provide information in the investigation of the firing of US attorneys.   The article focuses in particular on the potential for using “inherent contempt,” which it describes as a “really odd” but “technically legal” process.

Inherent contempt is the term used for the procedure by which a legislative body, such as the House or Senate, may arrest, try and imprison a person for contempt.  The Supreme Court has long recognized that the power of each House of Congress to punish contempt, although not explicitly granted by the Constitution, is “essential to the effective exertion of other powers expressly granted, and therefore [] implied.”  McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135, 169 (1927); see Anderson v. Dunn, 19 U.S. 204 (1821) (first Supreme Court case recognizing the power of the House to punish contempt).  The House and Senate exercised this power on a regular basis until the early 20th Century, but the House has not used it since 1916 and the Senate has not used it since 1935.

Although inherent contempt may seem archaic, and the idea of Congress putting people in prison may be unsettling, there is no serious question that the power exists and could be lawfully exercised under the proper circumstances.  It is, however, remarkable that this long-dormant power has enjoyed such a resurgent popularity in recent months.  Not only are many bloggers at sites such as TPM Muckraker evidently eager to see this power used to lock up various Bush Administration officials, but even House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers asserted, in a July 19, 2007 letter to WH Counsel Fred Fielding, that inherent contempt might be used against WH Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.  To appreciate how unusual this is, consider that during the Clinton Administration, Republican Committee Chairman (Dan Burton, eg) wrote hundreds of letters complaining about failure to provide information or respond to subpoenas, but to my knowledge not one made reference to the possibility of inherent contempt.  Indeed, inherent contempt has never been used, or even attempted to be used, as a means of resolving an executive-legislative dispute.

The emerging fan base of inherent contempt may wish to consider a few things before they become too enamored of the idea.  Inherent contempt can be used not only against contumacious witnesses, but against anyone who violates the dignity of legislative proceedings (eg, demonstrators who disrupt committee hearings).  Moreover, it can be used not only by Congress, but by state legislatures as well.  While I agree that inherent contempt is a lawful power which can and should be used under appropriate circumstances, it is important to recognize that it is not only cumbersome (as explained below), but is potentially subject to abuse.

For more information on the inherent contempt process, continue below.

INHERENT CONTEMPT POWER

1.Legal Basis. It has long been recognized that the power of each House of Congress to punish contempt, although not explicitly granted by the Constitution, is “essential to the effective exertion of other powers expressly granted, and therefore [] implied.”McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135, 169 (1927); see Anderson v. Dunn, 19 U.S. 204 (1821) (first Supreme Court case recognizing the power of the House to punish contempt).The power derives from the Constitution itself; thus, “Congress could not divest itself, or either of its Houses, of the essential and inherent power to punish for contempt, in cases to which the power of either House properly extended.”In re Chapman, 166 U.S. 661, 671-72 (1897).The power extends to punishment of witnesses who refuse to testify on matters pertinent to a valid legislative inquiry because “the power of inquiry– along with process to enforce it– is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function.”McGrain, 273 U.S. at 174.More recently, in discussing the power of a state legislature to punish contempt, the Supreme Court noted that “[t]he past decisions of this Court expressly recognizing the power of the Houses of the Congress to punish contemptuous conduct leave little question that the Constitution imposes no general barriers to the legislative exercise of such power.”Groppi v. Leslie, 404 U.S. 496, 499 (1972).

2.Historical Usage.From the late 18th Century to the early 20th Century, both the House and Senate exercised the inherent contempt power on numerous occasions.A November 22, 1977 memorandum of the Congressional Research Service summarizes approximately three dozen cases in which the House or Senate imprisoned contumacious persons.In addition to punishing recalcitrant witnesses, the contempt power was used for punishing such interferences with the legislative processes as assault and bribery.It appears that the last use of the inherent contempt power by the House occurred in 1916, when the House imprisoned a United States Attorney for writing an allegedly defamatory letter about a committee.This use of the contempt power was held to be invalid in Marshall v. Gordon, 243 U.S. 521 (1917), on the ground that it exceeded what was necessary for the preservation of the legislative power.The last use of the inherent contempt power by the Senate occurred in 1935.See Jurney v. McCracken, 294 U.S. 125 (1935).

3.Committee Action.The inherent contempt process typically begins with a committee issuing a report to the House finding that a witness has failed to comply with a subpoena or to answer pertinent questions at a hearing.The report recommends that the House adopt a resolution such as that set forth in paragraph 4 below.

4.House Resolution #1.The House then considers and adopts the resolution recommended by the committee.An example of such as resolution follows:

 

WHEREAS, it appears from the report of the _______ Committee that a witness, ___________, called before the Committee making inquiry as directed by House Res. _ (or by House Rule _), declined to answer certain questions (or failed to comply with a subpoena) relevant and pertinent to the matter then under inquiry:

RESOLVED, That the Speaker issue his warrant directed to the Sergeant at Arms, or his deputy, to take in custody wherever to be found the body of ______ and the same in custody to keep, and that the said _________ be forthwith brought to the bar of the House of Representatives, then and there or elsewhere, as it may direct, to answer questions pertinent to the matter under inquiry or show cause why he should not be punished for contempt, and in the meantime to keep the said _____ in his custody to await the further order of the House; and the Speaker shall designate a room to be used for such purpose;

RESOLVED further, That upon his arrest, _________ be furnished with a copy of this resolution and a copy of the report of the Committee;

RESOLVED further, That when the said _______ shall be brought before the bar of the House to answer the charge of contempt of the House of Representatives, as set forth above, the Speaker shall then cause to be read to said ________ the findings by the Committee; the Speaker shall then inquire of said _________ if he desires to be heard, and to have counsel on the charge of being in contempt of the House of Representatives.If the said ________ desires to avail himself of either of these privileges, the same shall be granted to him.If not, the House shall thereupon proceed to take order in the same manner.

 

5.Arrest.The Speaker then issues the warrant to the Sergeant at Arms, who proceeds to arrest the witness.The arrest may be effected by the Deputy Sergeant at Arms if the resolution so permits.See McGrain, 279 U.S. at 155-56.It is less clear, however, whether the power of arrest could be delegated to the Capitol Police.See, e.g., 40 U.S.C. 212a (defining arrest power of Capitol Police and providing that they shall act under the direction of the Capitol Police Board).The witness is then brought before the bar of the House, and the Sergeant at Arms announces that he has taken the witness into custody in accordance with the resolution.

6.Hearing.The hearing is generally conducted immediately after the arrest of the witness.The hearing is normally conducted before the bar of the House, but on some occasions the House has provided that the hearing be conducted before a committee.The charges are read to the witness, and he is provided an opportunity to be heard.He may have counsel to represent him.

7.Resolution # 2.If the House finds that the witness is in contempt, it adopts a resolution such as the following:

RESOLVED, That _______, having been heard pursuant to the citation heretofore issued directing him to show cause why he should not be punished for contempt for failing to answer the questions of the Committee (or failing to comply with the subpoena issued by the Committee) after subpoena issued, and having failed to show sufficient cause why he should not be punished, ______ is adjudged to be in contempt of the House.

 

8.Resolution # 3.The House issues a resolution imposing imprisonment until such time that the witness purges himself of contempt.At times such imprisonment has been in the Capitol itself; on some occasions the House has ordered that the witness be imprisoned in the District of Columbiajail.An example of the resolution would be:

RESOLVED, That the Sergeant at Arms be directed to hold said ______ in close custody until he shall purge himself of said contempt, or until discharged by order of the House.

9.Duration of Imprisonment.The imprisonment of a contumacious witness may not exceed the termination of the legislative body.See Anderson, 19 U.S. at 231.Arguably, the witness must be released upon adjournment sine die or even a periodic adjournment.

10.Judicial Review.A witness who has been arrested or imprisoned by the House may challenge the House’s action through a petition for habeas corpus or through an action for false imprisonment against the Sergeant at Arms.

Did Senator Craig Breach the Peace?

Some commenters on The Volokh Conspiracy – – have suggested Senator Craig could have asserted a constitutional privilege in connection with his arrest for disorderly conduct charges based on Article I, Section 6  which provides that “Senators and Representatives … shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same ….”  The question arises because the disorderly conduct charge is a misdemeanor, not a felony (and obviously not treason), which arguably did not constitute “breach of the peace” in the sense of involving violence or the threat of violence.  

            The Supreme Court, however, has held that the phrase “treason, felony and breach of the peace” as used in the Arrest Clause was a  common-law term of art that includes all criminal offenses, including misdemeanors that involve no element of force or violence.  WILLIAMSON v. U.S., 207 U.S. 425 (1908)  Although Williamson involved a serious (but arguably non-felonious) crime, subordination of perjury, its broad language has been understood to limit the privilege embodied in the Arrest Clause to arrests in civil cases.  LONG v. ANSELL, 293 US 76 (1934)  Since the practice of arrest in civil cases (eg, arrest of a debtor until a debt is satisfied) is largely if not entirely obsolete, the Court’s rulings have left the Clause with little practical effect.  

            Although there may remain an issue as to whether the Arrest Clause would prohibit arrest of Members of Congress for minor traffic violations for which no penalty other than a fine is authorized, even there the applicability of the Clause would appear dubious.  HOWARD v. WEBB, 570 P2d 42 (Ok 1977)  The offense of disorderly conduct, in any event, is a crime punishable by up to a year in prison under Minnesota law, 609.72, Minnesota Statutes 2006, and clearly falls within the category of criminal offenses as to which the privilege against arrest is inapplicable under Williamson. 

            Indeed, even if the term “breach of the peace” were used in its narrower sense of an offense involving violence or public disturbance (as was argued in Williamson) or an offense “entailing at least a threat of violence” (as the Supreme Court described it in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 US 318, n.2 (2001)), one may question whether Senator Craig would have much of an argument.  The offense of disorderly conduct as defined in the Minnesota law is aimed specifically at conduct which will tend to “alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or breach of the peace.”  Certainly it would be reasonable to conclude that Senator Craig’s alleged conduct, soliciting sex in a public restroom, is the type of behavior likely to create public disturbance and provoke violence.

Gonzales out, now what?

Attorney General Gonzales has resigned.  ABC News: Attorney General Gonzales Resigns  Will his resignation take effect only upon confirmation of his replacement?  The rumor has been that Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff will be nominated to replace Gonzales, but not clear if this is a done deal.  Chertoff is well-respected and likely would be confirmed, but he will face a lot of his questions regarding his prior tenure as head of the criminal division at DOJ.  During his nomination for DHS Secretary, Chertoff was asked about his role in Administration policies on military tribunals, foreign detainees, torture and use of the material witness statute, among other things.  One can expect renewed questioning on these subjects.  He will also be grilled about his tenure at DHS, particularly his response to Katrina (from Senate Democrats) and illegal immigration (from Senate Republicans). 

Foley’s legislative privilege

           Here is an interesting question.  Were Representative Mark Foley’s “naughty emails” to a former House page absolutely privileged under the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution?  The question is suggested by articles in the last couple of  days indicating that House lawyers have refused to give Florida law enforcement authorities access to Foley’s computers, contending that because the computers “may contain legislative information that is constitutionally privileged … and because Mr. Foley has not waived that privilege … we cannot simply give you access.”  No graphic photos found in Foley e-mails – Boston.com

            But Foley’s emails to the former page themselves contain “legislative information.”  According to this ABC news story, The Blotter: House Lawyers Refuse to Turn Over Foley’s Computers,: 

Instant messages reviewed by ABC News last October indicated the one-time Florida representative interrupted a House vote to engage in Internet sex with a high school student who had served as a congressional page and had been 18 for just six weeks at the time of the exchange.      

The message, according to its time stamp, was dated April 2003, at approximately 7 p.m. — the same time the House was voting on H.R. 1559, Emergency War Time supplemental appropriations.

Maf54: I miss you
Teen:  ya me too
Maf54: we are still voting
Maf54: you miss me too

Maf54: ok..i better go vote..did you know you would have this effect on me
Teen:  lol I guessed
Teen:  ya go vote…I don’t want to keep you from doing our job

If Foley’s references to voting are enough to bring the emails within the protection of the Speech or Debate Clause (and the House would likely take the position that they were), does this mean that the emails would be privileged from discovery by law enforcement authorities and that the House would refuse to produce these emails if they were requested?  Such would seem to be the implication of the absolute non-disclosure privilege advocated by the House and accepted by the DC Circuit in the Jefferson case.

The DC Circuit’s Decision in the Jefferson Search Case

In United States v. Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2113 (the Jefferson search case), the DC Circuit held “that a search that allows agents of the Executive to review privileged materials without the Member’s consent violates the [Speech or Debate] Clause.”  On first read, this case has some major implications for public corruption investigations and for relations between the executive and legislative branches.  Here are some preliminary thoughts.

 

Technically the case appears to be a “win” for the Justice Department in the sense that it was not forced to return the non-privileged materials Congressman Jefferson had sought. However, this victory is actually less than Pyrrhic because not only is the Justice Department stuck with a very bad opinion (from its perspective) but it may have no way of seeking further review since it got what it was asking for from the court. Whether most of the opinion should be regarded as dicta (as the concurring opinion of Judge Henderson suggests) will undoubtedly be an issue in future cases.

For the long-term, the most important aspect of the majority opinion is that it establishes a “non-disclosure” Speech or Debate privilege. What this apparently means is that privilege protects the confidentiality of certain types of legislative information (exactly what type is a matter that will need to be explored later on), as opposed to only protecting against the “questioning” of a Member of Congress. This makes the Speech or Debate privilege more like a typical secrecy privilege, such as executive privilege, deliberative process privilege or attorney-client privilege, and less like the Fifth Amendment testimonial privilege. Whether this is a good or bad thing (or some of both) I will discuss at a later time.

In the nearer term, however, there are two possible impacts of significance. First, it is not clear why the logic of the opinion would be limited to searches of congressional offices. Although the majority seems to assume that its rationale is limited to congressional offices, it would seem, as the concurring opinion points out, that it could apply equally to searches of a Member’s home, car, etc. (The lawyers for Senator Stevens, among others, may be considering this issue as we speak). There certainly is a strong likelihood that Members will have Speech or Debate privileged materials in their homes. If Congressman Jefferson had wrapped his $90,000 in a copy of legislation he had introduced, would that have rendered the search of his home unconstitutional?

The same questions could be asked of searches directed at former Members, who may have kept much legislative material from their days in office (documents in a Member’s personal office are treated as his or her personal property and they may take them when they leave office). Similarly, the same issue may arise with regard to searches directed at congressional staffers or former staffers. As the concurrence notes, surveillance of Members (eg, wiretaps) could arguably be prohibited because of the likelihood that communications of a legislative nature would be overheard. (It is less obvious that interviews of congressional staff would be impacted by the decision unless the Speech or Debate Clause is interpreted to prohibit staff from voluntarily disclosing legislative information).

Second, and perhaps just as importantly, the decision does appear to legitimize the search of congressional offices, stating that “[t]he Congressman does not dispute that congressional offices are subject to a search pursuant to a search warrant issued by the federal district court.” This concession may be regretted by Congress because there are reasons, wholly apart from the Speech or Debate Clause, why Congress should object to forced executive intrusion into the Capitol complex. These reasons are explained in my prior post, which was written shortly before the district court decision in this case.

Moreover, although the decision may make it difficult and cumbersome for the FBI to conduct searches in Congress, it also could exacerbate the problem of this executive intrusion. The opinion allows a search warrant to be issued without any notice to Congress, and it does not prohibit federal agents from seizing and sealing the area to be searched prior to consultation with a Member or Congress. One can imagine that the Justice Department, if it wished, could get a search warrant, obtain entry to the office of a Member, and simply refuse access to the office until such time as it was able to reach agreement with the Member on how the actual search was to be conducted. Such a situation would be even more intrusive and disruptive than the Jefferson search itself.

The Jefferson Search

Set forth below is a short piece I wrote regarding the search of the congressional office of Congressman Jefferson, just before Chief Judge Hogan issued his ruling upholding the search.

In the next few days, Chief Judge Thomas Hogan of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia is expected to rule on the legality of the FBI’s raid on the congressional offices of Congressman William Jefferson.

Attorneys for Congressman Jefferson, backed by lawyers for the U.S. House of Representatives, have argued FBI’s search of Mr. Jefferson’s congressional office violated the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution.They assert that during the search the FBI reviewed and/or seized “legislative” documents, i.e., documents which by virtue of dealing with matters within the legislative sphere, such as legislation or congressional hearings, are privileged against compelled production from a member of Congress or a legislative agent.

The Department of Justice, on the other hand, contends that the search of premises belonging to or under the control of a member of Congress does not constitute “questioning” of that member within the meaning of the Speech or Debate Clause.Moreover, DOJ maintains that the search was not seeking legislative documents and that Congressman Jefferson’s Speech or Debate privilege can be adequately protected through a post-search review to screen out any legislative documents that may have been seized incidentally.

These competing arguments present the court with difficult and novel issues of law, but they do not address what is—in my judgment— a more fundamental problem with the FBI’s search of Congressman Jefferson’s office.I maintain that even if the FBI had been able to conduct its search in a manner that avoided all contact with legislative documents, this raid would nonetheless constitute a serious affront to the House of Representatives and a threat to the proper functioning of our system of separated powers.

The forcible intrusion of executive agents into the Capitol Complex raises a concern that is not present when law enforcement searches a member’s home or even a member’s district office.This concern does not relate to a member’s legislative privilege or to any right of individual members.Instead, such an invasion violates the dignity of the House itself, and infringes its right to exercise control within its own walls.

That the House has such a right cannot be doubted.Nearly 200 years ago, in Anderson v. Dunn, the Supreme Court found that “the right of the respective Houses to exclude from their presence, and their absolute control within their own walls, carry with them the right to punish contempts committed in their presence.”The contrary view, namely that the House would have to rely on the other branches for its own protection, would lead:

to the total annihilation of the power of the House of Representatives to guard itself from contempts, and leaves it exposed to every indignity and interruption that rudeness, caprice, or even conspiracy, may meditate against it. This result is fraught with too much absurdity not to bring into doubt the soundness of any argument from which it is derived. That a deliberate assembly, clothed with the majesty of the people, and charged with the care of all that is dear to them; composed of the most distinguished citizens, selected and drawn together from every quarter of a great nation; whose deliberations are required by public opinion to be conducted under the eye of the public, and whose decisions must be clothed with all that sanctity which unlimited confidence in their wisdom and purity can inspire; that such an assembly should not possess the power to suppress rudeness, or repel insult, is a supposition too wild to be suggested.

Although the exercise of the contempt power by each House of Congress is not limited to conduct committed literally “within the walls” of the Capitol, Anderson demonstrates that the most fundamental reason for recognizing the power is that the House and Senate must be able to control their immediate environment, and to prevent affronts to their dignity and disruption of their proceedings by outside forces.Moreover, Anderson and later cases reject the proposition that the Houses of Congress can be required to rely on the other branches for this basic need of self-protection.

Compare this to the principle endorsed by the Justice Department’s search of Representative Jefferson’s office, namely that the executive and judicial branches can authorize the FBI to enter the congressional office buildings (and presumably the Capitol itself) without the permission of—indeed without even providing notice to—the House or its leadership.No consideration seems to have been given to how the specter of uninvited federal agents in the Capitol Complex not only insults the dignity of the House, but threatens its very physical security.If nothing else, the fact that in more than 200 years, despite many criminal investigations, prosecutions and convictions of members of Congress, law enforcement authorities had never conducted a similar search should have been a tip off as to the potential ramifications.

The outrageous nature of the action is aggravated by the fact that there was so little reason for it.I will leave aside the puzzling question of why the Justice Department felt it necessary to take the unprecedented step of obtaining a search warrant when the materials sought were apparently covered by a grand jury subpoena served months before.Assuming there was a true law enforcement need to conduct a search, what harm would have come from notifying the House leadership and requesting its permission?The chances are very good that the requested permission would have been granted or, at the very least, that steps would have been taken to secure the requested materials until any issues could be resolved.If the claim is made that notifying the House leadership would somehow have risked the destruction or disappearance of materials sought by the warrant, that charge is both insulting and frankly preposterous.

Recognizing the House’s right to exercise control within its own walls is not the equivalent of declaring a member of the House to be “above the law.”In the first place, it is not up to Representative Jefferson or any other individual member as to whether the FBI is allowed access to the Capitol Complex.In the second place, as already noted, any assumption that the House or its leadership would use its power to shield a member from criminal investigation is unwarranted, and the mere possibility that such abuse could occur is hardly reason for overturning two hundred years of history and tradition.

By contrast, establishing a precedent that would allow the executive literally to breach the walls of Congress, with or without judicial permission, would be very dangerous.If Chief Judge Hogan’s decision were to ratify this precedent, it would threaten a dramatic change in the relationship between the branches, with potential ramifications that may be only dimly perceived today.

To defuse the interbranch conflict created by this ill-advised search, it may not be necessary for the court to hold that the House or Senate is, under all circumstances, the final authority on execution of search warrants in the Capitol Complex.Rather, the court can follow the example of past cases where, facing other sensitive questions of executive-legislative relationships (such as whether Congress could subpoena sensitive national security information from a telephone company over the objections of the executive), courts have declined to decide the constitutional issue presented and instructed the other branches to attempt to resolve their differences through negotiation.The House, in its papers, has suggested something along those lines.

Hopefully, the outcome of those negotiations will make it unnecessary to revisit this subject for the next two hundred years.