But it is unclear what impact the high court’s decision will have on corruption investigations, particularly if the FBI is able to strike a deal with the House on future searches. The government has successfully prosecuted other Members of Congress without raiding Congressional offices, and Nathan points out that even under any new procedures, the assumption is that such raids would be exceedingly rare.
Still, ethics advocates are nervous about the precedent.
“I find this fairly alarming,” said Craig Holman, campaign finance lobbyist for Public Citizen. “The Speech or Debate Clause is being used not only by Jefferson but by others — it is delaying any court action on these cases to a snail’s pace.” As Jefferson’s victory emboldens others to seek protection under the Speech or Debate Clause, Holman said, “it is going to take a very, very long time before we get to the bottom of these things.”
Meanwhile, the ruling seems to open the door for Jefferson’s lawyers to pursue a wider attack on the evidence the government has gathered in his corruption trial.
The government alleges that Jefferson accepted bribes and payment to help private businesses get contracts in Africa, including accepting cash that was to be used to bribe officials in African nations. Jefferson has denied any wrongdoing.
Jefferson has argued that material submitted to the grand jury by prosecutors may have violated the Speech or Debate Clause, and has asked the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., to dismiss the bulk of the charges against him. The District Court has rejected that motion, and Jefferson’s trial has been put on hold while he appeals the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
But the lower court has not yet ruled on another Jefferson motion asking that all evidence taken from his office — even materials not covered by the Speech or Debate privilege — be suppressed because it is the product of an unconstitutional search. Since the Supreme Court has declined to overturn the appeals court’s assessment of the search, it would appear this motion may still have to be litigated — unless the appeals court decides to throw out the charges against him.
The Justice Department has maintained that the indictment is not based on the evidence taken from Jefferson’s office. In a statement Monday, a Justice Department spokeswoman said: “We are disappointed the Supreme Court has decided not to review this matter. The Department of Justice will continue to prosecute the case.”
Jefferson’s attorney, Robert Trout, hailed the Supreme Court’s decision not to reconsider the appeals court’s ruling on the search.
“From the very moment that we learned of the FBI’s raid on a Congressional office — the first in our nation’s history — we were convinced that the Department of Justice was out of bounds. Now, almost two years later, we are gratified that our initial judgment about this unprecedented raid has finally been confirmed,” Trout said.
“We believe that the FBI sting that targeted Congressman Jefferson and the subsequent criminal prosecution of him were similarly misguided, and we expect, when that matter is finally resolved, Congressman Jefferson will be vindicated,” Trout said.