Policy

Supreme Court Allows Senate Subpoena for Sex Trafficking Probe

First time in more than 20 years the Senate has enforced a subpoena in court

The Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to stop a Senate subpoena of the website Backpage.com for documents related to screening advertisements for warning signs of sex trafficking (CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Supreme Court sided with Congress on Tuesday in a fight over subpoena power, ordering Backpage.com to turn over business records as part of a Senate investigation into sex trafficking.

In the one-page order, the justices declined a request from the website and its CEO, Carl Ferrer, to halt enforcement of the subpoena from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

That means the company has only days to turn over to the subcommittee documents related to screening advertisements for warning signs of sex trafficking, as first ordered by a district court in Washington on Aug. 5. The justices had temporarily halted the subpoena while they considered the company’s request.

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The subcommittee, led by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, told the Supreme Court that it needs to receive and review the company’s records for use in depositions, a public hearing and a final report before the adjournment of the 114th Congress.

Without the documents, the subcommittee would not be able to perform its constitutional duty to serve the public interest and complete the inquiry into a serious national problem, the panel had told the justices.

The court order does not include any reasoning for the decision not to stop the subpoena or hear the case on its merits, or how specific justices voted. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. did not participate in the case.

Backpage.com characterized the case as having nationwide importance for First Amendment protections for online publishers of third-party content, including Facebook. Backpage.com bills itself the second largest online classified ads website.

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The issue, the website told the justices, is when the Senate’s investigative authority intrudes on editorial judgments that “are precisely the kind of speech and press functions that enjoy robust First Amendment rights."

The Senate subcommittee said it began the investigation of human trafficking on the internet in April 2015. The Senate in March passed a civil contempt resolution on a 96-0 vote to authorize a lawsuit against Backpage.com, the first such action since the Whitewater controversy in the 1990s.

The case marks the first time in more than 20 years that the Senate has enforced a subpoena in court.

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