[JURIST] AP is reporting that a federal judge has ruled that an FBI raid [JURIST report] on the congressional office of US Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) [official website] was legal and has denied Jefferson's request that documents seized during the raid be returned to him.
4:45 PM ET – After the FBI raided his congressional office as part of an investigation connected to a bribery scheme involving a Kentucky telecommunications firm that was granted contracts in Nigeria, Jefferson filed a motion in federal court requesting that documents seized be returned [amicus memorandum from US House general counsel]. Jefferson argued that the documents were protected under the Speech or Debate Clause [text] of the US Constitution, and that the search violated the separation of powers principle and his Fourth Amendment rights. In his opinion [PDF text], Chief Judge Thomas Hogan disagreed:
The facts and questions of law presented here are indeed unprecedented. It is well-established, however, that a Member of Congress is generally bound to the operation of the criminal laws as are ordinary persons. The Speech or Debate Clause does not "make Members of Congress super-citizens, immune from criminal responsibility." Brewster, 408 U.S. at 516. Members of Congress are not "exempt . . . from liability or process in criminal cases." Gravel, 408 U.S. at 626.
The existing broad protections of the Speech or Debate Clause – absolute immunity from prosecution or suit for legislative acts and freedom from being "questioned" about those acts (including privilege from the testimonial act of producing documents in response to a subpoena) – satisfy the fundamental purpose of the Clause to protect the independence of the legislature. The Court declines to extend those protections further, holding that the Speech or Debate Clause does not shield Members of Congress from the execution of valid search warrants. Congressman Jefferson's interpretation of the Speech or Debate privilege would have the effect of converting every congressional office into a taxpayer-subsidized sanctuary for crime. Such a result is not supported by the Constitution or judicial precedent and will not be adopted here. See Williamson v. United States, 28 S. Ct. at 167 ("[T]he laws of this country allow no place or employment as a sanctuary for crime.") (quotation omitted).
For the foregoing reasons, the Court has found that the search executed on Congressman Jefferson's congressional office was constitutional, as it did not trigger the Speech or Debate Clause privilege, did not offend the principle of the separation of powers, and was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, the Court will deny the motion for return of property.
The search of Jefferson's office sparked bipartisan criticism from the House of Representatives, including an accusation from House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) that the DOJ crossed the line of separation of powers [JURIST report]. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, and FBI Director Robert Mueller were among a host of government officials who said they would resign [JURIST report] if forced to hand back information gathered during the search, causing President Bush to order the documents to be sealed for 45 days [JURIST report] until the matter could be resolved. The 45-day period expired Sunday, but the Justice Department had said it would not seek to access the documents until Hogan had ruled in the case. In an order [PDF text] accompanying his opinion, Hogan said that "the Department of Justice shall be free to regain custody of the seized materials, and to resume its review thereof, as of Monday, July 10, 2006." During congressional hearings [JURIST report] and in court filings [JURIST document], the DOJ insisted the search was constitutional [JURIST report]. AP has more.
6:23 PM ET – According to a press release from Jefferson's defense team, an appeal of the ruling is planned.