The FBI violated the Constitution when agents raided U.S. Rep. William Jefferson’s office last year and viewed legislative documents, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The court ordered the Justice Department to return any privileged documents it seized from the Louisiana Democrat’s office on Capitol Hill. The court did not order the return of all the documents seized in the raid.
Jefferson argued that the first-of-its-kind raid trampled congressional independence. The Justice Department said that declaring the search unconstitutional would essentially prohibit the FBI from ever looking at a lawmaker’s documents.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected that claim. The three-judge panel unanimously ruled that the search itself was constitutional but that FBI agents crossed the line when they viewed every record in the office without giving Jefferson the chance to argue that some documents involved legislative business.
“The review of the Congressman’s paper files when the search was executed exposed legislative material to the Executive” and violated the Constitution, the court wrote. “The Congressman is entitled to the return of documents that the court determines to be privileged.”
The raid was part of a 16-month international bribery investigation of Jefferson, who allegedly accepted $100,000 from a telecommunications businessman, $90,000 of which was later recovered in a freezer in the congressman’s Washington home.
Jefferson pleaded not guilty in June to charges of soliciting more than $500,000 in bribes while using his office to broker business deals in Africa. The Justice Department said it built that case without using the disputed documents from the raid.
The court did not rule whether, because portions of the search were illegal, prosecutors should be barred from using any of the records in their case against Jefferson. That will be decided by the federal judge in Virginia who is presiding over the criminal case.
“We’re pleased with the court’s decision that makes it clear that the search violated the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution,” Jefferson’s attorney, Robert Trout, said after a brief review of the ruling. He said he has not yet discussed the decision with Jefferson.
The Justice Department did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the decision. Officials have said they took extraordinary steps, including using an FBI “filter team” not involved in the case to review the congressional documents. Government attorneys said the Constitution was not intended to shield lawmakers from prosecution for political corruption.
The court was not convinced. It said the Constitution insists that lawmakers must be free from any intrusion into their congressional duties. Such intrusion, even by a filter team, “may therefore chill the exchange of views with respect to legislative activity,” the court held.
The case has cut across political party lines. Former House Speakers Newt Gingrich, a Republican, and Thomas Foley, a Democrat, filed legal documents opposing the raid, along with former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, a Republican.
Conservative groups Judicial Watch and the Washington Legal Foundation were joined by the liberal Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in supporting the legality of the raid.
This blog differed from most conservative blogs last year at the time of the raid, believing that Article I. Section 6 providing for Congressional immunity from arrest while Congress is in session would very likely be interpreted by the court as precluding a raid on a Congressman’s office.
Of course, the matter is certain to go on to the Supreme Court. I think they will very probably hear the case, and I think it is most likely that they will uphold the First Circuit’s ruling.