Representative Bill Jefferson, who faces criminal prosecution for bribery, surely will claim victory today. That's what politicians do. They spin even bad news into good; they make the mundane sound momentous. A federal appeals court ruled today that the search of the Congressman's office was illegal, at least in part. But while the court's ruling validates a technical, arcane feature of Constitutional law, it remains to be seen whether it offers any substantial vindication for Mr. Jefferson. I think not.
By now everyone knows the basic facts. Mr. Jefferson is suspected of taking bribes. In short, he supposedly agreed for a fee to use his power as a Congressman to promote some business interests in Nigeria in which he had an interest. In his home freezer, he just so happened to have stored $90,000 in marked bills, the same money allegedly paid by an undercover informant. The government wanted to search his Congressional office for more evidence. Mr. Jefferson cried foul, claiming that the the search violated his Constitutional rights. Here's where it gets confusing for the non-lawyers. He says the search violates the Separation of Powers because the Executive (ie, the Department of Justice) cannot interfere with the business of the Legislature (ie, a Congressman). He maintains that his office files are "privileged" or immune from disclosure under the "Speech or Debate" Clause in the Constitution. Arguing that the search was illegal, he has asked the courts to give him back all his files and prevent the government from using them in its prosecution.
The court agreed in part, but it probably won't do much to save Mr. Jefferson's hide. The court basically said that the government has to give back all legislative materials (no argument there) and that in case of disagreement the court will decide what is "privileged" from disclosure and what is not. Thus, the court has required extra special procedures to protect Mr. Jefferson's bona fide legislative activities, but he's still subject to prosecution, and legitimate non-legislative materials can be seized and used against him in a criminal prosecution. (The court admittedly left a slight crack in the door for Mr. Jefferson to argue later that even non-legislative materials can't be used in his prosecution. It is doubtful that Mr. Jefferson will prevail on that argument, however.)
So what does this mean? There is no dispute that a Congressman can be prosecuted for a crime. Nor is there any dispute that the government is entitled to use a search warrant to collect non-legislative materials from his office sanctuary if they may be evidence of a crime. Mr. Jefferson's technical gripe is that the FBI agents who executed the search warrant at his office may have viewed some legislative papers that are absolutely immune from disclosure under the Speech or Debate Clause. This is really the fulcrum of the problem. Mr. Jefferson surely will say everything in his office is part of his legislative activity (and therefore privileged) while the government will say that anything to do with the business interests in Nigeria is evidence of a crime (bribery). Buried in the court's opinion is the key observation that his privilege from disclosure "does not prohibit inquiry into illegal conduct simply because it has some nexus to legislative functions." Thus, Mr. Jefferson can't use the very legislative misconduct at issue in the bribery case as a shield against a search warrant.
Thus, a Congressman's office may be his legislative castle, but FBI agents wielding search warrants will be able to get in with something less than a Trojan horse.