Judge Rules Against Jefferson in House Office Search

A federal judge has ruled that a search by the FBI of the Capitol Hill office of Rep. William Jefferson was legal. The Louisiana Democrat had argued that he is protected from such searches by the constitutional separation of powers. The FBI is investigating accusations that Jefferson took bribes.

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A federal judge says an FBI search of the office of Congressman William Jefferson was legal.

Jefferson and many top members of Congress had challenged that search. It was the first ever of a Congressional office, and they said it violated the Constitution.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

The search of Jefferson's office last May for evidence in a corruption probe provoked a small Constitutional crisis. Even the Republican House leadership rallied behind the Louisiana Democrat, saying that FBI agents had exceeded their authority. The computer hard drives and documents that were confiscated there argued must have included legislative materials.

Jefferson's attorney challenged the search before a federal judge, saying the FBI should at least have allowed Jefferson to separate out documents related to his work as a member of Congress. The Justice Department refused to return the materials, leading President Bush to institute a 45-day cooling off period.

But yesterday, the judge rejected Jefferson's interpretation of what's known as the speech or debate clause of the Constitution.

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.

Professor EUGENE VOLOKH (Professor of Law, University of California Los Angeles): It's not a general right not to be prosecuted. It's not a right not to have your offices searched. It's a right not to be held liable for those things that you say on the floor of Congress or in legislative hearings or whatever else, which this case does not involve.

ABRAMSON: Judge Thomas Hogan, Chief Judge of the Federal Court for the District of Columbia, was clearly not worried that the search threatened the independence of the legislative branch. Indeed, he seemed more concerned that Jefferson's claim, if recognized, could turn members of Congress into what the judge called super-citizens, who, according to UCLA's Eugene Volokh, would have been free to disregard the law...

Prof. VOLOKH: And to frustrate legitimate searches that have been demanded by executive branch, pursuant to laws enacted by the legislative branch, and that have been sanctioned through the warrant issued by the judicial branch.

ABRAMSON: Jefferson has not been charged in the corruption investigation that prompted the search, but an FBI affidavit says he was videotaped accepting a $100,000 bribe. Jefferson's attorney says he will appeal the decision, saying the raid on Congressman Jefferson's office was unprecedented, unnecessary, and unconstitutional.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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