Members of the United States Congress are generally protected from being criminally prosecuted for their “legislative acts” under the Speech or Debate Clause of the United States Constitution. Pursuant to the clause, members of both Houses of Congress are privileged from being arrested, except for treason, felony, or breach of peace, during their attendance of sessions of Congress, and when their speech or debate held in Congress related to “legislative acts.” A similar clause in the California Constitution also protects members of the state legislature. The clause provides absolute protection for particular legislative activities, and it applies in equal force regardless of a member’s alleged motivation.
Despite its broad application, the clause is not without limitations. A promise to deliver a speech, to vote, or to solicit other votes at some future date in exchange for private gain is not considered to be a “speech” or “debate” within the meaning of the clause. Likewise, a mere promise to introduce a bill is not a legislative act. As a result, a member of Congress may be prosecuted for white collar crimes on public corruption charges when evidence shows that in negotiating with private parties a member of the legislature solicited a bride or sought other personal gain. In investigating such charges, neither a member of Congress nor his or her aide may refuse to testify at grand jury proceedings if the testimony does not concern or impugn a legislative act.
The prosecution of a former Arizona Congressman, Richard G. Renzi, provides a good example to illustrate this point. Renzi has been charged with using his public office to benefit himself. In particular, it was alleged that Renzi had offered two private parties a deal in which they would buy private land owned by his former business partner in exchange for his promise to support future public land exchange legislation favorable to both parties. The evidence showed that the sale of land was supposed to generate enough cash to repay a debt owed to Renzi by his former business partner. The Ninth Circuit held that Renzi’s alleged conduct surrounding his negotiation was not protected under the Speech or Debate Clause because his negotiation with private parties was not a privileged legislative act under the Constitution.
The San Diego Law Office of Domenic J. Lombardo is dedicated to defending criminal charges in state, federal, and county courts throughout San Diego County and the state of California. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us at (619) 232-5122.