(CN) – Lawmakers can’t be held criminally liable for statements they make during congressional ethics investigations, the D.C. Circuit ruled in a case stemming from the Abramoff scandal.
The House of Representatives had grilled former Florida Republican Rep. Tom Feeney in 2007 over his alleged decision to let now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff pay for a 2003 golf trip to Scotland.
The House Ethics Committee found Feeney in violation of House rules, and Feeney agreed to pay the U.S. Treasury more than $5,600, the alleged cost of the trip.
After the committee closed the investigation, the government launched a criminal probe into statements Feeney made during the previous investigation. Grand jury subpoenas were served on the law firm and the individual lawyers who represented Feeney before the ethics committee.
Feeney moved to quash the subpoenas, citing the Speech and Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which protects senators and representatives from being arrested or “questioned” for statements made in either House.
In a recently unsealed ruling, the federal appeals court overturned the district court’s denial of the motion to quash. The D.C. Circuit said Feeney’s statements are protected, because they stem from an investigation of his official legislative duties.
“[T]he congressman’s statements in this case were directly spurred by the inquiry into whether he had abused his office to obtain a vacation,” Judge Ginsburg wrote.
In a concurring opinion, Judge Kavanaugh urged the full court to reconsider the test used to determine if the Speech and Debate Clause applies. Kavanaugh called it “unwise in principle and unworkable in practice” to grant protection only when the underlying investigation involves a lawmaker’s official conduct, but not when it concerns his or her personal conduct.