We don't think our nation's Founders meant to grant members of Congress immunity from crimes. Yet, in a way, a federal appeals court ruling last week grants them such protection.
In a case involving U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington ruled that information gained in a congressional probe of Feeney cannot be used in a criminal investigation of him.
We can think of one person - former U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, D-Ohio - who may wish the ruling had been handed down a few years ago. Ney went to prison (he has since been released) after admitting that he, as a member of Congress, did favors for convicted criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff, in exchange for gifts.
One of the gifts was a 2003 trip to Scotland. Feeney also was on the trip. In 2007, the House Ethics Committee ruled that Feeney's acceptance of the trip violated House rules. He reimbursed the U.S. Treasury for the estimated cost of the trip, $5,643.
Cases involving Ney and Feeney were different in some details. But the fact remains that the appeals court ruled that information gathered by the House in checking on the same trip could not be used in criminal prosecution of Feeney.
The court's ruling was based on a section of the Constitution. It states that debate or comments in the House "shall not be questioned in any other place." Among other protections, the section safeguards lawmakers against libel lawsuits based on their comments in the House. The appeals court has extended and amplified the section to rule out criminal prosecution using information gathered by congressional investigators. Feeney is getting off scot-free - simply because he is a member of Congress.
The nation's Founders were wise to insert the "speech and debate" clause. It allows for free, open discussion of issues in Congress. But we do not believe the Founders intended to extend the protection to immunity from crimes committed by lawmakers. The court ruling last week should be appealed to the Supreme Court.