Checks and Balances and Freezers Full of Cash


Schoolhouse Rock never quite covered congressmen with wads of possibly bribery-related cash in their freezers, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. gives us a lesson in checks and balances in its decision regarding the Justice Department raid of the office of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) last year. From the AP coverage:

The Justice Department has predicted a ruling such as the one Friday will turn Congress into a haven where lawmakers can keep evidence of corruption off-limits to prosecutors.

That's not the case, said the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The raid itself was constitutional, the court held. But the FBI crossed the line when it viewed every record in the office without allowing Jefferson to argue that some involved legislative business. The Constitution prohibits the executive branch from using its law enforcement powers to interfere with the lawmaking process.

"The review of the congressman's paper files when the search was executed exposed legislative material to the executive" and violated the Constitution, the court wrote. "The congressman is entitled to the return of documents that the court determines to be privileged."

This doesn't mean that the bleeding-heart courts are going to allow a potentially criminal congressman to just walk, though:

The court did not rule whether, because portions of the search were illegal, prosecutors should be barred from using any of the records in their case against Jefferson. That will be decided by a Virginia federal judge presiding over the criminal case, which is scheduled for trial in January.

Back in May 2006, Jacob Sullum wrote about this case and wondered why Congress only seems to care about separation of powers when its ox is gored.