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Friday, August 10, 2007

Weirdest appellate case name I've seen recently

I'm reading, and pondering blogging at more length about, the D.C. Circuit's decision from August 3rd on U.S. Representative William Jefferson (D-LA)'s challenge to the FBI raid on his congressional office. Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog has a good description of the ruling, as part of which he writes:

The D.C. Circuit Court ruled on Friday that the Justice Department and FBI violated the constitutional rights of a member of Congress when it seized paper files from his Capitol Hill office during a bribery investigation, finding that at least some of those documents involved "legislative material." The case has appeared to be destined for the Supreme Court in a major test of separation of powers doctrine. The Justices have never ruled on the constitutional issues at stake; the search of the lawmaker's office was the first ever by the Executive Branch of a sitting member of either House or Senate.

Such "privileged" material is protected by the Constitution's Speech or Debate Clause, the Court found in a 2-1 ruling concluding that FBI agents went too far in carrying out a warrant in an overnight search on May 20 last year of the legislative office of Rep. William Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat.

Editorialists at the Los Angeles Times are concerned that "this decision will provide cover for corrupt members who seek to hide evidence of their wrongdoing among their official papers." By contrast, editorialists at the Wall Street Journal are concerned that "allowing the executive branch to review the documents and make its own judgments about privilege is like allowing Congress to pass judgment on the limits of executive privilege unilaterally — something this newspaper has also long opposed, although Congress is once again trying to do precisely that." (H/t for both to Howard Bashman.)

The one thing I know without further reflection, however, is that the name of the appellate decision is an absolute hoot: United States of America, Appellee, versus Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2113, Washington, D.C. 20515, Appellant. (I'm not quite sure why the D.C. Circuit opinion has the appellee's name listed first, but that's not what makes it such a peculiar case name.)

As silly as it seems, there's actually a reason for the case to have been brought in that name, since that was how the target of the FBI's search warrant was specified. (Law books are filled with similarly odd names, especially from seizure and forfeiture cases, along the lines of "Brown Shoebox Containing $31,021.11 and Four Marbles v. United States.") But do not be confused: Rep. Jefferson is the "real party in interest," meaning his lawyers spoke for, erm, Room 2113, and it was Rep. Jefferson's rights and interests that the D.C. Circuit weighed.

And apparently, there were also several amicus briefs filed, including at least one (on behalf of former House Speaker "Thomas M. Foley et al.") that may have provided a slightly different "take" on the legislative branch's legitimate interests than Rep. Jefferson's own lawyers might have done alone. His interests as an individual congressman, and the House of Representatives' and/or the Senate's interests as institutions, may be out of alignment in very important respects.

Posted by Beldar at 03:22 AM in Law (2007) | Permalink


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(1) Rovin made the following comment | Aug 10, 2007 8:11:06 AM | Permalink

United States of America, Appellee, versus Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2113, Washington, D.C. 20515, Appellant.

Reading this title, may I ask was the court making their decision based on the weight of an institution, or an individual, or both? Where is the distinction in this case, or does there have to be one?

I'm just trying to educate myself, and while you may have written (in this post) the answer, I can't see it.

(2) Beldar made the following comment | Aug 10, 2007 5:33:31 PM | Permalink

Rovin: This particular address was simply part of Rep. Jefferson's office space at or adjacent to the Capitol. But the fact that Jefferson was a member of Congress was what triggered the Constitution's "speech or debate" clause — not the address itself. To what extent Jefferson, as just one member, and arguably a rogue member, of the House can assert those rights all by himself — or must instead assert them through the Congressional leadership, or that they must be the ones to assert the rights on his behalf — is a very interesting question that I don't think this case definitively answers, even though it may have enormous practical significance. Stay tuned; I need to study the opinion more closely and perhaps do some further reading, at which point I may try to comment further.

(3) nk made the following comment | Aug 10, 2007 9:15:31 PM | Permalink

I have only skimmed the opinion as well but it seems to me to be more in rem and less in personam. More in that the Court suppressed some of the seized documents on the basis that they were the instrumentalities of Congress and less in that it allowed other documents that related only to Jefferson.

(4) Rovin made the following comment | Aug 10, 2007 10:34:48 PM | Permalink

Thanks Beldar, I will check back.

NK, I do find it interesting that the court is allowing a "filtering" process to certain portions of the evidence. That would seem to set a precedent that allows the actual search of the office.

(5) nk made the following comment | Aug 10, 2007 11:44:12 PM | Permalink

Yup. That's my impression, too. Not very far-reaching and therefore not very interesting for the vast majority of laborers of Justice. The Court said (I think) that anything that relates to the crime the slimeball is charged with can be properly searched for and seized, but not EVERYTHING in the office in deference to whatever non-corrupt work he may have been doing as a member of Congress.

(6) nk made the following comment | Aug 10, 2007 11:58:07 PM | Permalink

P.S. Which is not really anything new in the law of search and seizure. There is already a requirement of specificity in the Fourth Amendment. I think the Court was telling Congress in the best way it could to take a deep breath and calm down -- "everything will be ok".

(7) DRJ made the following comment | Aug 11, 2007 9:15:49 PM | Permalink

I always liked Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents 403 U.S. 388 (1971). It's not really that strange but it was my first exposure to a case with an unconventional name.

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