Does ‘Speech or Debate’ Trump the Right to Defend Oneself in Court?

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On February 5, 2013, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives filed a brief urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to hold that U.S. legislators and their aides cannot be forced to testify about their legislative activities, even when their expected testimony might help exonerate a criminal defendant.

The case raises interesting questions about the balancing of constitutional imperatives – here, the separation of powers and a criminal defendant’s right to present a defense. Fraser Verrusio, a former House staffer, is hoping for a balance struck in favor of defendants’ rights.

In 2011, Verrusio was convicted of accepting an illegal gratuity in connection with his duties as then policy director of the House Transportation Committee. According to the prosecution, Verrusio accepted and failed to report an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City that included a ticket to the World Series and an outing to a strip club. The trip was funded by United Rentals, a construction-equipment company that had stepped up its lobbying efforts to get favorable amendments into the federal highway bill. United Rentals wooed senior staff member Verrusio, who reportedly advised the chair of the House Transportation Committee (as well as the committee) on legislative strategies and policy. Prosecutors alleged that when Verrusio accepted the $1,200 trip, he knew that United Rentals was compensating him for future assistance on the highway bill.

One key piece of evidence against Verrusio was an e-mail that United Rentals lobbyist James Hirni sent to Vivian Curry, legislative director for then-House Committee member John Boozman. In his e-mail, Hirni said, “I have spoken to [Verrusio] and he is good to go. I am resending him the language in the Senate bill, with changes which would represent the 100 percent victory for [United Rentals. Verrusio] asked us to give him the language plus what we would want in the perfect world.”

To address the possible inferences from that e-mail, Verrusio’s attorneys issued a trial subpoena to Curry. The defense expected her to testify that Verrusio had not inserted himself into the legislative process and had not pressured her. But Curry moved to quash the subpoena on grounds that her testimony was privileged under the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution. She argued that the testimony sought was protected because it concerned “information gathering for legislative purposes.”

Verrusio countered that the inability to call Curry would violate his rights to due process and to present a complete defense. During the hearing on Curry’s motion, the defense made a potentially critical error when it acknowledged the “high hurdle” imposed by the Speech or Debate Clause and then conceded that the clause “in fact did “appear to cover [the e-mail] communications.” The court held that Curry had properly invoked the privilege and could not be forced to testify.

After the jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts, Verrusio appealed. Among other things, he claims that the trial court erred when it prevented him from calling Curry as a witness. In his view, one of two results must follow. First, Verrusio contends that protections under the Speech or Debate Clause are not absolute but, in some cases, must give way to a defendant’s right to compulsory process. He argues that trial judges should balance a defendant’s need for otherwise-protected testimony against the potential burden on Congress. When the case involves an aide’s testimony regarding informal, passive information gathering from a third party, the potential burden is minimal to non-existent. In such cases, the next question to ask is whether the testimony sought is material. In cases like his — where the jury verdict is already of questionable validity — the “materiality” bar is lower. Thus, he argues, any evidence calling into question the government’s theory could have created reasonable doubt.

Verrusio contends in the alternative that, if the Speech or Debate Clause privilege is absolute, the indictment must be dismissed.

The prosecution replies that Verrusio waived his right to appeal the trial judge’s order to quash. Not only did the defense concede that Curry’s testimony was protected; it first introduced the “balancing test” argument on appeal. Therefore the appellate court may not consider it.

Speaking as friends of the court, the House’s Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group framed the issue as one upon which “the whole American fabric” rests – separation of powers. The decision is simply whether an individual’s right to evidence trumps American liberty in general – an impossible bar to meet. After summarizing the history of the Speech or Debate Clause, the House brief argues that the clause is absolute, regardless of whether the proceedings are civil or criminal. Moreover, the testimony Verrusio sought from Curry was unquestionably protected because it concerned “activities that were ‘an integral part of the deliberative and communicative processes by which Members participate in committee and House proceedings.’” According to the House brief, no court has held that the Speech or Debate Clause privilege is subject to a balancing test. And Verrusio’s reliance on cases recognizing some flexibility with respect to executive privilege is unavailing since executive privilege is not expressly mandated in the Constitution.

But the House brief glosses over the fact that executive privilege is rooted in separation of powers just like the speech or debate privilege. That leaves the question of why the separation of powers in executive-privilege cases need not be guarded so jealously.

Courts decline to address thorny constitutional questions if they can resolve a case on other grounds. It seems likely that the D.C. Circuit will home in on Verrusio’s alleged failure to preserve his argument and save the speech or debate issue for another day. Verrusio’s reply brief is due to be filed by March 13, 2013; the D.C. Circuit will likely issue its decision sometime mid-year.