Friday, February 22, 2008
The latest bombshell in the prosecution of Dickie Scruggs and two co-defendants on charges related to an attempted bribe of a state judge was the revelation by federal prosecutors that they intend to call former Senator Trent Lott -- Scruggs' brother-in-law -- to testify at trial about conduct that may involve a scheme to influence a second state court judge. The government notified the defendants earlier that it intends to offer Rule 404(b) evidence against Dickie regarding his conduct to influence Judge Bobby DeLaughter in a case over which he was presiding involving a dispute over attorney's fees, the same type of suit in the main corruption prosecution. Unlike the attempted bribe, however, the alleged influencing of Judge DeLaughter involved the possibility that Senator Lott would recommend him for appointment as a federal district court judge, and Dickie purportedly offered to intercede with his brother-in-law to help get the appointment.
At a hearing on various defense motions (see Clarion-Ledger story here), the prosecutors revealed the potential witnesses they would call to establish the influencing of Judge DeLaughter, including the fact that Senator Lott called the judge to discuss his interest in an appointment to the federal bench. Records indicate that the call was in fact made, although Judge DeLaughter was never nominated and it appears that the issue never went any further than the single telephone call. The federal corruption statutes do not require success for a violation, and the quid pro quo need not be money or property, only something of value to the recipient, so an offer to help get a federal judgeship would likely constitute a criminal violation. Senator Lott's involvement appears to be innocent on his end, making what appears to be largely a courtesy call to someone who had virtually no chance of being nominated -- Judge DeLaughter is a Democrat. The fact that Senator Lott resigned his seat two days before Dickie's indictment is certainly fodder for the conspiracy theorists, but the fact that he made a telephone call, even at the behest of his brother-in-law, does not mean Senator Lott knew there was anything questionable taking place.
An interesting question is whether Senator Lott can be called to testify, or will the immunity granted under the Speech or Debate Clause bar any questioning about the telephone call to Judge DeLaughter. That provision provides that "for any Speech or Debate in either House, [Members of Congress] shall not be questioned in any other Place.” U.S. Const. Art. I, Sec. 6 (italics added). The protection afforded by the Constitution means a Senator or Representative cannot be charged with a crime or sued in a civil case about the person's legislative acts. The language of the provision would also appear to include questioning in a criminal investigation or prosecution, such as a grand jury or at trial. In Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606 (1972), the Court described what comes within the immunity provided to legislators:
The heart of the Clause is speech or debate in either House. Insofar as the Clause is construed to reach other matters, they must be an integral part of the deliberative and communicative processes by which Members participate in committee and House proceedings with respect to the consideration and passage or rejection of proposed legislation or with respect to other matters which the Constitution places within the jurisdiction of either House.
Id. at 626.
The Senate is required to give advice and consent to judicial nominees, and contacting someone about an appointment to the federal bench sure looks like it comes within Gravel's description of a legislative act. Thus, naming Senator Lott as a witness to testify about the telephone call, which could include questions his motivations for it or discussions that led up to it, would appear to come within the prohibition on questioning a member of Congress about their legislative activities. Imagine the questions that might be posed by either prosecutors or defense counsel to Senator Lott, such as "Was Judge DeLaughter a serious candidate for a nomination, and what other candidates were you considering?" or "What is the process by which you review candidates for nomination as a federal district court judge?"
The Speech or Debate Clause protection is jealously guarded by Congress, and I doubt counsel to the Senate would be willing to allow such questions, even if Senator Lott wants to testify. While the Senator could give a voluntary statement because he would not be "questioned" in violation of the Congressional immunity, I doubt it would be admissible for any number of reasons, including problems under the Confrontation Clause if Dickie is not given the chance to cross-examine him under oath. While the prosecutors and perhaps even the defendant are anxious to have Senator Lott testify, I don't know if we will ever see that take place in this always-interesting case. (ph)