Speech or Debate Clause: Constitutional Background and Recent Developments [August 8, 2012] [open pdf - 296KB]
"Members of Congress have immunity for their legislative acts under Article I, Section 6, clause 1, of the Constitution, which provides in part that 'for any speech or debate in either House, [Senators and Representatives] shall not be questioned in any other place.' Even if their actions are within the scope of the Speech or Debate Clause or some other legal immunity, Members of Congress remain accountable to the house of Congress in which they serve and to the electorate. In cases in which the Clause applies, the immunity is absolute and cannot be defeated by an allegation of an improper purpose or motivation. When applicable, the Clause provides both immunity from liability (in civil and criminal proceedings) and a complimentary evidentiary privilege. […] In 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also weighed in on how to apply the Clause to executive branch criminal investigations of Members. In that case, Representative Richard Renzi was accused of agreeing to support legislation in exchange for a private land purchase agreement benefitting one of his creditors. He was indicted on numerous criminal counts, including extortion and fraud, which he challenged on Speech or Debate Clause grounds. The appeals court determined that his challenged actions were not covered by the Clause. Additionally, the Ninth Circuit appeared to split with the D.C. Circuit analysis in Representative Jefferson's case on whether the Clause prevents the executive branch from ever viewing protected evidence. This report examines the constitutional background of the Speech or Debate Clause and these recent developments in jurisprudence. It will be updated as events warrant."
CRS Report for Congress, R42648