The corruption allegations against Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have the hallmarks of a classic Capitol Hill scandal. The Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section indicted Senator Menendez last spring for allegedly using his official position to promote the business and personal interests of his friend and long-time donor Dr. Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist. According to the allegations, Dr. Melgen provided Senator Menendez with lavish trips to Florida, Paris, and the Dominican Republic, as well as political contributions to allies. In exchange, Senator Menendez allegedly interceded with immigration authorities to help Dr. Melgen secure visas for his foreign girlfriends, sought to influence an administrative enforcement action against Dr. Melgen for $8.9 million in Medicare overbilling, and pressured the Executive Branch to intervene in Dr. Melgen’s contract dispute with the Dominican Republic.
Unsurprisingly, this legal fight has been ugly. Senator Menendez and his legal team have accused the prosecution of gross misconduct in the grand jury investigation, of “misapplying” and “making up from whole cloth” certain legal standards, and “disparaging defendants’ motives and defense counsel.” The prosecution, for its part, has accused the Senator’s camp of deploying “vituperation” instead of substance and of advancing “false factual premises and specious legal reasoning.”
The latest iteration of this saga is taking place at the appellate level, where the Third Circuit recently heard oral arguments on Senator Menendez’s assertion that his actions on behalf of Dr. Melgen are entitled to immunity under the U.S. Constitution’s “Speech or Debate” Clause (an argument the trial court rejected). The Speech or Debate Clause provides that “for any Speech or Debate in either House, [Members of Congress] shall not be questioned in any other Place.” Like many legislative immunity clauses in other countries, the Speech or Debate Clause was born in part out of a desire to protect legislators from political prosecution for the views they express when legislating, and to encourage free and informed debate.
U.S. courts have interpreted the Clause quite generously over the years, reading it to cover not only actual speeches and debates, but also other “legislative acts” (such as voting on legislation, authorizing an investigation by a Congressional Committee, preparing reports, and holding hearings). Senator Menendez, however, argues for an even broader understanding of the conduct that qualifies as “legislative acts” shielded by the Clause. These arguments should be rejected. Not only are Senator Menendez’s claims legally dubious under existing precedents, but, if accepted, they would also hamstring the prosecution of classic quid pro quo corruption.