It many ways, legislative or parliamentary immunity seems an anathema to the fight against public corruption. Legislative immunity shields legislators from prosecution for acts taken within their legislative ambit, sometimes even shielding them when those actions are corrupt. As my earlier post on Senator Menendez hints, even when it seems clear that legislators’ actions are not protected, the very existence of legislative immunity gives legislators room to argue and prolong their court cases – all the while continuing to serve in the legislature. Legislative immunity can undermine public confidence in lawmaking and perpetuate a sense of impunity in public officials.
That said, there is a reason most democracies have some form of legislative immunity: not because individual legislators should be shielded from prosecution, but because the legislature as an institution should be protected from intrusion and second-guessing by prosecutors and the judiciary. Of particular concern are politically-motivated prosecutions brought by the government against legislators from opposing parties. Turkey provides a recent example. This past May, Turkey’s legislature voted to lift parliamentary immunity and pave the way for prosecution of pro-Kurdish legislators accused of supporting terror (see here). While concerns about terrorism are very real in Turkey, this move falls clearly within President Erdogan’s broader efforts to consolidate power and move away from democratic rule.
Ultimately, both concerns about impunity and legislative independence are valid. The question is how to strike the appropriate balance. Legislative immunity can take many forms, and there is likely no single “best” model. The most appropriate form of legislative immunity will likely depend instead on a range of contextual factors. Here I consider several critical ones: