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United States v. Helstoski

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiff indicted Defendant, a former member of the House of Representatives, on corruption charges for allegedly accepting bribes to introduce private bills, including a bill to suspend immigration laws so aliens could remain in the United States. The district court’s ruling that the United States was prohibited from offering evidence of the actual performance of any legislative acts, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari. The court of appeals affirmed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    In a prosecution, the Speech or Debate Clause prohibits the introduction of evidence pertaining to a legislative act of a member of Congress.

    Facts.

    Helstoski (Defendant), a former member of the House of Representatives, was indicted by the United States (Plaintiff) on corruption charges for allegedly accepting bribes to introduce private bills, including a bill to suspend immigration laws so aliens could remain in the United States. Over the course of eight appearances before a grand jury, Defendant testified about and produced files pertaining to numerous private bills. During Defendant’s ninth grand jury appearance, he asserted privilege under the Speech or Debate Clause and refused to further testify or produce additional evidence. The court of appeals upheld the district court’s ruling that the United States was prohibited from offering evidence of the actual performance of any legislative acts, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari. 

    Issue.

    Whether the Speech or Debate Clause prohibits the introduction of evidence pertaining to a legislative act of a member of Congress in a prosecution.

    Held.

    Yes. The court of appeals’ ruling is affirmed. In a prosecution, the Speech or Debate Clause prohibits the introduction of evidence pertaining to a legislative act of a member of Congress.

    Dissent.

    (Brennan, J.): The Court should go much further and dismiss the indictment.

    Concurrence.

    (Stevens, J.): The Court holds that evidence referring to future legislative acts may be admitted, but evidence of past legislative acts may not. Instead the trial court should determine if the evidence referring to a past or future legislative act is “merely incidental to a proper purpose,” and if so, admit it.

    Discussion.

    The Court’s prior holdings are unequivocal that evidence pertaining to a legislative act of a member of Congress may not be introduced in a prosecution. A member of Congress may be criminally prosecuted so long as the government’s case does not rely on legislative acts or the motivation for legislative acts. Promises to speak, vote or introduce a bill in the future, however, are not legislative acts. A legislative act is defined as “an act generally done in Congress in relation to the business before it.” The purpose of the Speech or Debate Clause is to preserve the constitutional structure of separate, independent branches of government. While the exclusion of such evidence will make prosecutions more difficult, nonetheless the Speech or Debate Clause prohibits inquiry into things said or done, and motivation for those acts, in the House or Senate in performing official duties.


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