NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A corruption indictment handed up last year against New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez should be dismissed because it misapplies a federal law that shields lawmakers from scrutiny of their official duties and motives, according to a brief filed by Menendez's attorneys seeking to have the U.S. Supreme Court throw out the case.
The longtime Democratic lawmaker was charged with fraud and bribery last year after prosecutors said he took official action on behalf of a longtime friend who had given him gifts and campaign donations.
In a filing delivered Monday and released Tuesday, lawyers for Menendez contend his meetings with various government officials were legislative acts meant to discuss policy matters and were protected by a section in the Constitution called the "speech or debate" clause.
The filing argues a lower court was mistaken when it allowed the indictment to go forward because it relies on assumptions about Menendez's motives, scrutiny it says previous Supreme Court decisions on the clause prohibit.
The ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals "upends this Court's precedents, splits with at least three other circuits, and nullifies the core protection of the Speech or Debate Clause," attorney Abbe Lowell wrote in Monday's filing.
The Supreme Court likely won't decide whether to hear the case until late February or March. A trial is tentatively scheduled for next fall. Menendez and Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen have pleaded not guilty.
In rejecting Menendez's motion to dismiss the indictment earlier this year, the appeals court said the issue of the meetings with government officials should be argued in front of a jury.
Lowell argued at the time that the U.S. District Court judge in New Jersey presiding over the case erred by looking at Menendez's purported motives for the meetings rather than what transpired at them. He said Menendez discussed port security and Medicare policy issues that were part of his legislative duties.
Prosecutors allege the meetings were aimed at helping Melgen in a Medicare dispute and a contract for port security in the Dominican Republic, in exchange for campaign donations and gifts to Menendez totaling more than $1 million.
The appeals court wrote Menendez's alleged acts in the case were essentially lobbying and "outside the constitutional safe harbor" of speech or debate.
The speech or debate clause dates to the 1780s and was written into the Constitution to fortify the separation of powers between the three branches of government and to protect members of Congress from having their legislative acts subjected to scrutiny by the other two branches.
A recent ruling by the Supreme Court in the case of former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell could bolster Menendez's arguments. The court set aside McDonnell's bribery conviction, writing that actions he took that benefited a businessman who gave him luxury gifts might have been distasteful but did constitute illegal conduct.
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