A federal appeals court Thursday rejected a bid by former U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi to block the Arizona Republican's trial on charges of extortion and other crimes, ruling that a legal privilege for federal lawmakers' legislative acts isn't a blanket shield from investigations and prosecutions of alleged corruption.
"Taking a bribe is, obviously, no part of the legislative process or function; it is not a legislative act," the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a ruling, quoting from a 1966 Supreme Court decision.
Renzi argued that prosecution evidence concerning negotiations with private entities on proposed real estate deals, including a swap involving public land proposed as the site for a copper mine, was improperly presented to a grand jury, violating the Constitution's "speech or debate" clause.
However, the trial judge disagreed and Thursday's ruling by a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit denied Renzi's appeal on the issue. The appellate court said the evidence in Renzi's criminal case falls outside protections given members of Congress by the "speech or debate clause."
The ruling also said a 2007 ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia went too far in interpreting the clause's reach when the Washington court barred prosecution use of documents seized from the House office of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson.
The 9th Circuit's position puts lawmakers on notice that the clause won't protect them if they engage in bribery or extortion, said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The advocacy group filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Renzi case.
The 9th Circuit ruling said legislative acts protected by the clause has been interpreted broadly by the Supreme Court that the high court's decisions in past decades and centuries also found limits. Under those limits, pre-legislation negotiations, including promise to introduce a bill, are not protected acts, the appellate court said.
And the clause's protections that would bar evidence-gathering and prosecution aren't automatically activated just because an act has an appearance of legislative validity, the 9th Circuit said.
The appeal had put the former three-term lawmaker's case in U.S. District Court in Tucson on hold. Renzi has pleaded innocent.
The corruption charges accuse Renzi of trying to engineer a land swap involving public and private land to benefit himself and a business partner. He also is accused of looting his family insurance business to fund his campaigns and personal expenses.
Renzi attorney Reid Weingarten and Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney did not immediately return calls for comment on the ruling.
Bipartisan congressional leaders filed a brief that said the speech and debate clause was "a fundamental pillar of Congress' independence and its ability to serve the American people free from interference and intimidation by the executive and judicial branches."
The leaders' June 2010 brief said all the charges related to the land swap matter should be dismissed because they were "tainted" by improper evidence-gathering of privilege material.
The appellate court said its ruling doesn't substantially increase the power of the executive or judicial branches over the legislative branch. However, Congress could choose to exempt its members from bribery laws "if we underestimate the potential for harassment," it added.
In a separate order Thursday, the 9th Circuit granted an appeal by federal prosecutors and reinstated part of a racketeering charge dismissed by the trial judge.
Renzi represented Arizona's sprawling 1st Congressional District before declining to seek re-election in 2008.