|Appeal to stall Jefferson trial for months|
Appeal to stall Jefferson trial for months
by The Times-Picayune
Wednesday February 20, 2008, 9:09 PM
By Bill Walsh
and Bruce Alpert
WASHINGTON -- New Orleans Congressman William Jefferson on Wednesday appealed a key ruling in his public corruption case, a move certain to delay the trial -- possibly until the fall election season.
Jury selection in Jefferson's bribery case was scheduled to begin Monday, but proceedings will be put on hold while the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals considers his constitutional challenge to 14 of the 16 charges against him.
Jefferson appealed a ruling by U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who rejected the congressman's claim that the grand jury heard tainted testimony from former Capitol Hill staffers. Jefferson said the aides improperly discussed his legislative activities in violation of the Constitution's speech or debate clause, which is meant to protect Congress from executive branch interference.
The appeal was not unexpected, but it cast doubt about when the trial, originally scheduled for Jan. 16, will begin. People familiar with the Richmond, Va.-based appellate court say it moves faster than most, but a decision is probably months away. Whichever side loses the appeal could take the dispute to the U.S. Supreme Court and further delay the trial.
"If it goes to the Supreme Court, we could be into the fall," said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
The delay has political implications because Jefferson faces re-election in November. He beat back a robust election challenge in 2006 despite revelations that the FBI found $90,000 in alleged bribe money in his freezer. His subsequent indictment in June 2007 and impending trial casts an even darker cloud over his political future.
Jefferson has not said whether he is running for a 10th term. Spokeswoman Ashley Wilson said, "I have not heard anything to the contrary."
Several legal experts Wednesday gave Jefferson little hope of prevailing at the appellate court. It is rare that trial judges are overturned, they said, and Ellis has a solid record of having his rulings upheld.
The court long had a reputation of being one of the most conservative in the nation. But in recent years, the court has seen the retirement of five judges, including some of its most conservative. Among the recent retirees was J. Michael Luttig, who was said to be on President Bush's short list for the U.S. Supreme Court.
The current court is evenly divided between judges appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents. A three-judge panel will be randomly chosen to hear Jefferson's appeal. Experts say that barring an egregious error by a lower court, appellate courts are inclined to let a trial proceed.
"Jefferson has raised some interesting legal challenges, but they are mixed questions of law and fact," said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School. "It is the type of thing that appellate judges are reluctant to consider before trial."
The congressman faces 16 charges stemming from his involvement in a slew of business ventures in West Africa. The indictment alleges that Jefferson, through companies run by his family, received nearly $400,000 in bribes and millions of shares of corporate stock for using his influence to promote contracts for U.S. companies overseas.
Jefferson has pleaded innocent and in pretrial motions asked the court to dismiss charges of racketeering, money laundering, bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy because the Justice Department, he said, trampled on the constitutionally protected right of Congress to make laws freely.
In legal briefs and oral arguments, his attorneys pointed to statements by former Capitol Hill aides about his involvement in African trade legislation as a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. The Constitution's speech or debate clause gives congressmen immunity for their legislative activities.
But Ellis ruled Feb. 6 that the grand jury testimony didn't overstep the constitutional prohibition. In a follow-up written opinion, Ellis said, "Put simply, the Speech or Debate Clause is not a license to commit a crime."
The government is expected to ask that the appellate court expedite the consideration of Jefferson's case, but legal experts say that even if that happened, it could take three to nine months for the court to rule.
Further delays could be on the horizon. Jefferson has filed other motions to throw out the bribery charges, and if Ellis rules against the government, the Justice Department could seek its own appeals.
Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202)¤383-7861.
Bill Walsh can be reached at email@example.com or (202)¤383-7817.