|Seal on Seized Jefferson Materials Expires Today|
But it will remain in effect for awhile
Sunday, July 09, 2006
By Bruce Alpert
WASHINGTON -- A 45-day seal on materials seized in a raid on U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's Capitol Hill office legally expires today -- but will be continued anyway, as lawyers and politicians wrangle over unprecedented constitutional issues.
On May 25, President Bush ordered the seal in hopes that his Justice Department and House negotiators could "in good faith and with mutual institutional respect" resolve their disagreement over the legality of the first-ever search of a congressional office.
Agents seized documents and computer hard drives as part of a federal corruption probe of the eight-term New Orleans Democrat.
The seal will remain in place consistent with a previous statement by the chief judge for the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Thomas Hogan, that the president's directive should continue until "further order of the court."
On June 16, Hogan heard oral arguments during which Jefferson's lawyer and the attorney for the bipartisan leadership of the House of Representatives accused the Justice Department of an attack on the constitutionally established separation of powers.
Hogan, who had granted the government's request for a search warrant for Jefferson's office, strongly suggested during the hearing that he didn't find the legal arguments by Jefferson's lawyers and the House counsel's office convincing. He promised a quick ruling. But as of late Friday, both sides were still awaiting his ruling, which is now expected early next week.
"I think he sees the need to lay out a carefully crafted written opinion because this is an historic first," said Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond. "He knows the difference between the routine search warrants he handles all the time, and the first one in the history of the nation in which a congressional office has been searched."
Jefferson has said he has an honorable explanation for the allegations that he engaged in a bribery scheme to promote projects in West Africa and predicts he will be cleared of any wrongdoing.
Probably won't be last word
Hogan's ruling, while eagerly anticipated, probably won't be the last word in the case. If the judge accepts the Justice Department's argument that the search didn't violate the separation of powers or the speech or debate clause of the Constitution, Jefferson's lawyers and probably the House counsel's office will almost certainly appeal the ruling.
The still-open question is whether Hogan, appointed to the federal bench in 1982 by President Reagan, will continue to keep the material taken from Jefferson's office sealed until the appeal is decided.
Tobias said it's likely the Justice Department will argue that the material should be made available immediately so the government can move expeditiously with its investigation of Jefferson and decide whether to seek an indictment from the Northern Virginia grand jury hearing the case.
Tobias said that, as with other issues in this case, there isn't a lot of precedent on whether the documents should remain sealed while the appeals process continues. If an appeal is filed, it initially would be heard by a three-judge panel in the district court. After that, it most likely would go the U.S. Supreme Court.
For now, according to a recent Justice Department filing, the documents remain in "heat-sealed evidence envelopes" placed inside a General Services Administration-approved combination safe.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 383-7861.