The clause is designed to enforce the separation of powers and to promote robust speech, debate, and deliberation in the legislative branch of government without intimidation or threats from the executive branch. Members of Congress may not be harassed or prosecuted for things they say or official acts related to the legislative process.
But influence-peddling, bribery, and other forms of corruption are not protected by the speech or debate clause.
The central question in the appeal had been whether federal agents investigating suspected corruption are entitled to scoop up all the documents in a congressional office or just those documents unrelated to legitimate legislative acts.
A federal judge upheld the FBI search and seizure. But the US appeals court panel ruled against the agents, saying they violated the speech or debate clause by failing to afford Congressman Jefferson an opportunity to dispute which of his office documents must remain private and which documents can be seized.
In urging the high court to take up the case, Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Garre said the appeals court had wrongly extended the speech or debate clause protections to cover search warrants. "The speech or debate clause by its terms protects 'speech or debate;' it does not protect against the disclosure of information through a criminal search warrant, which involves no questioning of a member of Congress," Mr. Garre said in his brief to the court.
"Only this court can resolve this important question," he said. "Until it does so, investigations of corruption in the nation's capital and elsewhere will be seriously and perhaps even fatally stymied."
Jefferson's lawyers dismissed the government's comments as hyperbole. "[Justice Department] claims that the court of appeals' decision will jeopardize other investigations or the use of other investigative techniques are substantially exaggerated," said Robert Trout in his brief urging the court not to take up the case.