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3rd Cir. Refuses to Kill Corruption Charges Against Sen. Menendez

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on August 05, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Third Circuit has refused to dismiss corruption and fraud charges against U.S. Senator Robert Menendez. The New Jersey senator is accused of accepting gifts in exchange for political favors, but he sought to have the charges dismissed, on the basis that the Constitution's "speech or debate" clause shielded him from prosecution.

That argument did not sway a three-judge panel. This is the last major obstacle to be cleared between the New Jersey legislator from what is most likely going to be a very uncomfortable trial.

Menendez's Charges

In a ruling late last week, the three-judge panel rejected Sen. Menendez's dismissal attempt as meritless. The senator had been indicted on 22 counts of corruption, for accepting almost $1 million in donations and kickbacks from a Florida physician seeking the senator's help in a multi-million dollar Medicare-billing dispute. The tit-for-tat exchange also involved procuring visa's for mistresses.

Speech or Debate

Menendez sought to paint his part in the exchange as something akin to lobbying. That way, his activities would be shielded under the Constitutional legislative-lobbying safe harbor -- generally known as the "speech or debate" doctrine. According to Menendez's lawyer, the senator met with Obama administration officials to suggest policy changes that were in line with his legislative duties. Since the content of those meetings covered broad policy discussions, they ought to be fully covered under the clause, the argument went.

But the panel rejected that argument because, under the circumstances, it was clear that the senator was actually working on behalf of a specific and particular party -- not for a political group.

Appeal Vowed

The Senator and his lawyers have promised to appeal the decision -- both en banc and up to SCOTUS.

The Speech or Debate Clause has been controversial over the decades. Even SCOTUS has observed an inherent danger in the clause; it previously ruled that the clause was not intended by Congress to "make members of Congress super-citizens, immune from criminal responsibility."

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