WASHINGTON The Supreme Court on Monday refused to step into a high-stakes legal fight between the Justice Department and indicted Rep. William Jefferson over the unprecedented raid on the lawmaker's Capitol Hill office.
The Justice Department said the court's action would not impede the bribery case against the Louisiana Democrat.
The justices declined to review an appeals court ruling that said that, while the office search itself was legal, the FBI reviewed legislative documents in violation of the Constitution.
Other documents seized in the raid were provided to prosecutors and were used to support a 16-count indictment of Jefferson in June 2007.
Jefferson has pleaded not guilty to charges of soliciting more than $500,000 in bribes while using his office to broker business deals in Africa. His trial has been delayed indefinitely.
Jefferson has asked the trial judge in Alexandria, Va., to suppress all paper and electronic documents seized in the May 2006 raid. A ruling is pending.
"We were convinced that the Department of Justice was out of bounds," Robert Trout, Jefferson's lawyer, said in a telephone interview. "Now, almost two years later, we are gratified that our initial judgment about the raid has finally been confirmed."
The international bribery investigation of Jefferson already had produced a mountain of evidence against him most notably $90,000 found wrapped in foil in a freezer in his Washington home when the FBI carried out the search of his office in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Prosecutors contend he used his influence as chairman of the congressional Africa Investment and Trade Caucus to broker deals in Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and other African nations on behalf of those who paid bribes to him.
The search was "necessary, appropriate and constitutional," Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said at a news conference on the day the indictment was made public.
"Some of those documents that we were able to obtain through the process have indeed supported the charges that are presented today," Fisher said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney expressed disappointment in the court's action Monday, but said, "The Department of Justice will continue to prosecute the case."
The issue that the high court declined to deal with is the reach of a constitutional provision known as the speech or debate clause, which protects elected officials from being questioned by the president, a prosecutor or a plaintiff in a lawsuit about their legislative work.
The court has never said whether the protection also applies to searches.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said it does.
The appeals court did not say lawmakers would need to have advance notice of the FBI's arrival. Rather, the court said the Justice Department may not broadly review legislative records. One solution mentioned in the opinion was for FBI agents to lock down the office, then allow the lawmaker to set aside disputed documents. A judge would decide whether the records could be seized.
Officials said they took extraordinary steps, including using an FBI "filter team" not involved in the criminal case, to review the congressional documents. Government attorneys said the Constitution was not intended to shield lawmakers from prosecution for political corruption.
While the Bush administration asked the Supreme Court to intervene, Attorney General Michael Mukasey said in February that he would prefer Congress and the Justice Department reach agreement about any future searches.
An agreement between lawmakers and his agency would be better than a court-issued "bright-line ruling that one of us can't live with or would find it awkward to live with," Mukasey told the House Judiciary Committee.
The Justice Department, however, said the appeals court ruling "is jeopardizing ongoing public corruption investigations."
If allowed to stand, the ruling also would essentially prevent investigators from searching lawmakers' offices because it requires the FBI to give the lawmakers advance notice, the department said in its argument to the Supreme Court.
"The bottom line is that, if the government cannot search a member's office in the manner authorized by the search warrant here ... the government cannot do so in any meaningful manner and congressional offices may become a 'sanctuary for crime,"' the Justice Department said.