Robert-Menendez

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to immediately take up a petition of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, claiming that corruption charges against him are pre-empted by the speech or debate clause of the Constitution.

The court’s Monday order denying certiorari, clears the way for U.S. District Judge William Walls of the District of New Jersey to resume pretrial proceedings, which have been on hold since Menendez filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in November 2015. The Supreme Court order did not state a reason for its refusal to hear the case, in which Menendez is accused of accepting cash and gifts from Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen in exchange for using the power of his office to intervene with federal officials on behalf of Melgen’s personal and business interests.

The top court’s decision not to hear Menendez’s appeal follows a July 2016 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, denying the senator’s bid for dismissal of his indictment on grounds that it violates the speech or debate clause. The Third Circuit granted Menendez a stay that kept the case from being sent back to district court pending the outcome of his U.S. Supreme Court petition.

Menendez has maintained that only Congress itself can discipline members for misconduct relating to their legislative duties, but the Third Circuit ruled that the acts alleged in the case amounted to lobbying on behalf of one individual, an activity falling outside the safe harbor of the speech or debate clause.

 

Before the Third Circuit appeal, lawyers for Menendez and the Department of Justice were debating admissibility of certain classified evidence by the defense. The government moved to preclude the use of classified information concerning port security, a motion that Menendez opposes. Lawyers for Menendez have also said they intend to file motions relating to a U.S. Supreme Court decision vacating the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on corruption charges. The court’s July 2016 ruling in the McDonnell case narrows the scope of official conduct that may qualify as an element of bribery.

Menendez’s attorney in the criminal case, Abbe Lowell of Chadbourne & Park in Washington, said in a statement that his client expects to be absolved of the corruption charges, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s refusal to grant certification to the appeal.

“It’s disappointing that the Supreme Court did not take this opportunity to set a clear, bright line of the separation of powers to ensure that Congress remains an independent and co-equal branch of government, free of interference and retribution from the executive as the framers intended. While the senator always understood it is rare that the Supreme Court hears any case before trial, given the gravity of the constitutional issues raised, he believed it was important to try,” Lowell said.

“As the senator has been saying for more than four years since the government began chasing these wild allegations, he has always acted in accordance with the law. Senator Menendez remains confident that he will be vindicated when all the facts are heard at trial,” Lowell said in the statement.

Menendez is accusing of accepting plane trips, vacations in Paris and the Caribbean, and contributions to his election campaign and legal defense fund from Melgen. In exchange, the Department of Justice alleges, Menendez sought to lobby executive branch officials regarding alleged Medicare overbillings as well as immigration matters related to Melgen’s companions and a port security contract between Melgen and the government of the Dominican Republic. Menendez and Melgen face charges of bribery, honest services fraud and Travel Act violations.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice, Peter Carr, declined to comment on the ruling.

Contact the reporter at ctoutant@alm.com. On Twitter: @ctoutantnjlj.