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Whether the Justice Department had a constitutional right to search the office of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) — and many scholars, both liberal and conservative, say it did — it’s clear that everyone involved anticipated that Congress would squeal loudly. Witness the May 18 search warrant signed by Chief Judge Thomas Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who added a rare handwritten note presumably designed to pre-empt any thought of noncompliance. “The U.S. Capitol police are directed to provide immediate access to the property described herein,” Hogan wrote. “Out of hundreds of search warrants, it’s the only notation I’ve seen a judge make,” says D.C. criminal defense lawyer Bernard Grimm. Late last week, as bipartisan House indignation over the unprecedented search continued to intensify, President George W. Bush ordered the DOJ to seal Jefferson’s papers in the solicitor general’s office to give both sides time to cool off. But short of giving back the seized documents, it is unclear how Jefferson or the House leadership will be mollified. “It is a congressman’s privilege not to have his office searched,” insists Jefferson’s attorney, Robert Trout of D.C.’s Trout Cacheris. Veterans of the SG’s office could not recall an instance in which it was asked to play a similar role as “honest broker” — except nearly a century ago, when President William Howard Taft assigned the SG to referee an angry dispute over the definition of whiskey. Jefferson’s papers will likely be kept in a safe in the SG’s office usually used for securing classified documents involved in litigation. “It is a very positive sign that the office is recognized as having some degree of independence from the programmatic or political agenda of the administration,” says former acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger III. Indeed, the SG’s office has a unique position of trust because it sits at the crossroads of all three branches of government: Not only does the office defend executive branch actions and the laws of Congress, it also has an obligation to advocate scrupulously before the Supreme Court.
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected]. Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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