A lawsuit against U.S. House of Representatives leadership over the 2010 censure of U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) is shaping up as a test of the court's ability to review congressional actions.
Rangel sued House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other House members involved in the ethics proceedings in April, accusing them of denying him due process during the ethics investigation and seeking a court order reversing the censure vote from 2010.
In a recent motion to dismiss the complaint, Boehner and the other defendants, represented by Kerry Kircher, general counsel for the House of Representatives, called Rangel's lawsuit an "unprecedented and audacious invitation to the Court to disregard fundamental separation of powers principles and immerse itself in policing the most internal of House proceedings."
The House voted in December 2010 to censure Rangel after an ethics committee found him guilty of violations ranging from unpaid income taxes to improper solicitation of funds. In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Rangel claimed he learned after the vote that several members of the committee received improper ex parte information. Had he known about the ex-parte communications, Rangel argued, he would have moved to dismiss the proceedings.
In a motion to dismiss filed July 12, the House defendants argued the Constitution's speech and debate clause made them immune to lawsuits based on activities that fell "within the legislative sphere." Under the clause, civil plaintiffs couldn’t use "information as to a legislative act" to pursue litigation and were barred from seizing legislative materials or compelling legislators to testify, meaning Rangel couldn't conduct discovery.
The complaint dealt solely with actions that were "legislative in nature," the members argued, meaning the court didn't have jurisdiction to hear the dispute.
In a reply filed earlier this week, Rangel, represented by New York attorney Jay Goldberg, said the alleged violations of congressional rules he was claiming weren’t covered by the speech or debate clause. "Defendants seem to claim that actions taken in furtherance of one's capacity as a legislator, automatically qualifies it as being within the legitimate legislative sphere," Rangel argued. "This is simply not true and there is a plethora of precedent to counter this idea."
The House members also argued Rangel's lawsuit should be dismissed because it raised political questions that couldn't be answered by a court.
"Congressman Rangel’s Complaint is effectively a collateral attack on the House’s exercise of its Discipline Clause authority—an authority that belongs exclusively to the House," they said. "For this court to review the House’s disciplinary proceedings would require an invasive inquiry into internal House operations that lie at the very heart of the House’s constitutional prerogatives."
Rangel countered that the precedent barring federal courts from delving into certain political issues didn't apply to alleged violations of congressional rules.
The case is before U.S. District Judge John Bates. No hearings are currently scheduled.