A Washington federal judge today dismissed Rep. Charles Rangel's (D-N.Y.) lawsuit against U.S. House of Representatives leaders over his 2010 censure for misconduct.
Rangel sued Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other House leaders in April, claiming he was denied due process during the disciplinary proceedings that led to his censure. Rangel accused members of a congressional subcommittee involved in the investigation of receiving improper communications about his case. He also argued the House ethics committee was wrong not to take action once he raised his concerns.
U.S. District Judge John Bates today dismissed the complaint, finding the congressman lacked standing to sue and that his lawsuit posed significant separation-of-powers problems.
"[M]ost problematic is Rangel’s unprecedented view that this Court may order the House to, in effect, un-censure him," Bates wrote. "Rangel’s quarrel is with the House, and it must stay there; he may not under these circumstances enlist the Court’s involvement in that quarrel."
Rangel's lawyer, New York solo practitioner Jay Goldberg, said he planned to file an appeal. "The judge has made up a straw man," Goldberg said. "He makes it appear that the central feature of Rangel's claim rests on harm to his reputation. It's not harm to his reputation, it's harm to the system."
A spokeswoman for Rangel said he was traveling. Kerry Kircher, general counsel for the House of Representatives, could not immediately be reached.
The House voted in December 2010 to censure Rangel after the ethics committee found him guilty of violations ranging from unpaid income taxes to improper solicitation of funds.
Rangel, in his complaint, produced a memo he claimed was sent by the ethics committee's former staff director and chief counsel to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the former ethics committee chairwoman, detailing ex parte communications between two former committee lawyers and members of the subcommittee that investigated the charges.
Had he known about the ex-parte communications, Rangel argued, he would have moved to dismiss the proceedings. Rangel asked the court to issue an injunction requiring House leaders to strike the censure and remove any references to it in congressional records.
In July, the defendants asked Bates to dismiss the case, calling the 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."
Bates said Rangel was asking the court to improperly delve into congressional affairs. "The House has wide discretion to discipline its Members under the Discipline Clause, and this Court may not lightly intrude upon that discretion," the judge wrote.
The court could consider whether members of the House "ignored constitutional restraints" in disciplining Rangel, Bates said, but he found Rangel didn't assert any concrete violations of constitutional rights. Rangel accused House leaders of violating his due process rights, but Bates said Rangel failed to identify how they deprived him of any liberty or property interests-reputational harm wasn't enough.
Members of Congress facing disciplinary proceedings aren't subject to the same constitutional protections as criminal defendants, the judge said, "despite Rangel’s insistence to the contrary."
Absent constitutional issues, Bates said Rangel's claims of improprieties in how the House handled his disciplinary proceedings were a "political question" that couldn’t be decided by the court. In addition, Bates wrote that Rangel's request for an order requiring the defendants to undo the censure and remove references to it from congressional records "would be severely problematic from a separation-of-powers perspective."
The judge found that the individual defendants were also immune under the constitution's speech-or-debate clause, which says members of Congress and their staff can't be sued for actions within the "legislative sphere."
Besides the separation of powers issues, Bates found Rangel lacked standing to sue, in part because he sued the wrong defendants. The House as a whole, not the individual members, was responsible for the censure, he said.
Bates wrote that Rangel couldn't show the defendants he sued were responsible for the various injuries that Rangel claimed he suffered due to misconduct—the censure, his loss of a committee leadership position, a primary election challenge.
Updated at 4:50 p.m.