The Supreme Court on Legislative Immunity

Robert Benson‘s solution, proposed in last Friday’s Projo, to the legal question of whether ethics rules can be applied to the official lawmaking activities of legislators presented by the Rhode Island Ethics Commission v. William Irons case…

Why not keep the speech in debate provisions in place except when the legislator is accused of a serious crime or a violation of the state’s code of ethics?
…is entirely consistent with United States Supreme Court jurisprudence on the issue.
As is noted in the Superior Court’s opinion dismissing the case against former Senator Irons…
Rhode Island follows the guidance issued by the Johnson and Brewster Courts that legislators may, in particular circumstances, be questioned and prosecuted outside of the legislative chambers.
Johnson refers to the 1966 case of United States v. Johnson; in that case, the Supreme Court had this to say on the issue of the applicability of narrowly drawn ethics rules to legislators…
We expressly leave open for consideration when the case arises a prosecution which, though possibly entailing inquiry into legislative acts or motivations, is founded upon a narrowly drawn statute passed by Congress in the exercise of its legislative power to regulate the conduct of its members.
Thus, even prior to the addition of the 1986 Ethics Amendment to the State Constitution, the Courts had found no “speech-in-debate” prohibitions against the application of ethics rules to legislators. Speech-in-debate immunity therefore cannot be a compelling reason for overturning the Constitutional Amendment now.

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