The ACLU is Wrong on Legislative Immunity
The Rhode Island Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a legal brief supporting former Senate President William Irons’ claim that the Rhode Island Constitution’s Ethics Amendment cannot be applied to the official acts of state legislators, because such an application would conflict with “speech-in-debate” immunity also granted to legislators at the Constitutional level.
However, the ACLU’s brief (as well as in much other discussion on this issue) ignores an basic facet of the law being considered in this case, that in its rulings on speech-in-debate related issues, the United States Supreme Court has expressly declined to extend legislative immunity to laws intended to regulate legislative conduct (short version of the history available here, longer version available here). The people of Rhode Island, in the 1980s, chose to step into this unresolved area of the law and settle the issue of what the limits on legislative immunity are through a Constitutional amendment, the most definitive mechanism of government that is possible. Since the Constitutionality of laws regulating legislative conduct had been expressly left open by the Supreme Court, no conflict with the speech-in-debate clause requiring an alteration of the plain meaning of the Ethics Amendment can have been created.
The ACLU’s brief warns of dire consequences, if the applicability of the Ethics Amendment to the official acts of legislators is upheld…
In sum, there are no acceptable limits to the Ethics Commission’s “implied limitation” argument, and it should be rejected for this reason alone. This Court, therefore, cannot, should not, and must not allow the Ethics Commission to drag this State into such uncharted territory…This conclusion completely misses the most important issue at stake; it is the Rhode Island Superior Court’s decision that judicial opinions based on non-existent precedent outrank plain Constitutional language that is dragging the state towards uncharted territory.
At best, the Ethics Commission’s argument that the Ethics Amendment impliedly limited the Speech in Debate Clause is a launch down a slippery slope of eroding the civil liberties of all Rhode Islanders who come before the Ethics Commission, not just Mr. Irons.
But should we really be surprised that the ACLU has a blind spot when it comes to defending nearly unlimited powers for the judicial branch of government?