WASHINGTON - The Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to toss out a lower court ruling that says the FBI was wrong to raid Representative William Jefferson's office, a decision the Bush administration argues will hinder corruption investigations of Congress.
In an appeal filed this week, government lawyers said that only the nation's highest court can decide whether the 18-hour raid on the Democrat's office was an unconstitutional breach of congressional authority or a proper tactic in a lengthy corruption inquiry.
"Only this court can resolve this important question," the Justice Department wrote in its appeal, filed Wednesday. "Until it does so, investigations of corruption in the nation's capital and elsewhere will be seriously and perhaps even fatally stymied."
Jefferson's lawyer, Robert P. Trout, declined to comment yesterday.
The Constitution prohibits the executive branch from using its law enforcement powers to interfere with the lawmaking process, and the FBI should have given Jefferson a chance to argue that some of the documents involved legislative business, according to the August ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The May 2006 raid was part of a 16-month international bribery investigation of Jefferson, a nine-term Democrat from New Orleans. He is accused of accepting $100,000 from a telecommunications businessman, $90,000 of which was later recovered in a freezer in the congressman's Washington home.
Jefferson pleaded not guilty in June to charges of soliciting more than $500,000 in bribes while using his office to broker business deals in Africa.
In its August ruling, the federal appeals court held that the raid was constitutional. But it ordered the Justice Department to return any legislative documents it seized from Jefferson's office on Capitol Hill. Still undecided is whether prosecutors can use other records it confiscated as part of their bribery case against Jefferson.
Justice Department lawyers said the ruling "fundamentally misinterprets" constitutional guarantees that allow the executive branch to investigate and prosecute corruption in Congress.