Menendez Trial Will Wait On Supreme Court Petition

By: Douglas E. Roberts

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit granted Senator Robert Menendez’s motion to stay its mandate while he petitions the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether the political corruption charges against him are based on constitutionally protected legislative acts.  As previously documented on this blog, Menendez moved to dismiss the indictment filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. He argued in part that the Speech and Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution insulated him from prosecution on his alleged efforts to influence various government actions on behalf of prominent Democratic Party donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen.

After the district court denied the motion as to the bulk of Menendez’s charges, Menendez appealed to the Third Circuit.  On July 29, 2016, the Court found that Menendez’s acts were “ambiguously legislative” and thus subject to the district court’s determination as to whether they were protected activity based on its evaluation of Menendez’s motive and purpose.  The Court then found “a sufficient basis for the [district] court’s conclusion that the predominant purpose of the challenged acts was to pursue a political resolution to Dr. Melgen’s disputes,” and affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss.

The affirmance green-lighted Menendez’s trial, but the stay will put the brakes on any further proceedings until (1) Menendez petitions the Supreme Court for a Writ of Certiorari – i.e., the opportunity to be heard – and (2) the high court decides whether to grant cert.  In a typical year, the Supreme Court agrees to review between 1% and 6% of the criminal cases in which a cert petition is filed.  Most successful cert petitions present important questions of federal law that lower courts have answered inconsistently.

In opposing Menendez’s motion for a stay, the government contended that Menendez’s claim was highly unlikely to engender Supreme Court review. “Where, as here, a defendant lacks a meritorious claim to advance further on appeal, the public gains nothing, and potentially loses material evidence, by further delaying trial,” it said.  Menendez, in contrast, characterizes the issue as “a substantial [Speech and Debate Clause] question that has divided the courts of appeals and that is of fundamental importance to bedrock constitutional principles of separation of powers.”

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