WASHINGTON – House GOP leaders have stepped in to help a Democratic congresswoman who is facing a discrimination (search) lawsuit, arguing that lawmakers are shielded under a clause in the Constitution that was derived from British parliamentarians concerned about royal persecution.
But Democratic Rep. Barney Frank (search) of Massachusetts said Friday that such a finding would nullify one of the first acts passed after the GOP captured control of the House in 1995 — one subjecting lawmakers to the same employment laws that private employers must obey.
A clause of the Constitution, Frank said at a news conference, "is being distorted to give an effective complete immunity to members who are accused of violating the laws against discrimination."
The "speech or debate" clause, inherited from the British Parliament, states that, except for cases of treason, felony and breach of the peace, lawmakers will not be arrested when attending a congressional session and "for any speech or debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other place."
The House's legal advisory group made its points in a Jan. 6 brief to the federal appeals court that is hearing a discrimination case brought against Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (search), D-Texas, by her former chief of staff.
The three Republicans on the advisory group — Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Majority Whip Roy Blunt — signed off on the brief, while the two Democratic members, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, did not support it.
The case involves a complaint by Beverly Fields, who says she lost her job after she stood up for another staffer, Elisabeth Howie, who has claimed in a separate lawsuit that she was fired so Johnson could hire a person of Asian descent. Johnson, Fields, and Howie all are black.
Johnson has contended that the constitutional clause gives her immunity from being sued, and two others facing disability and age discrimination lawsuits, Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., and former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., have made similar arguments.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month ruled that the age discrimination suit against Campbell could go forward, saying that the immunity argument was not valid because the aide's claim did not question the senator's official business.
The GOP leaders' brief says that while "speech or debate" immunity should not be automatic, it is applicable when an employee's duties are directly related to the legislative process.
The brief noted that employees barred by the "speech or debate" clause from pursuing Congressional Accountability Act claims judicially could still seek administrative redress by filing complaints with the House's Office of Compliance.
But Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., one of the sponsors of the 1995 act, said it requires Congress to live by the laws it imposes on the rest of the nation and "the intent of CAA was not to allow speech and debate immunity to shield members from liability in suits filed by staff under the act."
Frank said it was an example of House Republicans, now in power for a decade, reinforcing their own authority. "For all their professions of high principle," he said, "now that they are in power they are putting self-interest ahead of everything else."
Frank said he was confident that Johnson, a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, had not discriminated against any of her staff.