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Ruling Will Cripple Probes Of Lawmakers, U.S. Says

Justice Department officials contend that the appellate court ruling expands the interpretation of the clause to mean prosecutors cannot even obtain information that might possibly include legislative deliberations. That could call into question evidence that has already been collected in the various offshoots of the Abramoff investigation and in other big public-corruption cases.

In the investigation of suspected congressional corruption, there were already "huge zones" of potential evidence rendered off-limits by the speech-or-debate clause, said Steve Bunnell, a lawyer who until recently handled such probes in the U.S. attorney's office in the District. "That zone is now bigger than what was previously understood."

Some defense lawyers said the appellate ruling rightfully forces law enforcement to be more careful about deriving leads and information from material protected by the clause.

"It may make their job harder, but the founders thought it was important enough to include in the Constitution to ensure co-equal branches of government," said David Barger, Doolittle's attorney.

Doolittle has already said that he plans to fight a Justice Department subpoena for 11 years' worth of records.

The FBI's search of Jefferson's office in 2005 produced a bipartisan outcry on Capitol Hill from members who said the Justice Department was upsetting the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. As a result of the controversy, the FBI has not reviewed or used any of the papers it seized. For that reason, the appellate ruling does not have any effect on Jefferson's case. He was indicted this year on other evidence of racketeering and bribery.

The Justice Department had argued in the Jefferson matter that it was not seeking legislative documents and that it had set up procedures for them to be culled by a team of people who were not part of the investigation.

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