The dismissal of a House stenographic reporter cannot be challenged in court because the personnel action is protected by congressional immunity, the U.S. Court of Appeals here ruled yesterday.
In deciding the case, which involved the first black stenographic reporter employed by the House, the three-judge panel set a new narrow standard for determining which congressional employes may sue over personnel actions.
Because the reporter's duties were related to the legislative process, the panel said, the actions involved were covered by the "speech or debate" clause of the Constitution that limits review of legislative actions by other branches of government.
Steven B. Ross, House general counsel, praised the court's decision and said it "goes a long way to settle" questions raised by a two-year-old appeals court ruling that seemed to open most congressional personnel matters to possible lawsuits.
Although it is "still fuzzy" which employes can sue, Ross said he believes the House and Senate are now free to make personnel decisions concerning most of their 15,000 employes without the threat of lawsuits.
The earlier decision involved a suit brought by Anne W. Walker, who was the superintendent of a congressional restaurant. The panel said that Walker and employes who served the "human needs" of members of Congress and their staffs are not tied to the legislative process and thus can sue.
"This doesn't mean that House members can engage in discrimination," Ross said. "It means that members who violate the rules are accountable to the House."
"This is a matter for the House to supervise by itself," said Ross.
He said the decision "means the courts are properly respectful of the legislature as an independent branch of government."
Writing for Judges Patricia M. Wald and Laurence Silberman, Judge George MacKinnon said, "To limit the scope of the speech or debate clause to personnel actions where the employe has discretionary input into the legislative process is far too restrictive a view . . . . We hold that the standard for determining speech or debate clause immunity is best expressed as whether the employe's duties were directly related to the due functioning of the legislative process emphasis added by court ."
The case involved the firing of Betty G. Browning in October 1981 after seven years as an official House reporter, a job that Ross said pays more than $40,000 a year.
Browning was fired for gross errors and omissions in a transcript of sworn testimony given before a subcommittee that was investigating the involvement of organized crime in the hazardous waste disposal industry.
Ross said that the testimony was taken under oath so that, if warranted, it could be referred for possible criminal prosecutions for perjury and that the poor transcription hindered the subcommittee's inquiry.
Browning sued her supervisors and the House clerk, contending that they had discriminated against her because she is black.
The House officials attempted to have the suit dismissed, but U.S. District Court Judge Thomas P. Jackson said it should go forward because the personnel actions were not covered by congressional immunity.
The House officials then appealed Jackson's ruling.