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United States v. Schock

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

May 30, 2018

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Aaron J. Schock, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued April 18, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 16-CR-30061 - Colin S. Bruce, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Flaum and Easterbrook, Circuit Judges.

          Easterbrook, Circuit Judge

         Aaron Schock resigned from Congress on March 31, 2015, after his constituents responded adversely to disclosures about trips he took at public expense, the expense of his elaborate office furnishings, and how he had applied campaign funds. Twenty months later, Schock was charged in a federal indictment with mail and wire fraud, theft of government funds, making false statements to Congress and the Federal Elections Commission, and filing false tax returns. The grand jury charged Schock with filing false or otherwise improper claims for reimbursement for his travel and furnishings, and with failing to report correctly (and pay tax on) those receipts that count as personal income. Details do not matter to this appeal.

         Schock moved to dismiss the indictment. He contended that the charges are inconsistent with the Constitution's Speech or Debate Clause and with the House of Representatives' constitutional authority to determine the rules of its proceedings. The district court denied the motion, 2017 U.S. Dist. Lexis 174830 (C.D. Ill. Oct. 23, 2017), and Schock immediately appealed.

         The Speech or Debate Clause (Art. I §6 cl. 1) provides: "for any Speech or Debate in either House, [Members of Congress] shall not be questioned in any other Place." The Supreme Court understands this as an immunity from litigation, which permits an interlocutory appeal asserting a right not to be tried. Helstoski v. Meanor, 442 U.S. 500 (1979). On the merits, however, the Speech or Debate Clause does not help Schock, for a simple reason: the indictment arises out of applications for reimbursements, which are not speeches, debates, or any other part of the legislative process.

         Although the immunity covers committee investigations and other matters within the legislative purview, see Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606, 625 (1972), and therefore would protect the making of each chamber's rules about reimbursement, the indictment charges Schock with presenting false claims. Submitting a claim under established rules differs from the formulation of those rules. Charges of the kind brought against Schock have featured in criminal prosecutions of other legislators, and Speech-or-Debate defenses to those charges have failed. See United States v. Rostenkowski, 59 F.3d 1291, 1302-03 (D.C. Cir. 1995); United States v. Biaggi, 853 F.2d 89, 104 (2d Cir. 1988); United States v. James, 888 F.3d 42 (3d Cir. 2018). We have nothing to add to the analysis in these decisions. See also United States v. Brewster, 408 U.S. 501, 528 (1972) ("The Speech or Debate Clause does not prohibit inquiry into illegal conduct simply because it has some nexus to legislative functions.").

         Schock's principal argument rests on the Rulemaking Clause (Art. I §5 cl. 2): "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member." The rules about reimbursable expenses were adopted under this clause and, Schock insists, because only the House may adopt or amend its rules, only the House may interpret them. Ambiguity in any rule (or in how a rule applies to a given claim for reimbursement) makes a prosecution impossible, Schock concludes, because that would require a judge to interpret the rules.

         The foundation for Schock's argument-the proposition that if Body A has sole power to make a rule, then Body A has sole power to interpret that rule-does not represent established doctrine. Microsoft Corporation has the sole power to establish rules about how much its employees will be reimbursed for travel expenses, but no one thinks that this prevents a criminal prosecution of persons who submit fraudulent claims for reimbursement or fail to pay tax on the difference between their actual expenses and the amount they receive from Microsoft.

          Or consider reimbursement rules promulgated by the President for federal employees. Again no one thinks that the Executive Branch's power over rulemaking makes it the rules' sole interpreter. Judges regularly interpret, apply, and occasionally nullify rules promulgated by the President or another part of the Executive Branch, as well as statutes enacted by the Legislative Branch; why would reimbursement rules be different? That each House has sole authority to set its own rules does not distinguish rules from legislation; the two Houses acting jointly have authority to determine the contents of statutes (overriding presidential vetoes if necessary), yet a big part of the judiciary's daily work is the interpretation and application of these enactments. Yellin v. United States, 374 U.S. 109, 114 (1963), says that the rules of Congress are "judicially cognizable", which implies a power to interpret and apply them.

         We need not come to closure on the question whether there is something special about legislative rules-as some courts have held, see United States v. Durenberger, 48 F.3d 1239 (D.C. Cir. 1995)-unless we have appellate jurisdiction. Otherwise final resolution of Schock's arguments must await an appeal from a final decision, should he be convicted. The Supreme Court has not held that arguments based on the Rulemaking Clause may be presented on appeal before final decision. Four courts of appeals have concluded that criminal defendants may take interlocutory appeals to make arguments about the separation of powers. See United States v. Rose, 28 F.3d 181, 185-86 (D.C. Cir. 1994); United States v. Claiborne, 727 F.2d 842, 844-45 (9th Cir. 1984); United States v. Hastings, 681 F.2d 706, 708-09 (11th Cir. 1982); United States v. Myers, 635 F.2d 932, 935-36 (2d Cir. 1980). But those decisions do not persuade us on that broad proposition.

         Our reason can be stated in one paragraph: Neither the separation of powers generally, nor the Rulemaking Clause in particular, establishes a personal immunity from prosecution or trial. The separation of powers is about the allocation of authority among the branches of the federal government. It is an institutional doctrine rather than a personal one. The Speech or Debate Clause, by contrast, sets up a personal immunity for each legislator. The Supreme Court limits interlocutory appeals to litigants who have a personal immunity-a "right not to be tried." No personal immunity, no interlocutory appeal.

         The link between a personal immunity and an interlocutory appeal in a criminal prosecution was stressed in Midland Asphalt Corp. v. United States, 489 U.S. 794 (1989). A criminal defendant contended that public disclosure of grand jury materials spoiled the prosecution and insisted that it could appeal from the rejection of that contention because a conviction at trial would render harmless any grand jury violation, so if the right was to be vindicated that had to occur before trial. But the Justices unanimously held that an immediate appeal is forbidden by the final-decision rule, even on the assumption that this would mean no appellate consideration of the claim. That is so, the Court held, because the right does not entail an immunity from prosecution. The Court distinguished between rights that entail the ...

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