This is actually old news, but now that Chessani’s (momentarily) off the hook it has fresh legs. Murtha’s already being sued by Sgt. Frank Wuterich — the one Haditha Marine who hasn’t yet been cleared — for defamation, you may recall, and as of this writing is still slated to testify in the case. Will he?
In an interview with nationally syndicated radio talk host Michael Savage, the lead attorney for Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani said he and his client will look into suing Murtha and the Time magazine reporter Tim McGuirk, who first published the accusations by Iraqi insurgents.
But the attorney, Brian Rooney, said nothing will happen until Chessani, described as a devout Christian and the father of six homeschooled children, is completely “out of the woods” legally…
But Rooney, a judge advocate general officer who served a tour of duty in Iraq himself, said the Marine Corps has until Friday at 10 a.m. Pacific Time to appeal…
Rooney acknowledged to Savage it’s difficult to sue a sitting congressman, but he believes it can be done.
“If he leaves his realm of speaking from the congressman’s point of view … then he can be sued for libel and defamation,” Rooney said.
What he means is that Murtha’s eventually going to invoke the Speech and Debate Clause to try to get himself off the hook. Read the actual language of the clause and you’ll see it’s designed to shield congressmen “for any Speech or Debate in either House…” Minor problem for Murtha: He wasn’t inside the House chamber when he accused the Marines of having killed in cold blood. He was giving a news conference (a snippet of which you can watch here), which arguably is encompassed by the clause if it occurs within the Capitol building. How about gratuitous morning news show appearances, though, like the one below?
He’s ultimately going to have to convince some judge that the touchstone for the S&D Clause shouldn’t be where a congressman is when he’s speaking but rather where he is when he becomes privy to the information he spoke about. That is to say, so long as he’s talking about stuff he learned on the job, he’s free to be as irresponsible with it as he likes, wherever he likes. If he wants to hold a pay-per-view event in which he divulges details of some secret congressional report (PPV because this is, after all, Abscam Jack we’re talking about) then it’s all good. The thing to bear in mind, though, is how gratuitous Murtha’s comments here were. A paradigm case for the Speech and Debate Clause would be if a congressman had some hard proof of government wrongdoing and feared being prosecuted if he revealed it; having the constitutional privilege to protect him would let him speak freely. Murtha had no proof of wrongdoing. He had a bunch of accusations and an agenda, and unlike the other 534 members of Congress, he simply couldn’t wait to let the legal process play out to push that agenda. And now he’s going to try to use S&D as a get-out-of-slander-free card. Perfect.