Are Lawmakers Immune From Lawsuits?
A federal appellate court will decide whether to uphold a judge’s order to depose a congressman sued for defamation by the U.S. Marine sergeant he accused of engaging in "cold-blooded murder and war crimes" in Iraq.
The key questions before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia are whether the veteran lawmaker has absolute immunity and did he act within the scope of employment in making the outrageous statements to the media about a private citizen. A three-judge panel is hearing arguments today.
The case involves John Murtha, the controversial Pennsylvania Democrat who recently made headlines for calling his constituents “racist” and “really redneck.” The 17-term U.S. representative claimed that Marines involved in the 2005 Haditha slayings were cold-blooded killers and he compared the event to the deliberate 1968 massacre of hundreds of civilians at My Lai in Vietnam.
Marine Sergeant Frank Wuterich sued Murtha for defamation in 2006 and a U.S. District Court judge in D.C. (Rosemary Collyer) ordered the lawmaker’s deposition as part of discovery. Murtha’s Justice Department attorneys appealed to the D.C. Circuit, claiming that he’s immune from the defamation suit.
But in ordering the deposition, Judge Collyer said that the court was “unwilling to proclaim such a sweeping version of absolute immunity.” She went on to write that “this court is not as shocked as counsel at the thought of the deposition of a sitting member of Congress. Even presidents can be required to interrupt their tremendous responsibilities when civil litigation requires it.”
Murtha’s mouth his hardly his only problem. As chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, he annually oversees hundreds of billions of dollars in military spending and is notorious for steering lucrative no-bid defense contracts to his friends even when the Pentagon labels the firms inefficient and mismanaged and deems the work wasteful and unnecessary.