WASHINGTON -- Nearly three years after a federal grand jury charged a senior House Republican with an elaborate bribery scheme, the Justice Department yesterday got the Supreme Court's permission to take the case to trial.
In a brief order, with no explanation, the court turned aside a constitutional challenge by 17-term Rep. Joseph M. McDade, 63, of Scranton, Pa. He had argued that the charges should be thrown out because they infringed on his independence as a member of Congress. A clause in the Constitution protects members from being "questioned in any other place" about any "speech or debate" in Congress.
Mr. McDade, who has been fighting prosecution over five criminal charges since the grand jury indicted him in 1992, was in line to lead the powerful House Appropriations Committee when his party took control of the House this year. But he was denied that post because of the charges.
He is one of three current or former members of Congress hTC awaiting criminal trials growing out of charges tied to their service in Congress.
The others are former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat and long one of the House's most influential leaders, and former Sen. Dave Durenberger, a Minnesota Republican.
The court's refusal to hear Mr. McDade's appeal does not necessarily mean that it would allow the prosecution of the two former lawmakers when their appeals come up. But it is not a favorable sign for them because they are pursuing challenges similar to his.
The Supreme Court made clear, in a 1972 ruling in a bribery case against a Maryland Democratic senator, Daniel Brewster, that the Constitution's guarantee of some legal immunity for members of Congress protects them only for their legislative actions.
Taking a bribe, it said then, is not a legislative act.
In Mr. McDade's case, federal prosecutors pursued charges against him based in part on his role as the top Republican member of two House committees.
The grand jury indictment charged him with taking money and gifts, or benefits for one of his children, from companies that did business with the government in areas overseen by the committees on which Mr. McDade served.
The indictment accused him of interceding with government agencies to help those companies, and then taking bribes in return.
The congressman has argued that the case cannot go forward without delving into what he did within his legislative role.
He also has complained -- with the support of the current House leadership -- that the indictment against him unconstitutionally labels his congressional office, his committee positions and his staff aides as part of a criminal "enterprise" involved in a bribery racket.
All his challenges were rejected in June by a federal appeals court in Philadelphia.
The Supreme Court did not discuss any of the challenges in announcing its refusal to hear the appeal. That clears the way for the Justice Department to move the case toward a trial in Philadelphia.