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United States v. James

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

April 23, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
WAYNE A.G. JAMES, Appellant

          Argued December 12, 2017

          On Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands District Court No. 3-15-cr-00042-001 District Judge: The Honorable Curtis V. Gomez

          Luke V. Cass Amanda R. Vaughn Justin D. Weitz United States Department of Justice Criminal Division Public Integrity Section Nelson L. Jones Delia L. Smith Office of United States Attorney John-Alex Romano Vijay Shanker United States Department of Justice Appellate Section Counsel for Appellee

          Brendan A. Hurson, Kia D. Sears Office of Federal Public Defender, Omodare B. Jupiter Office of Federal Public Defender Counsel for Appellant

          Before: SMITH, Chief Judge, McKEE, and SCIRICA, Circuit Judges

          OPINION

          SMITH, CHIEF JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         This appeal requires us to further define the contours of the legislative immunity provided to Virgin Islands legislators under 48 U.S.C. § 1572(d). Under that federal statute, legislators are protected from being "held to answer before any tribunal other than the legislature for any speech or debate in the legislature." 48 U.S.C. § 1572(d). In light of the rich tradition of protecting free and open legislative debate-a tradition with historical roots reaching back to monarchical disputes with the British Parliament-courts must be vigilant to apply the protections of § 1572(d) to their fullest extent.

         Yet despite the importance of legislative immunity, § 1572(d) offers only a limited exception to the general rule that the law applies equally to both those who make the law and those who are empowered to elect their lawmakers. In this appeal, a former Virgin Islands senator accused of violating two criminal statutes argues that § 1572(d) shields him from prosecution. Because we conclude that the conduct underlying the Government's allegations in this case is clearly not legislative conduct protected by § 1572(d), we hold that the former senator may stand trial. The District Court's denial of the former senator's motion to dismiss or suppress will therefore be affirmed.

         II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

         The District Court had jurisdiction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3241. We have jurisdiction over this interlocutory appeal under the collateral order doctrine. United States v. Menendez, 831 F.3d 155, 164 (3d Cir. 2016); United States v. McDade, 28 F.3d 283, 288 (3d Cir. 1994). We review the District Court's legal conclusions de novo, and its factual determinations for clear error. Menendez, 831 F.3d at 164.

          III. Background

         In October of 2015, a grand jury returned a three-count indictment charging former Virgin Islands Senator Wayne James with two counts of wire fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 1343, [1]and one count of federal programs embezzlement under 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(A).[2] These charges stemmed from James' use of legislative funds to ostensibly obtain historical documents from Denmark related to the Fireburn-an 1878 uprising in St. Croix, [3] which at the time was part of the Danish West Indies. Although James argues that he was engaged in legislative fact-finding when he used Legislature funds to secure Fireburn documents, the alleged conduct underlying the indictment is distinct from any legislative activity James might have participated in. Specifically, the indictment charges that James misused funds in four respects, by: (1) obtaining cash advances from the Legislature but retaining a portion of those funds for his personal use; (2) double-billing for expenses for which he had already received a cash advance; (3) submitting invoices and receiving funds for translation work that was never actually done; and (4) submitting invoices and receiving funds for translation work that was completed before his election to the Legislature. JA 34-35.

         In February of 2017, James filed a motion to dismiss the indictment on legislative immunity grounds, or, in the alternative, to suppress evidence. JA 40. The District Court heard oral arguments on the motion, and ultimately denied James' motion without prejudice in order to allow James to supplement the record with additional documents. James supplemented the record and participated in an additional hearing before the District Court, but nonetheless failed to persuade the District Court to grant his motion. James then sought interlocutory appeal, and in April of 2017 this Court dismissed the case for lack of appellate jurisdiction. United States v. James, 686 F. App'x. 128, 129 (3d Cir. 2017). We did so because the District Court's oral order was not a "definitive decision . . . on the speech-or-debate issue." Id. We therefore "encourage[d] the District Court to enter a final decision and order on the defendant's motion, taking into account the supplemental materials and making whatever formal findings of fact that are necessary." Id.

         On remand in July of 2017, the District Court issued an oral order denying James' motion. James Supp. App. 79, 81 ("The Court is certainly appreciative of the defense's position, but is not persuaded by it. . . . [T]he Court doesn't find that [James' actions] are even close to legislative acts. . . . [T]he Court is hard-pressed to find anything that comes close to an allegation that would implicate legislative activity."). In October of 2017, the District Court issued a written memorandum outlining the rationale behind its oral decision to deny James' motion. Case 3:15-cr-000042-CVG-RM, ECF No. 164. In the memorandum, the District Court explained that James' actions were ultimately not legislative acts worthy of statutory protection under the Organic Act of the Virgin Islands. This appeal followed.

         IV. James' Alleged Actions Are Not Protected

         The Organic Act of the Virgin Islands functions as a constitution for the Virgin Islands, and vests "[t]he legislative power and authority of the Virgin Islands" in a legislature "consisting of one house." 48 U.S.C. § 1571(a). Members of the legislature are "known as senators." 48 U.S.C. § 1571(b). In order to provide these senators with a form of legislative immunity, the Organic Act of the Virgin Islands contains language similar to the Speech or Debate Clause contained within Article I § 6 of the United States Constitution.[4]Specifically, 48 U.S.C. § 1572(d) provides the following protection to senators of the Virgin Islands:

No member of the legislature shall be held to answer before any tribunal other than the legislature for any speech or debate in the legislature and the members shall in all cases, except treason, felony, or breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the ...

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