Eighth Circuit holds legislative privilege prevents inquiry into legislative process, even for questions of racial discrimination in voting rights suit

That’s the same headline I gave last month when the Fifth Circuit issued such a decision. Here’s the opinion in In re North Dakota Legislative Assembly. The opinion was written by Judge Colloton, joined by Judge Benton. An excerpt:

We conclude that the district court’s conclusion to the contrary was based on a mistaken conception of the legislative privilege. In its order enforcing the document subpoenas, the district court reasoned that legislative privilege did not apply because the subpoena sought communications between legislators and third parties. The legislative privilege, however, is not limited to a bar on inquiry into communications among legislators or between legislators and their aides. The privilege is not designed merely to protect the confidentiality of deliberations within a legislative body; it protects the functioning of the legislature more broadly. Communications with constituents, advocacy groups, and others outside the legislature are a legitimate aspect of legislative activity. The use of compulsory evidentiary process against legislators and their aides to gather evidence about this legislative activity is thus barred by the legislative privilege. See Almonte v. City of Long Beach, 478 F.3d 100, 107 (2d Cir. 2007); Bruce v. Riddle, 631 F.2d 272, 280 (4th Cir. 1980). The authority on which the district court relied for a narrower understanding of the privilege has since been reversed on this basis. See Jackson Mun. Airport Auth. v. Harkins, 67 F.4th 678, No. 21-60312, 2023 WL 3333607, at *5 (5th Cir. May 10, 2023). The dissent endorses the district court’s order requiring the production of “nonprivileged communications,” but does not acknowledge that the order was premised on a mistaken conclusion that the legislative privilege affords no protection against discovery of communications between a legislator and third parties.

Judge Kelly dissented. Of note, the case arose in a mandamus posture, and part of Judge Kelly’s dissent was whether this “drastic and extraordinary” remedy was appropriate.

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