Is legislative immunity a good thing?

legislative-get-out-of-jail-free-card

To understand this, we have to go deep into history — before America was invented — and look at the troubled relationship between the British Kings and the people sitting in Parliament. Of course, everything was wonderful so long as everyone agreed on policy, but what happened when the Parliamentarians disagreed with their sovereign? Well, if push came to shove, the Parliamentarians proved themselves capable of executing the King and installing a republic. Unfortunately, it didn’t take and, when Cromwell fell, there was a king back on the throne again. This produced a rather interesting game. When Parliament looked as though it might do something to annoy the King, the key lawmakers were arrested to stop them from voting. This led to a Bill in the seventeenth century to prevent members of Parliament from being arbitrarily arrested while Parliament was in session.

Moving to America, the US Constitution gives all members of Congress immunity from arrest and, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, forty-three state constitutions also give protections to their lawmakers. But is this a good thing?

Let’s take Minnesota as an example. Its lawmakers have given themselves immunity from arrest while they are in session except where they are foolish enough to commit treason, felony or a breach of the peace. While the exception for treason is understandable— it would be extraordinary if anyone accused of treason should be able to avoid arrest — there are several hundred serious offenses classified as felonies which makes the exception rather broad. Adding in breach of the peace then makes the whole exception sound rather trivial. Our lawmaker can be arrested if he makes too much noise in a public place but can’t be arrested if he’s driving while under the influence — that’s only a misdemeanor in Minnesota. So public safety on the roads counts for nothing against a loud singing voice.

To set the record straight, a group of activist students is trying to persuade the Minnesota lawmakers to redefine “breach of the peace” to include DUI/DWI. Not unreasonably, these students don’t believe lawmakers should be able to ignore the laws they write.

Indeed, private briefings given by the local police confirm several lawmakers have avoided charges by pleading this immunity — a few have been convicted for driving when the legislature was not in session.

So here’s the question for you. Should lawmakers have this get-out-of-jail-free card? Quietly, senior lawmakers say they would rather have lawmakers able to drive drunk to make a critical vote. As a citizen, I find this an appalling attitude. Road users should never be exposed to the risk of injury when it would be easy for the lawmaker to get into a taxi (or for the party leader to send an aide to do the driving). When there are always safer options, encouraging lawmakers to think they can drive drunk is a serious breach of the duty lawmakers owe to the electorate. No one should be able to drive while drunk, no matter who they are as in Winconsin:

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