A little-known privilege called “legislative immunity” that prevents arrests of legislators is getting a closer look in the state of Arizona this year after a lawmaker introduced a resolution seeking to amend Arizona’s Constitution to delete wording that bars the arrest of legislators during, and 15 days before, legislative sessions. Arizona’s legislative immunity law, like those in many other states, protects legislators from arrest except for “treason, felony or breach of the peace.”
Arizona’s legislative immunity law is getting a closer look in part because of an incident that involved an Arizona senator. The senator was involved in a domestic violence incident on a Phoenix freeway last year. He and his then girlfriend pulled off to the side of the road after an argument while returning home from a Dancing with the Stars-type competition. The fight left both with cuts and bruises. Police were called and put the senator in handcuffs. Officers testified that the senator identified himself as a legislator, cited the constitutional provision, and demanded that the officers remove the handcuffs. If not for the legislative immunity provision, the senator most likely would have been arrested on possible domestic violence charges and suspicion of DUI.
Modification to the legislation was introduced because it is believed it’s an unfair and outdated protection afforded lawmakers. The question really posed is should legislators have a get-out-of-jail free card?
Shockingly, most states have similar legislative immunity provisions in their constitutions. Members of Congress technically have the protection as well, but it has been so narrowly interpreted by the courts that U.S. lawmakers gain no real benefit from it.
It is alleged that legislative immunity, along with related protections for legislative speech and debate, has its roots in the 16th and 17th centuries, when English monarchs frequently feuded with lawmakers. And some actually believe it may be smart to keep legislative immunity on the books to be used in particular circumstances, but to hold lawmakers accountable through ethics proceedings if they abuse the immunity.
What do you think? Should law makers have a get-out-of-jail-free card under certain circumstances? Is there an instance you can think of where a law maker should not be held accountable for inappropriate or unlawful actions? That sure seems like a slippery slope, but as it stands, that is exactly the way the law reads in many states.