Federal judge: Congressman can’t avoid testimony before Fulton special grand jury

Congressman and former candidate for Georgia secretary of state Jody Hice speaks at the Georgia GOP convention at Jekyll Island on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Congressman and former candidate for Georgia secretary of state Jody Hice speaks at the Georgia GOP convention at Jekyll Island on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

A federal judge on Monday indicated that a Georgia congressman couldn’t kill a subpoena from the Fulton County special grand jury studying whether former President Donald Trump and his allies illegally tried to sway Georgia’s 2020 elections.

Judge Leigh Martin May of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia said she planned to deny a request from U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Greensboro, to quash his summons. May, however, acknowledged that Hice may be back in federal court if he objects to specific questions asked by prosecutors or jurors that deal with his role as a U.S. House member.

Hices attorneys had cited the U.S. Constitution’s “Speech or Debate” clause, which shields members of Congress from being questioned in court about their legislative activities and the motivations behind them. They also argued that Hice was considered a “high-ranking official,” a special designation that includes its own high legal standard for when witnesses are compelled to talk to a grand jury.

May directed attorneys for Hice and the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, which is advising the grand jury, to develop a framework for questions that can be posed to the congressman. Hice could still object to those questions and come back for a ruling from May, the judge said.

“The most important thing is to get this right,” May said.

May said she’d even be willing to stand outside the grand jury room where Hice was being questioned and confer with the Republican every time there’s an issue over a subject, though she acknowledged it would be an inconvenient last resort.

Hice was originally called to testify before the special grand jury on July 19.

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A former Baptist pastor, Hice has served in the U.S. House since 2015 and unsuccessfully challenged Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger earlier this year with Trump’s endorsement.

He was an impassioned adherent of the “Stop the Steal” movement and introduced an objection to Georgia’s Electoral College votes on Jan. 6, 2021, hours after an insurrection sent lawmakers, journalists and thousands of others fleeing for their safety.

Hice is a longtime member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus and was close with several members of Trump’s inner circle, including former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

He was in attendance at a Dec. 21, 2020, strategy meeting at the White House with Meadows, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and other GOP lawmakers where they allegedly discussed organizing a slate of “alternative” GOP electors who would declare Trump the winner of the election.

A New York judge recently ordered Giuliani to appear before the Fulton grand jury on Aug. 9 after he failed to attend a hearing to challenge his subpoena.

Hice’s lawyers had previously argued that his actions following the 2020 elections, including questions raised about widespread fraud, fit squarely within his duties as a member of Congress who votes to certify Electoral College results.

In a filing last week, Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis indicated that she was particularly interested in Hice’s communications with people outside of Congress.

Hice’s attorney Josh Howard, based in North Carolina, began to argue that there are staffers who may be able to answer questions that the special grand jury wants to know from Hice.

“People have different memories of things,” May said, later adding that for personal conversations, “the only person who’d know that is the Congressman.”

May’s comments were not dissimilar from the approach adopted by Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, who’s overseeing the special grand jury investigation.

He recently told several state lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and former Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, that they were required to honor their subpoenas but that prosecutors and jurors were limited in what they could ask them. While they couldn’t be questioned about their motivations or communications among legislators or their staffs, McBurney said inquiries into conversations with third parties, including private citizens, constituents or lobbyists, was allowed.

Hice is one of two members of Congress who is challenging a subpoena from the grand jury.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is similarly planning to fight his summons in an Atlanta court.

Monday’s arguments came hours after McBurney disqualified Willis and her office from examining the role of state senator and GOP lieutenant governor nominee Burt Jones in the investigation. The judge directed another DA’s office to be appointed to question Jones since Willis held a fundraiser for Jones’ Democratic opponent last month.