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I ran into this petition on Facebook:

File charges against the 47 U.S. Senators in violation of The Logan Act in attempting to undermine a nuclear agreement.

On March 9th, 2015, forty-seven United States Senators committed a treasonous offense when they decided to violate the Logan Act, a 1799 law which forbids unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. Violation of the Logan Act is a felony, punishable under federal law with imprisonment of up to three years. At a time when the United States government is attempting to reach a potential nuclear agreement with the Iranian government, 47 Senators saw fit to instead issue a condescending letter to the Iranian government stating that any agreement brokered by our President would not be upheld once the president leaves office. This is a clear violation of federal law. In attempting to undermine our own nation, these 47 senators have committed treason.

Technically speaking, does the petition have any practical legal grounds?

  • You're expecting a political flamebait on petitions website to have "practical legal grounds"? What's next, a question on Physics.SE whether it's practical to build a Death Star? – user4012 Mar 10 '15 at 20:44
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    @DVK That's what I thought, but since I saw the petition catching up, I considered the possibility that maybe they were right and I was wrong. – AxiomaticNexus Mar 10 '15 at 21:59
  • @YasmaniLlanes To clarify, you're asking if the senators actually can be prosecuted under the Logan Act? (If so, the answer is going to essentially be "who knows?"; there's really no precedent to guide us.) – Avi Mar 10 '15 at 22:08
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    If you're asking "does this petition actually have any sort of legal impact," then no. Online petitions will have zero impact on whether any charges are filed. – cpast Mar 11 '15 at 0:50
  • @cpast - "grounds" means "is the idea in the peition made up", not whether the petition's filing has an impact – user4012 Mar 11 '15 at 15:53
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I don't know the legal side of this, but the political side is pretty easy: this "diplomatic moves by legislature" are a common approach, has been done before - by those same Democrats who are now insisting this is "treason", "violation of Logan act" etc...

  • 2007: Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visits Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad (to the accompanying displeasure of Bush administration).

  • In context of the same trip, AP remembers some other similar events (including of course the now-Obama's-Secretary-of-State Kerry):

    [S]ome [Bush] administration allies have accused four senators — Democrats John Kerry of Massachusetts, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — of engaging in such freelance diplomacy by going to Syria in December to sound out President Bashar Assad on his intentions on Iraq and Lebanon.

    The Clinton administration chafed in 1999 at separate diplomatic efforts by civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and by a group of U.S. and Russian legislators led by then-Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., to strike a peace deal to end the conflict in Yugoslavia.

    Former President Carter’s freelance mission to North Korea in 1994 to nail down a nuclear deal with Pyongyang was praised by the Clinton White House at the time, but it helped complicate later U.S. dealings with North Korea.

Grenwald has a pretty big article on this.

I won't even go into Senator Obama's foreign policy moves visavi Iraq when he was still a Senator.

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    Agreed. The Logan Act and "treason" get brought up by the opposition party when it happens, and are conveniently forgotten when it's their turn to do it. It's a nice sound bite during the occasion (especially since they all decide it's "unprecedented" each time), and that's about it. – Geobits Mar 11 '15 at 16:03
  • Treason meaning "opposing the government politically" predates the US. – cpast Mar 11 '15 at 17:49
  • @Geobits - It's always unprecedented, because there's always something about it which they can point to to say "look! new precedent here!" Has there been an occasion where a close-to-majority of senators have collectively gotten involved, rather than individuals? Has it ever been about negotiations with Iran? Not that it makes any actual difference (nor should it), but since nothing has every officially set a general precedent, everything can bee looked at as unprecedented. – Bobson Mar 11 '15 at 18:59
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    That said, I think they should just get rid of the Logan Act so both sides stop making idiots of themselves by invoking it. – Bobson Mar 11 '15 at 18:59
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Probably not

There's nothing necessarily stopping an indictment, but the likelihood that it results in any sort of conviction are small, in my opinion. It's likely that it would get thrown out for one of several reasons.

For reference, the text of the Logan Act:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

Authority

At first glance, it appears that the Senate letter definitely has the intent to "influence the measures or conduct" of a foreign government.

The problem is that it's debatable whether Congress is "unauthorized" in this sense. As representatives of the US government, they may be totally exempt. The language of the law is vague on this point, and courts historically grant leniency in cases where it's not clear.

Constitutionality

It's not clear whether the Act is constitutional, since it hasn't been extensively tried in the courts. Especially since First Amendment protections have strengthened in the last century or so, the overly broad language of the act may get thrown out of court if challenged.

Of course, this would probably require an indictment to be tested. Which brings up:

Desuetude

Desuetude basically means that if a law has been unenforced long enough, it might as well not be there. This is one reason you don't see people arrested for violating those "dumb/crazy" laws you see online.

The last indictment from the Logan Act was over 200 years ago, and there's never been a successful prosecution. Whether this would convince the court to throw it out or not, you can guarantee that it would be brought up by the defense, assuming the above barriers were passed.


I'm not a lawyer. Seriously.

  • There's also the impunity granted to acting legislators. (Don't know the technical term is, but I bet you do.) It might be worth mentioning. Otherwise, this is a thorough answer, +1. – Tyler Mar 11 '15 at 2:03
  • @Tyler That's a good point. I think it's generally just called "legislative immunity". It should apply if you take the position that this is within their scope of duties. If that's the case, though, it would be immediately clear that they are "authorized" and the Logan Act wouldn't apply anyway. I'll add something to that effect when I have more time. – Geobits Mar 11 '15 at 2:10

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