WASHINGTON -- A former top Republican Senate staff member accused of spying on his Democratic colleagues is suing Attorney General John Ashcroft, asking a federal judge to halt a criminal investigation into an eavesdropping scandal that brought a new level of bitterness to the fight over judicial nominations.
Manuel Miranda, who in February resigned under pressure from his position as nominations adviser to the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, filed the complaint in a District of Columbia federal court Friday. The complaint, which also names the Secret Service's director, W. Ralph Basham, presents 10 arguments for why any law that might be used to prosecute Miranda would either not apply or be unconstitutional.
The complaint also lays out the case from Miranda's point of view, denouncing Democrats for conspiring to block some conservative nominees and criticizing the Senate judiciary chairman, Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, for supporting the probe.
In an interview yesterday, Miranda said he thought the matter would be dropped once he resigned, and called the continuing criminal investigation unjust and politically motivated.
''I came to realize these guys have a continuing interest in discrediting me and will achieve that if they get an indictment, and as you know a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich," he said.
The case began in November 2003, when The Wall Street Journal editorial pages published excerpts from private Democratic staff memos discussing which of President Bush's judicial nominees the Democrats would try to block and with what tactics.
An investigation by Senate Sergeant-at-Arms William Pickle determined that Republican staff members infiltrated Democratic Judiciary Committee computer files from 2001 to 2003, copying thousands of memos and passing some on to the media.
The infiltration was made possible by an error on the shared computer server.
Pickle's investigation indicated that a low-ranking Republican staff member discovered the glitch and shared that capability with Miranda. E-mails recovered by Pickle showed the two monitored what their opponents were planning and conspired to hide their own actions.
Pickle referred the matter to the Justice Department. On Friday, Miranda filed suit, asking for a declaratory judgment that he broke no constitutional law as well as an injunction prohibiting the Justice Department and the Secret Service ''from investigating, indicting, or prosecuting" him or anyone else in the case.
Miranda questioned the constitutionality of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which makes it a crime punishable by up to a year in prison to exceed one's authorization to access confidential information on a government computer. He argues that the law is too vague as it would apply to his case. Miranda also said that he did not exceed his authorization in using the server and that he should be immune from prosecution because his work was part of the official business of Congress.
Spokesmen for Hatch and Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the ranking member of the committee, declined to comment on the complaint because it refers to an ongoing investigation.
Some staff members and legal specialists depicted the lawsuit as an unusual way to try to halt an investigation. Robert Weisberg, a criminal law professor at Stanford University, said it was ''virtually impossible" that such a tactic would succeed.
Bill Stuntz, a criminal law professor at Harvard Law School, said the use of lawsuits to stop prosecutors from indicting a potential defendant was ''unusual but not unheard of," contending it was sometimes used during the civil rights era to stop the use of discriminatory statutes.
Still, he questioned the strategy of bringing such a suit before prosecutors have made up their minds.
''Most people who haven't been charged yet are sitting there crossing their fingers and hoping the government does not charge them," Stuntz said. ''The last thing they want to do is haul the government into court."
Replied Miranda's lawyer, Adam Carter: ''This is a case that is so politically charged that we thought it prudent to get all the relevant issues immediately in front of a court, not just the ones selected by a prosecutor."
The case has been assigned to Judge Gladys Kessler, appointed in 1994 by President Clinton.