The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed Wednesday to hear 50th Congressional District Rep. Duncan Hunter's argument for the dismissal of corruption charges brought against him in 2018.
A trial judge initially denied Rep. Hunter’s motion to drop the case, but Wednesday’s decision to hear his appeal could potentially shift the start of the trial, now slated for January 2020, well past next year's election, according to two former Southern District U.S. Attorneys.
Hunter and his wife are accused of misusing more than $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses like groceries, golf trips and family vacations. The Ninth Circuit must decide whether such actions were allowable under the Constitution's Speech and Debate Clause. The court is scheduled to hear Hunter’s appeal in December.
"It is one of those things that is protected. It's not an absolute protection but its protected," Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Labella said.
Labella said the Speech and Debate Clause prevents members of Congress from being prosecuted for certain actions and things said among them and their staffers in the course of their duties.
Hunter, a Marine combat veteran, has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. His wife Margaret Hunter pleaded guilty to one corruption count and agreed to cooperate with investigators.
Despite the appeal proceeding’s expedited schedule, another former U.S. Attorney, Carol Lam, told NBC 7 Hunter’s trial could be delayed up to 18 months.
"I don't think anybody can predict that the panel is going to rule quickly. The government would like that but there is no guarantee,” Labella said.
That kind of delay would open the door for Hunter to potentially win re-election a second time while under indictment.
"It certainly is possible because you just don't know how long the courts -- you don't know what the ruling is going to be and you don't know what the next step is going to be,” Labella said.
There are currently 10 candidates in the race for Hunter’s seat, the latest of whom is former 49th District Rep. Darrell Issa, who entered the race Thursday.