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JUDGE RULES TOBACCO FIRM CAN’T SUBPOENA LAWMAKERS

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A federal judge on Monday forcefully rejected subpoenas secured against two House members last month by Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., accusing the company of "seeking to intimidate, and in a sense to punish" its critics in a bitter dispute over the hazards of smoking.

The company responded just as forcefully, saying that the judge had put members of Congress "above the law" and that it would appeal the ruling.Brown & Williamson had sought to ask Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon how they obtained copies of internal company documents that are reported to discuss the health risks of cigarettes. The two lawmakers, both Democrats, sit on a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health that is investigating the tobacco industry.

In his 25-page ruling, Judge Harold Greene said the lawmakers were protected from the subpoenas by the Constitution's speech and debate clause, which shields members of Congress from court actions stemming from their official duties.

But the judge also abandoned legal dogma to denounce Brown & Williamson's legal tactics in strong terms.

"There are several rules, even constitutional doctrines, that stand in the way of so high-handed a course of conduct, and one so patently crafted to harass those who would reveal facts concerning B&W's knowledge of the health hazards inherent in tobacco," he wrote. "The court sees no basis in law or justice for implementing the company's chosen course."

Brown & Williamson contends that a former clerk at one of the company's law firms, Merrell Williams, photocopied the company's scientific studies and gave them to reporters and lawmakers. The company has joined a lawsuit by the law firm against Williams in Kentucky.

Brown & Williamson argued that the lawmakers indirectly obtained the studies through a theft and a violation of attorney-client privilege. But Greene ruled that the speech and debate clause allows lawmakers to use evidence that is obtained illegally, as long as they do not personally engage in illegal acts.

A Brown & Williamson spokesman, Joe Helewicz, said: "The opinion appears to say Congress is above the law. It's OK for Congress to participate in illegal activities as long as they didn't commit the crimes themselves."