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HPSCI Doesn’t Need Don McGahn’s Permission to Release Schiff Memo

We discussed a couple weeks ago the process by which the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) may publicly release classified information. Pursuant to House Rule X(11)(g)(2)(A), HPSCI had voted on January 29 to release the so-called “Nunes Memo.” This vote authorized the committee to release the memo

after the expiration of a five-day period following the day on which notice of the vote to disclose is transmitted to the President unless, before the expiration of the five-day period, the President, personally in writing, notifies the select committee that he objects to the disclosure of such information, provides his reasons therefor, and certifies that the threat to the national interest of the United States posed by the disclosure is of such gravity that it outweighs any public interest in the disclosure.

House Rule X(11)(g)(2)(B).

On February 2, President Trump declassified the Nunes Memo in response to HPSCI’s action. Although HPSCI’s January 29 vote was not a request to declassify the memo, there is nothing inherently wrong with declassifying the memo prior to the expiration of the five-day period, thereby allowing the committee to release the document earlier. However, there was no requirement that the president declassify the document. Once the five days expired without an objection satisfying the requirements of the rule, the committee was free to release the memo regardless of whether it had been declassified.

It appears, however, that the declassification of the Nunes Memo was something other than the executive branch’s attempt to be helpful. On February 5, HPSCI again voted to invoke the disclosure rule, this time with regard to the rebuttal memorandum prepared by the Democratic minority (the “Schiff Memo”). In response the president has neither declassified the memo nor objected in accordance with the rule.

Instead, by letter to HPSCI dated February 9, White House counsel Don McGahn explained that because “the public release of classified information by unilateral action of the Legislative Branch is extremely rare and raises serious separation of powers concerns, as the Constitution vests the President with the authority to control access to sensitive national security information . . . we are once again treating the Committee’s action as a request for declassification pursuant to the President’s constitutional authority.”  Moreover, although the president “is inclined” to declassify the Schiff Memo, he is “unable to do so at this time” because the memo “contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages.” According to McGahn, President Trump “encourages” HPSCI to work with the Department of Justice to revise the Schiff Memo “to mitigate the risks identified by the Department,” and the “Executive Branch stands ready to review any subsequent draft” of the memo “for declassification at the earliest time.”

There is only one problem with this cooperative sounding letter. The House rule does not require any declassification decisions by the president or anyone else.  What it does require is an objection and specific certification by the president “personally and in writing.” These requirements are not satisfied by McGahn’s letter because McGahn is not the president and his letter does not contain the required certification.

McGahn’s position is that the executive branch will treat the HPSCI vote as if it were a request for declassification because otherwise HPSCI’s action would raise “serious separation of powers concerns.” This is a hitherto unknown means of constitutional avoidance. There was no ambiguity in HPSCI’s action and McGahn cannot pretend it did not happen because he thinks it might raise constitutional issues. It should be noted, moreover, that the executive branch has never before questioned the constitutionality of the House and Senate disclosure rules. McGahn’s only basis for doing so now is a single jump cite to Dep’t of Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518, 527 (1988), a case which involved the executive branch’s authority to deny security clearance to its own employees.

HPSCI apparently wishes to work with the Department of Justice to ensure that nothing in the Schiff Memo jeopardizes national security. This is appropriate and reasonable. However, it is essential to protect its constitutional prerogatives that HPSCI make it clear it in no way accepts McGahn’s position with regard to the House rule. Once the five-day period expires, the executive branch has no standing to raise objections and HPSCI has no legal obligation to get permission from McGahn or anyone else before releasing the memo. Any redactions or other modifications that the committee wishes to make for national security reasons are entirely within its own discretion.

Standing Silliness in DC v. Trump

Last week I attended a part of the argument in DC v. Trump, one of three Emoluments Clause cases pending against President Trump. This case was brought by the governments of Maryland and the District of Columbia. It is being heard by Judge Messitte of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, who sits in Greenbelt, Maryland. The argument, which began around 10 am and was wrapping up when I left at 3pm, was focused solely on whether the plaintiffs had standing to bring the case. This is a lot of time to spend on standing, and a good deal of the argument got down into the weeds of the various components of standing (injury in fact, traceability, redressability, etc.).

The most important takeaway is that Judge Messitte is clearly not inclined to follow the lead of Judge Daniels in CREW v. Trump and dismiss the case for lack of standing, at least not at this stage. The judge at one point became so impatient with hearing about the CREW v. Trump opinion that he told defendant’s counsel “don’t cite Judge Daniels to me.”

Judge Messitte seemed to be starting from the presumption that if the Foreign and/or Domestic Emoluments Clauses were being violated (a question on which he did not, from what I heard, express an opinion), somebody ought to be able to go to court to complain about it. Since no one else had any better standing to sue than these plaintiffs, he might as well let them go forward. The court evidently viewed the question of standing to be a legal technicality or fiction, one that he was happy to help the plaintiffs figure a way around.

Certainly anyone listening to the argument would come away with the impression that standing doctrine is rather ridiculous. A good deal of the discussion focused on the claims of Maryland and DC that the Trump Hotel in DC had caused economic injury to various competitor hotels and restaurants in the surrounding area due to the Trump Hotel’s alleged advantages in securing business from state and foreign governments. This led to Judge Messitte asking whether the MGM Hotel in National Harbor (one of the properties where Maryland claimed to have an economic interest) would actually lose gambling revenue from the Trump Hotel given that the latter has no casino. And defendant’s counsel kept harping on the fact that the plaintiffs had provided anecdotal evidence of competitive injury only to the Ritz and the Four Seasons, which were not (at least according to him) among the competitors for which the plaintiffs could assert a derivative economic interest.

While I admit to not being an expert on standing or having read all of the cases discussed in the argument, this whole line of inquiry strikes me as rather silly. I assume that if one looked hard enough one could find some people who stayed or ate at the Trump Hotel, rather than a competitor, for reasons having to do with the fact that the former is associated with the president. It seems rather unlikely, however, that one could show that any competitor suffered a net economic injury in light of the fact that some people also undoubtedly chose not to frequent Trump’s hotel (or restaurants) for precisely the same reason. And even if an injury could be shown, it is hard to see it results from the fact that Trump has an ownership interest in the hotel, as opposed to the fact that his name is on it.

Far more importantly, any competitive injury suffered by other hotels and restaurants has nothing to do with the purposes of the Emoluments Clauses and is therefore not within the zone of interests protected by these provisions. To give an analogy, my wife loves the original BLT restaurant and would undoubtedly be interested in dining at the new BLT Prime in the Trump Hotel. By the logic of plaintiffs’ theory, I should be able to sue President Trump on the grounds that if his establishment were not as busy with foreign and state government visitors trying to curry his favor, it would be easier for me to get a dinner reservation. I assume that this argument would be laughed out of court, but I fail to see how it is any different than plaintiffs’ “competitive injury” theory.

Of the standing cases I heard discussed, the most relevant seems to me to be Schlesinger v. Reservists Comm. to Stop the War, 418 U.S. 208 (1974), a case in which the plaintiffs alleged that the Incompatibility Clause was violated by the fact that more than 100 members of Congress were in the reserves during the Vietnam War. Their alleged injury stemmed from the fact that this violation made Congress less independent of the executive branch and therefore more likely to support the war, thereby injuring plaintiffs as citizens and taxpayers opposed to the war. The district court accepted this theory of standing, finding the Incompatibility Clause to be a “precise and self-operative” provision designed to prevent the very type of harm asserted.

The Supreme Court, however, rejected the district court’s view of standing:

Furthermore, to have reached the conclusion that respondents’ interests as citizens were meant to be protected by the Incompatibility Clause because the primary purpose of the Clause was to insure independence of each of the branches of the Federal Government, similarly involved an appraisal of the merits before the issue of standing was resolved. All citizens, of course, share equally an interest in the independence of each branch of Government. In some fashion, every provision of the Constitution was meant to serve the interests of all. Such a generalized interest, however, is too abstract to constitute a “case or controversy” appropriate for judicial resolution. The proposition that all constitutional provisions are enforceable by any citizen simply because citizens are the ultimate beneficiaries of those provisions has no boundaries.

Closely linked to the idea that generalized citizen interest is a sufficient basis for standing was the District Court’s observation that it was not irrelevant that if respondents could not obtain judicial review of petitioners’ action, “then as a practical matter no one can.” Our system of government leaves many crucial decisions to the political processes. The assumption that if respondents have no standing to sue, no one would have standing, is not a reason to find standing.

Id. at 227-28.

The Emoluments Clauses, like the Incompatibility Clause, are “precise and self-operative” structural provisions designed to protect the independence of one branch of the federal government. This is an interest in which all citizens share equally, and therefore is too generalized a grievance to support standing. If this means that no one would have standing to sue (which, as I will discuss in a moment, it may not), that is not sufficient reason to find standing.

Of course, Schlesinger is not on all fours with DC v. Trump because the plaintiffs in Schlesinger asserted their actual grievance, rather than an interest trumped up (sorry) solely for purposes of the litigation. It is obvious that neither Maryland or DC has any actual interest in the “competitive injury” that the Trump Hotel allegedly inflicts. It is as if the Schlesinger plaintiffs, instead of asserting their actual grievance, had claimed injury by virtue of the fact they might lose out to a member of Congress for a coveted slot or promotion in the reserves. Such a move would not have worked, and should not work now, because the alleged grievance is not anywhere in the vicinity of the zone of interests protected by the constitutional provisions at issue.

I will say, however, that there was a part of the plaintiffs’ standing in DC v. Trump position that was at least somewhat persuasive. They made a strong argument, based on in large measure on Federalist No. 73, that the Domestic Emoluments Clause (which prohibits the president from receiving additional emoluments from the United States or any individual state) is designed in part to ensure that all states are treated equally. Thus, if one or more states were providing emoluments to the president, there is an argument that the other states suffer a cognizable injury distinct from the injury suffered by the public at large. Accordingly, there is a plausible basis for Maryland (not DC, which seems to keep forgetting that it is not a state) to assert standing with respect to the Domestic Emoluments Clause only.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that Judge Messitte will allow Maryland and DC to proceed on both the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clause claims. As there is no plausible standing theory on the former claim, and because Congress at any rate should be the arbiter of Foreign Emoluments Clause violations, it remains essential that Congress bestir itself to take action on this front.

Marking Time on the Nunes Memo (with update)

In the past few days a lot of people (relatively speaking) have been reading this post (“Congressional Release of Classified Information and the Speech or Debate Clause”), which discusses the process by which the House and Senate intelligence committees may release classified information to the public. This spike in interest, I presume, relates to the vote yesterday of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) to release the “Nunes memo,” which details alleged abuses of the FISA process during the investigation of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections.

My prior posts on this subject have focused on the Senate (mostly in connection with the release of the “torture memo”, see here, here, here and here), but the House procedure is basically the same as that of the Senate, except that there is no requirement that HPSCI consult with or notify the chamber’s leadership. Thus, as provided by House Rule X(11)(g)(2)(B), HPSCI “may disclose publicly” the Nunes memo “after the expiration of a five-day period following the day on which notice of the vote to disclose is transmitted to the President,” unless in the interim the president objects in the manner specified by the rule.

As far as I can tell, the memo was not transmitted to the White House yesterday, so lets assume it will be transmitted today (note there is no requirement that HPSCI transmit the memo within a specified period of time). When will the five day period expire? If one counted every calendar day, it would expire at midnight on Sunday, February 4, and the memo could be released as early as Monday, February 5. Traditionally, however, the House considers Sunday to be a “dies non” so it will almost certainly not count for the computation. I am less clear on whether Saturday would be counted. Often House rules provide that Saturdays and legal holidays (as well as Sundays) are not counted for purposes of computing days, but there is no such express provision in the rule governing HPSCI’s release of information. So I am not sure whether the Parliamentarians will count Saturday or not. Depending on the answer, the memo would be releasable on Tuesday or Wednesday, unless an objection is received from the president.

What happens if the five days expire with no objection? The rule says that HPSCI “may” disclose the information at that point. It does not say that it must do so. But who decides whether the memo will actually be released? The rule says the information may be released by the “select committee.” It could therefore be argued that an individual member still cannot release the memo until HPSCI itself takes some further action. This might be interpreted to require that the committee take another vote, but since the rule elsewhere specifies other votes the committee must take, it seems likely that no formal vote is required. The Parliamentarians may rule that the chair can release the memo on behalf of the committee, but no one else may do so without the permission of the chair or another vote of the committee.

What if the White House asks for more time to evaluate the memo? Nothing in the rule expressly allows for the five day period to be extended. If the chair controls the release, he can agree to delay until the White House has an opportunity to respond. But once the five days expire, it would appear that the memo is releasable, even if it is not actually released. Any objection received after the expiration of the five days is (at least arguably) ineffective. Thus, if any faction of HPSCI (or the House) wanted the memo released, they could argue that the president’s objections were invalid under the rule.

[update: the above assumes that the transmission of the memo and "notice of the vote to disclose" occur simultaneously. This makes a certain amount of sense since it would be pointless to transmit the notice of the vote without informing the president of what is to be disclosed, given that the purpose of the five day period is for the president to decide whether to object to disclosure. But it is possible that HPSCI could transmit the memo to the president without a formal notice of the vote to disclose, thereby delaying the commencement of the five day period. So this represents another uncertainty as to when exactly the memo can/will be released publicly.]

Sexual Harassment and the Office of Congressional Ethics

As you are no doubt aware, there has been a great deal of controversy in the past few months about Congress’s handling of internal employment issues, most notably sexual harassment claims. It is less likely you are aware that Congress has actually moved rather expeditiously to address the problem. Last week a bill to do just that was introduced in the House by Representatives Gregg Harper and Robert Brady, respectively the chair and ranking member of the Committee on House Administration. The bill is titled the “Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act,” H.R. 4822. (Someone could have put more effort into this “short title,” but we will refer to it simply as “CARA.”).

The Committee on House Administration has jurisdiction over House labor and employment issues, including the application of labor and employment laws to Congress through the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (CAA). In the wake of widespread publicity about the handling of sexual harassment claims in Congress, the committee held hearings (November 14 and December 7, 2017) to address perceived weaknesses in the CAA and the need to prevent sexual harassment in the congressional workplace. The committee heard from various witnesses, including representatives of the Office of Compliance (OOC), the congressional agency responsible for administering and enforcing the CAA.

CARA addresses the problems identified in these hearings through various measures to better protect congressional employees from sexual harassment and other employment violations, including (1) establishing an Office of Employee Advocacy in the House to advise and assist employees with regard to rights and claims under the CAA; (2) authorizing the OOC General Counsel to conduct investigations of sexual harassment and other employment claims; (3) holding representatives and senators personally liable for awards and settlements arising from employment discrimination (including sexual harassment) or retaliation where their individual misconduct was involved; and (4) requiring the OOC to publish more detailed information about awards and settlements under the CAA.

My purpose here is not to analyze CARA’s proposed reforms or take a position on the bill. I merely observe that, on its face, CARA seems to be a textbook example of how “regular order” is supposed to work. Congress identifies a problem, holds hearings, and proposes a legislative solution, preferably reflecting a broad consensus within the committee of jurisdiction. CARA in fact is cosponsored by every member of the Committee on House Administration. It also very bipartisan, with 14 Republicans and 20 Democrats listed as sponsors or co-sponsors. Among them are the chair and ranking member of the House Ethics Committee and two of the most outspoken House members on the issue of sexual harassment, Representatives Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Barbara Comstock (R-VA).

(Note: I have known Comstock since we both worked on the Hill in the 1990s and have supported her in races for state legislature and Congress).

Of course, the introduction of CARA is far from the end of the legislative process. The bill is now referred back to the Committee on House Administration and three other committees with some jurisdiction over its provisions (Ethics, Oversight and Government Reform and Ways & Means) where it can be further studied, amended and eventually marked up for consideration by the full House. There will be plenty of opportunities for further deliberation and changes in committee, not to mention (if it gets that far) on the House floor and in the Senate.

All of which makes it a little odd that the immediate reaction in the ethics/reform community to CARA was not applause (though my understanding is that it is generally supportive of the bill), but outrage directed at a single provision, Section 407, which is deemed to represent an insidious effort by the “House leadership” (though what the House leadership has to do with this, I am not sure) “to purposefully defang the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) and undermine its role in upholding high ethical standards in the House of Representatives.”

So what exactly does Section 407 do? Continue reading ‘Sexual Harassment and the Office of Congressional Ethics’ »

Wright on Executive Privilege with Some Additional Thoughts Hazarded by Stern

Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist in the Trump White House, has refused to answer questions from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) regarding his time in the White House and on the presidential transition team. Bannon claims these subjects may implicate executive privilege and is deferring to the White House counsel’s office as to whether the privilege will be invoked.

I was going to post some comments on this issue, but almost everything I was going to say is admirably covered by Professor Andy Wright here. Wright’s key points are (1) Bannon’s status as a former government official is irrelevant to the legal merits of the privilege claim, though it could impact how the matter is resolved procedurally (more on that in a minute); (2) the privilege belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official; (3) it is thus appropriate to provide the president, with the advice of White House counsel and other executive branch lawyers, an opportunity to decide whether to invoke the privilege formally; (4) if negotiations do not resolve the issue, HPSCI must move forward with a formal contempt process; (5) while it may ultimately be decided that executive privilege does not attach to presidential transitions, the question at this point is an open one; and (6) even if the privilege does apply, HPSCI will still have strong arguments in favor of requiring Bannon to answer some or all of its questions.

One point of qualification. While I agree with Wright that issues of executive privilege have to be decided on a question-by-question basis, the burden is not on Bannon to make sure that specific questions get asked. In other words, if Bannon issued a “blanket refusal [to answer] about all swaths of time during his transition and White House roles,” as Wright indicates, it is still incumbent on HPSCI to make a record of the specific questions it wants answered. Failure to do so could undermine its legal position or delay resolution of the merits should the dispute reach the courts.

This brings us to the procedure HPSCI should employ to resolve this matter. As Wright notes, there are three avenues available (criminal contempt, civil litigation and inherent contempt). Each has its drawbacks and none is guaranteed to work (or work in a timely fashion) even if one assumes HPSCI would win the executive privilege issue on the merits.

As we discussed in connection with the Comey matter, however, the procedure followed with regard to a former official might differ from the norm. If Bannon takes the position that he will abide by HPSCI’s rulings on executive privilege unless otherwise directed by a federal court, the burden would be on the executive branch to bring a civil action and obtain a speedy order (presumably a TRO) directing Bannon not to testify.

On the other hand, Bannon might say that he will abide by the president’s instructions even if it means being held in contempt by HPSCI and the House. If so, the House could consider employing the rarest form of testimonial compulsion, inherent contempt. In this procedure, Bannon would be arrested by the Sergeant at Arms and brought before the bar of the House. If he continues to refuse to testify, the House could remand him into the custody of the Sergeant at Arms until he changes his mind (or convinces a court to release him on a habeas petition). This is a drastic remedy, which has not been employed by the House in about a century. But if the House is serious about reasserting its institutional prerogatives, there could hardly be a more inviting target than Mr. Bannon.

Anyway, there is something about incarcerating Bannon in the basement of the Capitol that seems like where 2018 is going, don’t you think?

P.S. RIP Geoffrey Hazard.

 

 

Don’t be a Potted Plant and Other Takeaways from CREW v. Trump

Judge Daniels of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has issued this opinion (hat tip: Eric Columbus) dismissing the Emoluments Clause lawsuit spearheaded by Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW). The court found that neither CREW nor its co-plaintiffs (individuals and businesses in competition with hotels and restaurants owned by the Trump Organization) had standing to sue President Trump for allegedly violating the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses.

Much of the court’s analysis is focused on explaining why the plaintiffs have not suffered legally redressable injuries from the alleged constitutional violations. Professor Jonathan Adler has a good summary of the court’s reasoning here, and I have nothing in particular to add with respect to that aspect of the opinion. I do, however, have a few additional observations.

First, while the court makes clear (see op. at 2, n.1) it is not addressing the merits of the case, I think one can sense some skepticism from the court about the plaintiffs’ theory of liability. The gravamen of their claims is that Trump’s “’vast, complicated and secret’ business interests are creating conflicts of interest and have resulted in unprecedented government influence in violation of the Domestic and Foreign Emoluments Clauses of the United States Constitution.” Op. at 1.

As the court notes, however, nothing in the Constitution prevents Trump from operating an extensive business empire that competes with CREW’s co-plaintiffs as to non-government business. Op. at 17. To the extent the Constitution might be construed to apply to business transactions with governmental entities, the effect on the Trump Organization would be largely incidental. As the court points out, even in that circumstance the Constitution would not prohibit the Trump Organization from doing business with foreign (or state) governments; it would simply prevent Trump from personally accepting income or profits from these transactions. Op. at 14 & n.3. Trump thus can fix any constitutional problem if he has not already, and Congress can waive any constitutional problem under the Foreign Emoluments Clause (FEC) anyway. Op. at 15. In short, Judge Daniels effectively rejects the notions that the Constitution prohibits the Trump Organization from operating during the Trump presidency or that Trump needs to divest himself of all interest in his businesses.

A second and more important takeaway from the opinion relates specifically to the FEC. Judge Daniels did not merely hold that these particular plaintiffs lack standing to sue. Instead, he found that any claim under the FEC would be non-justiciable. Op. at 25-26. As the court explains:

Here, the issue presented under the Foreign Emoluments Clause is whether Defendant can continue to receive income from his business with foreign governments without the consent of Congress. As the explicit language of the [FEC] makes clear, this is an issue committed exclusively to Congress. As the only political branch with the power to consent to violations of the [FEC], Congress is the appropriate body to determine whether, and to what extent, Defendant’s conduct unlawfully infringes on that power. If Congress determines that an infringement has occurred, it is up to Congress to decide whether to challenge or acquiesce to Defendant’s conduct. As such, this case presents a non-justiciable political question.

Op. at 26 (emphasis added).

In addition, the court found that plaintiffs’ claims were premature because Congress itself had taken no action with regard to Trump’s alleged violations of the FEC. (One might add that Congress had little opportunity to do so, given that CREW filed its lawsuit on the first day of the administration.) The result might be different, the court implied, if in the future Congress were to find Trump’s activities required congressional consent. Op. at 27-28. But it is not the court’s role to tell Congress what to do or “how it should or should not assert its power in responding to Defendant’s alleged violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause.” Id.

In a footnote, Judge Daniels underscored this point: “Congress is not a potted plant. It is a co-equal branch of the federal government with the power to act as a body in response to Defendant’s alleged Foreign Emoluments Clause violations, if it chooses to do so.” Op. at 28 n.8.

Needless to say (or, rather, as I have already said here and here), I am in strong agreement with the court’s approach to justiciability of the FEC claim. The House and/or Senate should give serious consideration to filing an amicus brief defending the court’s decision if and when CREW appeals to the Second Circuit.

Congress can also justify Judge Daniels’ confidence by demonstrating that it is not in fact a potted plant. It should initiate a review of Trump’s business interests to ensure there are adequate safeguards to prevent violations of the FEC or any other unacceptable conflicts of interest. Upon reflection, I think the best way to conduct a serious, nonpublic and nonpartisan review of this matter would be to entrust it to the GAO, possibly under the auspices of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Finally, I must note that Judge Daniels makes no mention of the theory, advanced by Professor Tillman as amicus curiae, that the FEC is inapplicable to the president, other than to note that “[f]or purposes of this motion, Defendant has conceded that he is subject to the Foreign Emoluments Clause.” Op. at 6 n.2. Make of this what you will, but perhaps it suggests the court was not bowled over by Tillman’s theory? As an exercise in reading tea leaves this seems as least as plausible as Tillman’s apparently inferring from these orders in District of Columbia v. Trump (another emoluments case) that Judge Messitte is interested in hearing more about his theory. But we will see.

“Nothing I have done as a senator, nothing, has brought dishonor on this institution . . .”

“And I am confident the ethics committee would agree.”

I was struck by these words from Senator Al Franken’s resignation speech (or perhaps semi-resignation speech) today. While Franken is to some extent denying the factual allegations (i.e., groping various women) made against him, the point of this particular line was to stress that he has done nothing “as a senator” to dishonor the Senate. One has to assume that he is saying that even if the allegations against him are true, they would not constitute “improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate,” as these words are used in S. Res. 338 (2)(a)(1). (Otherwise there would be no reason for the qualification “as a senator” in his statement.).

The Senate Ethics Manual makes clear a senator may be disciplined “for any misconduct, including conduct or activity which does not directly relate to official duties, when such conduct unfavorably reflects on the institution as a whole.” Senate Ethics Manual at 13; see also id. at 432-36 (reviewing conduct found by the Senate to constitute “improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate” or bring the Senate into “dishonor and disrepute”). But in all of the cases in which the Senate has taken disciplinary action, there has been at least some indirect connection between the misconduct and the senator’s official duties or status.

The most tenuous such connection was in the case of Senator Larry Craig, who was charged with a misdemeanor for soliciting sex in a men’s bathroom at the Minneapolis airport. The Senate ethics committee ultimately issued a letter of admonition to Craig over the incident, in which the committee found that Craig had improperly attempted to use his position to avoid being arrested and charged, and then had improperly attempted to avoid the consequences of his guilty plea.  The committee’s letter to Craig concluded that “[t]he conduct to which you pled guilty, together with your related and subsequent conduct as set forth above, constitutes improper conduct reflecting discreditably on the Senate.” (Yes, the committee used the word “pled,” which apparently means its letter was written by Donald Trump).

Simon Davidson, Roll Call’s ethics columnist, and I debated at the time whether the Craig case involved the first instance of the ethics committee punishing a senator in part for purely personal conduct (i.e., soliciting sex in a bathroom) or whether the committee’s action was dependent on Craig’s subsequent actions which involved conduct at least somewhat related to Craig’s official duties. My view was that the committee was in fact exercising jurisdiction over purely personal conduct, though attempting to downplay that aspect of its action. As I noted, “the committee understandably does not want to be in the business (or advertise that it is in the business) of investigating or punishing sexual misconduct or other common indiscretions by Senators.”

My broader interpretation of the Craig admonishment would support the committee’s exercise of jurisdiction in the Franken case, except for one very important distinction. Craig was a senator at the time he engaged in the misconduct. Franken was not. As mentioned in my last post, the Senate has never disciplined any senator for conduct that occurred before he or she entered the Senate. Moreover, it has on a number of occasions refused to do so precisely because of doubts about its jurisdiction over such matters.

The combination of the personal nature of Franken’s alleged misconduct and the fact that it occurred before he entered the Senate makes it highly questionable whether this is a matter that the ethics committee could even investigate based on past precedent. There is certainly no precedent that would support the imposition of any serious sanction based on the facts alleged, even if they are all true.

Which is perhaps why Franken wanted the matter before the ethics committee in the first place.

The Senate’s Authority to Punish or Expel Roy Moore: A Response to Stan Brand

Former House Counsel Stan Brand has written this article in Politico entitled “Why the Law Might Not Allow the Senate to Expel Roy Moore.” I am working on a longer piece dealing with jurisdictional and prudential limits on the Senate Ethics Committee, but I want to take this opportunity to comment on Brand’s article. In brief, I agree with Brand on the bottom line (i.e., it will be extraordinarily difficult for the Senate to punish, much less expel, Moore for his alleged misconduct), but I think a little more precision with regard to the constitutional and legal issues would be helpful.

Moore, of course, is the Republican candidate in the Alabama special senate election to be held on December 12. For the last month or so (it seems longer), the main issue in that election has been Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct with a number of teenage girls (at least one as young as 14) about 30 years ago. If Moore should win the election, senate leaders have suggested that he will nonetheless have to face these accusations before the Senate itself.

As Brand notes, it is clear that the law does not permit the Senate to “exclude” Moore, that is, to refuse to seat him on the grounds that he lacks the constitutional qualifications to serve in the Senate. Moore has the constitutionally prescribed qualifications (age, citizenship and residency) and so the Senate must seat him.

But the Senate also has the power to punish any senator for “disorderly behavior” and, with the concurrence of two-thirds of the Senate, a senator may be expelled. Brand suggests that these powers may not extend to Moore’s case for three reasons: (1) Moore’s misconduct occurred in a prior Congress; (2) Moore’s conduct occurred before he entered the Senate; and (3) Moore’s conduct was known to the electorate at the time that it (hypothetically) elected him.

The first of these points is not well taken. It is true that there is language in early precedents suggesting that members cannot be punished or expelled for conduct occurring in prior congresses. (Professor Turley alluded to this idea as well). To the extent that this position was ever seriously entertained, it made more sense for the House (all the members of which stand for election every two years) than for the Senate, a continuing body consisting of members elected for six year terms. But in any event, both bodies have long recognized that they can punish or expel members for conduct occurring in prior congresses. House rules, for example, allow its ethics committee to investigate matters going back to the third previous congress and longer if the committee determines the prior conduct is directly related to an alleged violation occurring in more recent congress. House Rule XI (3) (b) (3). The Senate has declined to adopt any statute of limitations at all.

The second point is far more substantial. As far as I know, neither the House nor the Senate has ever disciplined, much less expelled, a member for conduct preceding his or her first election to the legislative body. On a number of occasions, the Senate has declined the opportunity to take cognizance of alleged misconduct occurring before first election. The only question is whether this precedent reflects a jurisdictional limit (i.e., a constitutional limit on the Senate’s power) or merely a strong aversion to using the Senate’s power in such situations. It should also be noted that whether the limit is jurisdictional or prudential, there is some precedent that a senator can waive the limit by asking for an investigation of his own conduct. See Josh Chafetz, Congress’s Constitution 252 (2017) (discussing the 1904 case of Senator Charles Dietrich, who asked the Senate to appoint a committee to investigate allegations that he behaved corruptly in his prior position as governor of Nebraska). This is a point that Moore’s lawyers will want to keep in mind (as perhaps Senator Al Franken’s should have as well).

Finally, Brand’s third point alludes to the “Wilkes principle,” which we have discussed in this blog on prior occasions (see here, here, and here). Essentially, it means that a legislative body should not expel a member for conduct that was fully known to the voters at the time of his or her most recent election. The voters, as Benjamin Cassady puts it, have the power to grant an “electoral pardon” with respect to a candidate’s prior misconduct. See Benjamin Cassady, “You’ve Got Your Crook, I’ve Got Mine,” 32 Quinnipiac L. Rev. 209, 218 (2014).

Like Professor Chafetz, I doubt that this limit is jurisdictional in nature. See Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few 210-12 (2007). Although ordinarily it would be “impermissibly undemocratic” for a legislative body to expel a member after his or her constituents have indicated either forgiveness or approval of the conduct in question, the framers of the Constitution declined to prohibit expulsion twice for the same offense. In truly extraordinary circumstances, therefore, it may be permissible for the legislative body to expel a member for conduct known to the voters. In addition, there is always the possibility that “new” information not available to the voters will emerge after the election. At the moment, however, it seems very unlikely that the Senate could expel Moore without violating the Wilkes principle.

In short, while reasonable people can disagree whether the Senate has the constitutional authority to expel (or even punish) Moore for the conduct in question, there can be no doubt that the Senate would have to go well beyond any of its existing precedents to take such action.

Harriet Miers and Assertions of Executive Privilege for Former Officials

Several months ago we discussed whether the president could assert executive privilege to prevent a former official (in that case, former FBI Director Jim Comey) from providing information to Congress, even if the former official wanted to disclose the information. Eric Columbus, a lawyer who had served in the Obama Justice Department, argued that the answer is no. The core of his argument was that there was no legal mechanism to prevent a former official from voluntarily disclosing privileged information to Congress or to anyone else.

In response to Columbus, I noted that executive privilege belongs to the president, not to subordinate officials, and “it is hard to see why the availability of the privilege should turn on the subordinate’s preferences.” The issue I saw was procedural. If the former official declines to obey the president’s instruction to assert executive privilege, and the congressional committee declines to allow the administration to raise its objections directly, the burden would be on the administration to bring a lawsuit to restrain the former official from testifying. An analogous suit was brought by the executive branch to prevent AT&T from complying with a congressional subpoena in the 1970s. See United States v. AT&T, 567 F.2d 121 (D.C. Cir. 1977).

In a subsequent article, Columbus acknowledged the possibility of the executive bringing such an action, but argued that it “would almost surely be laughed out of court.” He contended that “[a] court could not enjoin Comey from testifying unless it could fathom a rationale that would also bar Comey from revealing the same information by writing a book, going on the Sunday shows, taking to Twitter or chatting at his local bagel shop.” The premise of Columbus’s argument was that because Comey was eager to provide information to Congress and/or the general public, there was no way for a court (or anyone else) to stop him. Columbus distinguished Comey’s situation from that of a “reluctant” former official, who does not “really” want to testify or provide the information demanded by Congress.

In going through some files the other day, I came across materials related to Harriet Miers, who served as White House counsel in the Bush administration and who is Columbus’s example of a “reluctant” former official subpoenaed by Congress. Contrary to Columbus, it seems to me that the Miers case is basically on all fours with the Comey situation, and I will take this opportunity to explain why. (It also enables me to clean out some old files, so yah!)

About 10 years ago the House Judiciary Committee, then chaired by Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.), conducted an investigation of the Bush administration’s firing of certain U.S. attorneys. In the course of this investigation, the committee issued subpoenas for documents and testimony to several current or former White House officials, including Miers.

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Why I Snipe

In my last post, I (briefly) laid out reasons why Congress should intervene in the ongoing litigation regarding the Foreign Emoluments Clause. Professor Tillman has offered a comment to that post, which he has shared by email and on the blog. His comment is set forth in full below, along with my response.

Before getting to that, though, there was one other point which I should have mentioned. As we have discussed, pending before the House Ethics Committee is a case which presents two of the major issues that could be decided by the courts if they reach the merits in the FEC litigation: (1) who is covered by the Clause; and (2) do fair market value transactions with foreign governments constitute “emoluments” within the meaning of the Clause. This provides an additional reason why Congress should insist on its own primacy in deciding questions related to the FEC. Not only would judicial pronouncements on the merits of these questions interfere with Congress’s authority vis a vis the other branches, but also with the authority of the House and Senate to discipline their own members.

Now to Tillman’s comment:

Litigation in general has rules. And the three Foreign Emoluments Clause cases have scheduling orders imposed by the court (in the SDNY, District of DC, and District of Maryland), and/or by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Any amicus brief along the lines you suggest would, in effect, support the President. But the time for filing ab amicus brief in support of the President — in all 3 actions — elapsed some time before your post went live (on October 26, 2017).

It is too late for the House and Senate (or Congress as a whole) to follow your advice. Yes, they could file late, but such a late filing would require justification. What is that justification? Why did you not present your advice in a more timely fashion?

In lieu of a brief, you could take the time to write a full-length paper and post it on SSRN as a prelude to publication in a journal. Or you could snipe from the wings against those who actually attempt to do something consistent with the practical requirements of actual litigation.

It is up to you.

Here is my response.

Why do I snipe (or why didn’t I snipe earlier)? Tillman asks why I “snipe from the wings” rather than writing a full-length article or brief detailing my own views on the pertinent legal issues. But this misapprehends the nature of my concern. I am not urging Congress to act to ensure that the courts have the benefit of my brilliant legal scholarship. I want Congress to recognize that its own institutional interests are at stake and to take action to protect those interests. Sure, I have suggested some legal arguments that Congress may wish to make, but Congress has its own counsel that are more than capable of deciding on and developing those arguments.

To the extent that I have contributed any original thinking on the FEC, it relates solely to the question of whether the president is covered by the Clause. But this is distinct from the question of who should decide whether the president is covered. To be sure, I think it is important that Congress understand not only the (overwhelming, IMHO) legal arguments in favor of the president being covered, but also the radical implications of a contrary decision. For example, it would mean that the president and vice-president could hold seats in Congress, and that an impeached and convicted president (or vice-president) could not be disqualified from holding that office again. But while the substantive outcome of this issue is very important, it is equally if not more important that Congress, not the courts, should be making it.

As for why I did not post my thoughts on this earlier, I am sure the readers are not interested in my personal time management. As it happens, I don’t think it would have made any difference if I had posted earlier (granting, purely for the sake of discussion, that Congress is eagerly awaiting my advice on these things), for reasons I discuss below. But I will certainly endeavor to be quicker on the trigger in the future. Nobody likes a slow sniper.

What is the point of my giving this advice to Congress? This is a question that Tillman did not ask (at least explicitly), but should have. What makes me think that Congress has the slightest interest in what I have to say or would even be aware that I said it? And, as several people have commented to me, what makes me think that Congress even has any interest in vindicating its own institutional interests?

I am under no illusion that “Congress” as a whole reads my blog or that the House and Senate chambers are echoing with the sounds of members excitedly discussing my proposal. I do know that my blog is read by some of the relatively small cadre of folks on the Hill who care about institutional prerogatives and have the capacity and band-width to consider these types of “over the horizon” issues. The most that can be realistically hoped is that my post will trigger some thinking and discussion about this matter.

As a general matter, there reasons to question Congress’s commitment to protecting its own institutional interests. Individual members may care (or at least say they care) about vindicating those interests, but Congress as a whole is certainly far less consistent in protecting its institutional prerogatives than is the executive. These is partly a result of structural incentives inherent in a multi-member, bi-cameral body, but is also partly historically contingent. In my (tentative) opinion, the prediction that Congress would become more assertive in its dealings with the other branches (particularly the executive) in the unique circumstances of the current administration is in fact being borne out, but it is very much a work in progress. So my post may represent a triumph of hope over experience, but I don’t think it is entirely futile.

Is it too late for Congress to act on my advice? So I am generally familiar with the fact that litigation has rules and, while I did not look at the scheduling orders in the three district court cases, I recognized when I wrote my post that it was likely that the deadlines for filing amicus briefs in those cases had well passed. As a purely theoretical matter, Congress might still be able to file amicus briefs in those cases if it wished to do so. There is a statute, for example, giving Senate Legal Counsel greater leniency in filing amicus briefs than the ordinary litigant. See 2 U.S.C. § 288l(a). (I understand there is currently a legislative effort to give the House Counsel some of the same authorities, although I do not know whether this specific provision is one of those being considered).

As a practical matter, however, there was never any realistic chance that Congress was going to file an amicus brief at the district court level. There is simply too much that would need to happen before either house is going to authorize the filing of an amicus brief in these cases (particularly given their politically fraught nature). My hope (and it is no more than that) is that Congress starts the process of developing a legal position so that the House and/or the Senate could appear as amicus before the courts of appeals or the Supreme Court.

Finally, I would note that my proposal was not limited to formal appearance in court. There are a number of things that Congress could do (such as holding hearings) that would advance its institutional interests and make it less likely that the courts will think that Congress has simply abandoned its constitutional responsibilities for implementing the FEC.

So it is definitely not too late for Congress to act. The clock, however, is ticking.