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An Update on Parliament’s Contempt Power

So at virtually the same time I told you that Parliament’s contempt power was in a state of desuetude, this happened. The House of Commons held the British government in contempt for its failure to publish the Attorney General’s legal advice regarding Brexit as the House had previously demanded.

To be sure, my prior post related to the use of contempt to impose punitive measures such as fines or imprisonment. These were not involved in yesterday’s contempt vote, which the article describes as “largely symbolic.” Yet it appears that the government intends to comply with the Commons’ demands as a consequence of the contempt vote. Moreover, while the use of contempt to impose rebukes is more common than fines or imprisonment, it is still extremely rare. According to this 2012 analysis I referred to yesterday, the last time someone was called to the bar of the house to be admonished by the Speaker was in the 1956-57 session. And it is apparently the first time ever that the British government itself has been held in contempt.

It should be noted that Congress’s inherent power of contempt derives from Parliament’s power (and thus has been recognized as being an “inherent” part of the legislative power conveyed in Article I). From time to time, the idea of using the inherent contempt power against a recalcitrant executive branch has been broached, but the idea always founders on practical considerations (e.g., what happens if the recalcitrant executive official is protected by security that does not want to surrender him/her to the custody of the Sergeant at Arms?).

If the House (or Senate) were to follow the procedure apparently used in the House of Commons yesterday, however, these problems largely disappear. The Commons simply voted on a resolution holding the government in contempt, without following the normal practice of referring the matter to the Committee on Privileges. No trial was held, nor was anyone (it appears) called to the bar of the house.

If Congress were to follow such a process, it would more closely resemble a censure or similar resolution, as opposed to a finding of contempt. It could be argued that such a largely symbolic action would have little impact in our system, where the continuation of the government does not depend on majority support in the legislature. On the other hand, if contempt were used, it would be possible for a trial to be held, with an executive official (or the entire executive branch) as the “defendant.” It would be up to the executive branch whether it wanted to attend or mount a defense. One can imagine that such a process could be more powerful as a display of soft power than a simple vote on a resolution.

We will see if some enterprising member of Congress picks up on this.

Facebook’s Encounter with Parliament’s Inherent Powers

A parliamentary committee has seized a trove of internal Facebook documents relating to the company’s data and privacy policies and practices. The documents were obtained via a U.S. businessman, Ted Kramer, who had sued Facebook in state court in California. Kramer had access to the documents because his company had obtained them through discovery in the litigation, but a protective order prohibited the parties from sharing them with the outside world.

So how did the documents end up with a House of Commons committee investigating Facebook in the U.K.? Somehow the chair of the committee learned Kramer was in London on business, and he thereupon dispatched the Commons Serjeant at Arms to Kramer’s hotel. The Serjeant at Arms (no word on whether he was carrying his sword) served Kramer with an order demanding the documents, and the committee followed up with an email threatening the businessman with contempt of Parliament if he did not comply. After a meeting with the committee chair in which he was allegedly told he could be subject to fines and imprisonment for contempt, Kramer (who unwisely attended this meeting without his lawyers) used his laptop to access and download the documents to a USB drive and then handed it to the committee.

Facebook argues that the document disclosure violated the California court’s protective order, and it is seeking discovery regarding this disclosure (presumably hoping to establish collusion between Kramer and the committee). It has also demanded that the committee return its documents. The committee, however, notes that it is not subject to the court’s jurisdiction and is in any event protected by parliamentary privilege. The committee has already used the documents in the course of an extraordinary hearing held in London on November 27, 2018 in which lawmakers from nine different countries, calling themselves the “International Grand Committee on Disinformation,” interrogated a Facebook representative about the company’s policies and practices.

This series of events raises some interesting questions, which we will briefly consider below. Continue reading ‘Facebook’s Encounter with Parliament’s Inherent Powers’ »

Me Too’s Privileged Few

If you are interested in the law and custom of Parliament (lex et consuetude parliamenti), you should follow Jack Simson Caird on twitter (@jasimsoncaird). Had you done so, you too would have learned of a recent controversy involving parliamentary privilege and legislative self-discipline that caught my attention.

The story begins on October 24, 2018, when the Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, charged that a “leading businessman” had engaged in “alleged sexual harassment and racial abuse of staff.” This reporting followed an eight month investigation by the Telegraph of the allegations in question. However, the newspaper was unable to reveal the identity of the businessman and other details of its findings because of an injunction issued by a three-judge appellate court at the request of the businessman and his companies. This ruling was widely criticized (at least according to the Telegraph) by MPs and others as a violation of press freedom and an inappropriate attempt to gag harassment victims.

The British court’s opinion explains that five employees had made allegations of “discreditable conduct” against the businessman in question, but all of these claims had been settled by agreements in which the employees had received “substantial payments” and the parties had entered into nondisclosure agreements. The court found that the claimants had made a showing sufficient to establish the likelihood “a substantial part of the [Telegraph’s] information was obtained through breach of duty of confidentiality to the Claimants, either in breach of the NDAs, or by those with knowledge of the NDAs, and that the Telegraph acquired the information with knowledge both of the NDAs and the breach of confidence.” Accordingly, the court issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the newspaper from publishing the businessman’s identity or other details about the alleged misconduct until a full trial on the merits.

Needless to say, the substantive law in the U.K. is quite different from that of the United States, where the First Amendment presumably would prevent a judicial order of this kind. The divergence is illustrated by the British court’s quote of the following from an earlier case:

To take an extreme example, the content of a budget speech is a matter of great public interest. But if a disloyal typist were to seek to sell a copy to a newspaper in advance of the speech in Parliament, there can be no doubt that the newspaper would be in breach of duty if it purchased and published the speech.

The notion that the advance leaking of a budget speech is an “extreme example” potentially justifying a prior restraint against publication would strike Americans as outlandish (though, to be fair, bribery of a government official to provide confidential information might well have other civil or criminal consequences in the U.S.).

What is interesting for our purposes, however, is not the substantive law on press freedom, but what happened next. On October 25, 2018, immediately following the issuance of the injunction, Lord Peter Hain revealed in the House of Lords some of the confidential information covered by the court’s order, including the identity of the businessman in question. This in turn allowed the British media, which otherwise would have been risking contempt of court, to report the information to the general public. (See this blog post by Professor Jelena Gligorijevic for further details). Hain’s action has been widely condemned as an abuse of parliamentary privilege.  Continue reading ‘Me Too’s Privileged Few’ »

Congressional Committees Should Consider Addressing Fifth Amendment Waiver in their Rules

As we move toward the opening of the 116thCongress, there are many ideas for reforming congressional rules and practice. One small but not insignificant change that might be considered relates to an issue that arises from time to time—when does a witness before Congress waive her Fifth Amendment privilege by making a voluntary exculpatory opening statement? We discussed this issue about five years ago in connection with Lois Lerner’s appearance before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (see more here and here).

2015 law review article by Jason Kornmehl concludes that while the question is a close one, Lerner likely waived her Fifth Amendment rights “because her opening statement contained not only a general denial of wrongdoing, but also incriminating factual assertions as well as reference to the Inspector General’s ambiguous findings in the audit report on the IRS.” Kornmehl also makes two recommendations for future congressional practice: (1) congressional committees should not require witnesses to appear when it is absolutely certain they will invoke their privilege against self-incrimination and (2) witnesses who might invoke the privilege (e.g., if they are the subject of a parallel criminal investigation) should be advised that an opening statement may be deemed a waiver of the privilege, at least if it goes beyond a general assertion of innocence.

My own view is slightly different. When a witness advises a committee she intends to invoke the Fifth, there are valid reasons why it might nonetheless require her to appear, including the possibilities that she will change her mind or the committee will decide to offer her immunity. While no doubt there are instances when this power is abused, it is not necessarily improper for a committee to decide that a particular witness, particularly an executive branch official, should be required to invoke the privilege publicly.

I do, however, agree that committees should adopt rules and practices that clearly advise witnesses that making an opening statement may be deemed a waiver of the privilege. A witness should be able to state that she is acting on advice of counsel and that no adverse inferences should be drawn from her decision to follow that advice. Beyond that, witnesses and counsel should be advised that the committee will deem an opening statement to constitute a waiver of the privilege.

 

 

Kavanaugh’s Missing Records

Yeah, I know. The transparency and separation of powers issues that everyone thought were so important with respect to the Kavanaugh nomination a week or so ago are now yesterday’s news. For that very reason, I am putting a longer piece on the Presidential Records Act and its application to the Kavanaugh hearing on the back burner. But I want to make a relatively brief point on the subject at this time.

With all the charges and countercharges relating to what documents were and were not produced from Kavanaugh’s prior government employment, it is easy to become confused as to what is actually at issue. In my view, the most important question has to do with the documents from Kavanaugh’s service at the White House counsel’s office that were withheld from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Under the PRA, all of Kavanaugh’s documents from his service in the GW Bush White House are in the custody of the Archivist of the United States (and his agency the National Archives and Records Administration or NARA). At the outset, the committee majority and minority disagreed whether to request that NARA produce Kavanaugh’s documents from both his service as an attorney in the White House counsel’s office and later as President Bush’s staff secretary. Chairman Grassley decided that the former employment was far more relevant to Kavanaugh’s nomination and that requesting the latter would unreasonably delay the process. Accordingly, the committee requested that NARA produce only the White House counsel documents. While people may disagree with Grassley on this, the decision was one for him to make (and, for what it’s worth, seems reasonable to me).

The problem arises from the fact that the committee did not receive all of Kavanaugh’s White House counsel documents. Instead, some 27,110 documents (amounting to 101,921 pages) were withheld entirely from the committee on grounds of constitutional privilege. Other documents were withheld for other reasons (e.g., lack of responsiveness) and some documents were produced to the committee on a confidential basis, but it is the roughly 100,000 pages of material withheld as constitutionally privileged that present by far the most important issue, both in terms of compliance with constitutional and legal requirements and from the perspective of obtaining the information most relevant to Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

For purposes of discussion, we will assume that all of the documents in question were plausibly within the scope of constitutional privilege (or, as it is more commonly called, executive privilege). It should be understood that the word “plausibly” is doing a lot of work here. The scope of executive privilege is a highly contested matter, and executive branch lawyers (not surprisingly) tend to take a broader view than others. Moreover, as anyone who has had to review documents for privilege can attest, applying even an agreed-upon standard to particular documents is often more of an art than a science. So if one starts with a broad view of executive privilege and errs on the side of withholding anything that might arguably fall within that broad scope, one can “plausibly” withhold quite a bit of material. Indeed, one might be able to withhold nearly everything from Kavanaugh’s records that would be of actual relevance to assessing his performance as a White House lawyer.

So what exactly was withheld from the committee? According to a letter from a private law firm retained by former President Bush, the “most significant portion of these documents reflect deliberations and candid advice concerning the selection and nomination of judicial candidates, the confidentiality of which is critical to any President’s ability to carry out this core constitutional executive function.” One can certainly understand why the executive branch might be reluctant to share these files with Congress. Presumably they would contain candid discussion, including negative information and opinions, regarding actual and potential judicial nominees. To give one hypothetical but realistic example, there could be a file on a candidate who was not nominated because of alleged misconduct that may or may not have occurred in the distant past. The potential leak of such information might undercut the ability of future presidents to find qualified judicial candidates and to obtain information and candid advice regarding the exercise of the nomination power.

Of course, it is possible that the nomination files would have information that would be in some way relevant to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. They might show something about his judgment, about what qualities he thinks are important in a judge, or about his inclinations with regard to judicial philosophy. Nonetheless, I can see a strong argument that the relevance of this information is outweighed by the potential harm to the president’s nominating power and collateral damage to the judicial branch. (Needless to say, nothing in the events of the past week has inspired confidence in the ability of Congress to avoid such consequences). Thus, the withholding of judicial nomination files seems relatively defensible.

Less so is the withholding of the remaining documents at issue, which include “advice submitted directly to President Bush; substantive communications between White House staff about communications with President Bush; and substantive, deliberative discussions relating to or about executive orders or legislation considered by the Executive Office of the President.” These categories seem broad enough to encompass all of Kavanaugh’s work that would be of the most interest, including the subjects I discussed in my last post.

Let’s take one of those subjects as an example. As I mentioned previously, Kavanaugh was intimately involved in a controversial Bush executive order regarding the procedures for complying with the requirements of the PRA. (Yes, it is ironic, as Amy Howe notes, that we are discussing the use of the PRA to obtain access to documents involving legal work on the interpretation of the PRA). The documents produced to the committee confirm Kavanaugh’s deep involvement in the subject; Howe notes “another White House lawyer jokingly referring to him as ‘Mr. Presidential Records.’” Thus, there are hundreds if not thousands of pages of printouts of public or external materials related to the PRA (legal opinions, law review articles, court pleadings, congressional testimony and correspondence, etc.).

What is missing, as far as I can tell, is any evidence of Kavanaugh’s legal analysis, his participation in drafting and promulgating the executive order, or his role in deciding how to respond to criticism of the executive order by Congress and others. To illustrate the point, take a look at a printout of an August 15, 2001 email from Kavanaugh to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. The subject is “New draft Presidential Records EO.” The brief email states: “The plan is to get this into the OMB process by the end of the week. Note new Section 5, which both is accurate and should deflect criticism.” And a handwritten note on the printout, apparently from Gonzales, instructs Kavanaugh to “prepare a cover memo . . . explaining what this is and the need—as well as possible negative repercussions.”

Although this non-substantive email was produced to the committee, the attached draft executive order was not, nor was the memo that Kavanaugh presumably prepared in response to Gonzales’s instruction.  Among other things, there is no way to tell how Kavanaugh initially drafted the executive order (if he did), what legal analysis or policy thinking underlay that draft or subsequent revisions, what the problem was with the troublesome Section 5 or how it was fixed, or what Kavanaugh’s memo identified as the need for the new executive order or the “possible negative repercussions.” All of the documents that would provide insight into Kavanaugh’s actual work on this matter appear to have been withheld.

Again, we can concede that internal deliberations related to the executive order were plausibly within the scope of executive privilege at the time they occurred (2001-03). It should be noted, however, that at least 15 years have elapsed since these deliberations took place, and the Supreme Court has recognized that executive privilege is “subject to erosion over time after an administration leaves office.” Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425, 451 (1977). In contrast to the judicial nomination files, it is difficult to identify any particularized harm that might occur from making these materials public, still less from making them available to the committee on a confidential basis.

Even more important than the question of whether these documents could be properly withheld on grounds of executive privilege is whether the decision was made in a legally authorized manner. Because there is a wide range of views on when executive privilege can or should be asserted, it is essential that the decision to assert the privilege be made in a proper and accountable manner. As recognized by the PRA, the primary interest in asserting executive privilege in presidential records, particularly with respect to matters that do not involve classified information or state secrets, belongs to the former president from whose administration they originate. See Hearings Regarding Executive Order 13233 and the Presidential Records Act Before the House Subcomm. on Gov’t Efficiency, Financial Mgt. & Intergovernmental Relations of the Comm. on Government Reform 24 (Nov. 6, 2001) (testimony of Acting Asst. Atty. Gen. Edward Whelan) (“In short, in enacting the PRA, Congress envisioned a balancing act—an orderly process for making presidential records ‘available to the public as rapidly and completely as possible,’ while preserving opportunities former Presidents, at least, to assert constitutionally based privileges as grounds for withholding documents from mandatory disclosure.”) (citations omitted). Even where the privilege constitutionally may be asserted, moreover, there is nothing in the Constitution requiring that it must be asserted. Id. at 29.

Here President Bush did not assert executive privilege. Instead, Bush’s lawyers have informed the committee that they have withheld documents on grounds of executive privilege because “the White House, after consultation with the Department of Justice, has directed that we not provide these documents.” NARA, while still at an early stage in terms of reviewing Kavanaugh’s documents, has informed the committee that certain records are being withheld based on the determination by “representatives of the former and incumbent Presidents” that the documents concern “internal assessments about the qualifications of a judicial candidate, the confidentiality of which is critical to the process of advising the President regarding potential nominations.” This is clearly not a claim that President Bush has asserted executive privilege.

To be sure, Executive Order 13489, the executive order currently governing presidential records (which replaced the Bush executive order previously discussed), provides for the possibility that the incumbent president may assert executive privilege with respect to the records of a former president even where the latter has declined to do so. However, section 3(c) of E.O. 13489 provides specific procedures under which the issue must be presented to the incumbent president by the White House counsel and Attorney General, and section 3(d) requires that the president’s decision to assert executive privilege be specifically documented by the White House counsel. No one has suggested that the issue has been presented to President Trump or that he has made any such decision, nor has the required documentation been generated. Thus, it seems clear that no proper assertion of executive privilege has been made pursuant to the PRA or E.O. 13489. See also 44 U.S.C. §2208(b)(1) (“For purposes of this section, the decision to assert any claim of constitutionally based privilege against disclosure of a Presidential record (or reasonably segregable part of a record) must be made personally by a former President or the incumbent President, as applicable.”).

In short, the decision to withhold more than 100,000 pages of White House counsel records from the Senate Judiciary Committee on grounds of executive privilege is substantively questionable with regard to those documents other than judicial nomination files, and the entire withholding appears to be procedurally improper under the PRA and E.O. 13489. Apart from legal infirmities, moreover, the broad withholding of these documents appears to have defeated the purpose of the committee’s request by depriving it of any information that would provide a significant insight with regard to how Kavanaugh performed his duties as a White House lawyer.

 

Of Special Counsels and Congressional Investigations: Questions for Judge Kavanaugh

Note: click here to access full piece.

As you may have heard, President Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. There has been a good deal of discussion about how a Justice Kavanaugh might approach issues of executive power, and in particular how he might rule on certain (at this point hypothetical) questions arising from the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

I would like to propose a different line of questioning for Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, one that is not designed to score points for the pro-confirmation or anti-confirmation teams, but instead to illuminate the legal/constitutional framework within which allegations of presidential misconduct must be addressed. The jumping-off point for this discussion is Kavanaugh’s repeatedly expressed preference for congressional, rather than criminal, investigation of presidential misconduct. As we will see, this preference is not (or at least should not be) controversial, but it is in some tension with Kavanaugh’s efforts to hinder congressional oversight during his time as associate White House counsel.

Some background on Kavanaugh’s career: after graduating from Yale Law School in 1990, he spent several years clerking, culminating in a clerkship for Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose seat he has been nominated to fill. Kavanaugh went on to work for Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel appointed to investigate the Whitewater and Lewinsky matters. After a brief stint at Kirkland & Ellis, he joined the new George W. Bush administration, spending the first couple of years in the White House counsel’s office and then becoming the president’s staff secretary. President Bush appointed Kavanaugh to the D.C. Circuit in 2006.

Along the way, Kavanaugh authored three works relevant to our discussion today (there may be more, but I haven’t read them). Two are law review articles that have garnered a lot of attention. The third is Kavanaugh’s 2013 opinion in In re Aiken County, which I have mentioned previously but which has escaped widespread notice until recently.

The full piece is too long for a blog post but it may be accessed here. To sum up briefly, these are the three most important points I would aim to establish during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing:

1.  According to Kavanaugh, Congress is or should be the sole entity to determine whether the conduct of a sitting president warrants a sanction. The special counsel should not (or perhaps constitutionally may not) indict or prosecute a sitting president. (I think Kavanaugh is right about this, but it is important that Congress and the general public understand this view).

2.  Congress must have investigatory powers as strong as (or stronger than) those of the special counsel, at least when it is investigating presidential misconduct. Kavanaugh has recognized that a special counsel has a right of broad access to executive branch information, and he should do the same for Congress. Whether or not Kavanaugh accepts this proposition (or will speak to it at all), it seems to me a logical corollary of the first point. Otherwise we would be in a “catch 22” situation where only Congress can judge the conduct of a president but only the special counsel has access to the information needed to make that judgment.

3.  During his time at the White House counsel’s office, Kavanaugh was a key architect/defender of legal positions allowing the Bush administration to withhold information from Congress, including with respect to several congressional investigations involving serious and credible allegations of executive branch wrongdoing (the campaign finance, Boston FBI and Clinton pardon investigations). Kavanaugh should be pressed to explain the apparent inconsistency between those positions and points 1 and 2 above by, for example, acknowledging that the Bush administration positions were ill-considered and/or distinguishing them on the grounds that they are inapplicable to an investigation of a sitting president.

Pardons, Self-Pardons and Impeachment (Part IV)

This post will conclude my series (see herehere and here) on the pardon power and impeachment. Today I will look at the pardon power in the context of the Russia investigation and explain why, in my judgment, the totality of the evidence warrants opening an impeachment inquiry focused on the president’s abuse and threatened abuse of the pardon power.

Pardons and the Russia Investigation 

On May 17, 2017, Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel to “conduct the investigation confirmed by then-FBI Director James B. Comey in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on March 20, 2017” relating to the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The appointment expressly included “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”

Mueller’s appointment occurred just days after Trump had fired Comey, an action which was widely believed to have been taken because of Trump’s unhappiness with Comey’s handling of the Russian investigation. Trump, in fact, seemed to confirm this suspicion in a television interview immediately after the firing. Comey’s own testimony suggested that he may have been fired because he failed to comply with Trump’s “direction” that he drop the investigation with regard to former national security advisor Michael Flynn. More recently, Trump’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said that Comey was fired in part because he refused to say publicly that Trump was not under investigation.

On June 23, 2017, less than a month after Mueller’s appointment, Trump’s then-counsel, Marc Kasowitz, wrote to the special counsel expressing concern that Mueller was investigating the Comey firing as a potential obstruction of justice. Kasowitz argued that there was “no [c]onstitutionally permissible . . . view under which the President’s removal of Director Comey could constitute obstruction” because the president “has exclusive authority to direct that a matter be investigated, or that an investigation be closed without prosecution,or that the subject of an investigation or conviction be pardoned.” (emphasis added). In support of this proposition, he quoted Judge Kavanaugh’s dictum that “[t]he President may decline to prosecute or may pardon because of the President’s own constitutional concerns or because of policy objections to the law, among other reasons.” See In re Aiken County, 725 F.3d 255, 262-66 (D.C. Cir. 2013).

Kasowitz also argued that as a factual matter, the evidence did not support the proposition that Trump had attempted to obstruct justice by speaking to Comey about the Flynn investigation. Even if Comey was correct that Trump had expressed the “hope” that Comey would “let [the Flynn investigation] go” (something the White House denied), Kasowitz maintained this could not reasonably be construed as an attempt to obstruct. Moreover, he added in a footnote: “While some have made much of the fact that the President spoke to Director Comey privately about General Flynn, the President has made essentially identical public statements (including the day after meeting with Director Comey) that he thought General Flynn was a good guy who was being treated unfairly, hardly indicia of a secret, corrupt attempt to obstruct an investigation.”

A subsequent letter to Mueller (sent on January 29, 2018 by Trump’s then counsel John Dowd and Jay Sekulow) reiterates and elaborates on these positions. The January 29 letter specifically notes that “[i]t remains our position that the President’s actions here, by virtue of his position as the chief law enforcement officer, could neither constitutionally nor legally constitute obstruction because that would amount to him obstructing himself, and that he could, if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon if he so desired.” (emphasis in original).

While these letters do not state that Trump intends to pardon anyone in connection with the Russia investigation, neither do they disavow such intention or deny that the possibility is under consideration. They are reasonably read to suggest that it would be perfectly proper for Trump to grant such pardons “if he so desired.” More recently, Giuliani has publicly stated that Trump may issue pardons for those he decides were “treated unfairly” in the Russia investigation, and he expressed the view that “there is a lot of unfairness out there.” Giuliani, however, indicated that Trump would not issue such pardons until the investigation was complete.

Continue reading ‘Pardons, Self-Pardons and Impeachment (Part IV)’ »

Pardons, Self-Pardons and Impeachment (Part III)

The case against President Trump’s exercise of the pardon power to date may be summarized as follows. Trump’s statements and actions have demonstrated (1) a complete disinterest in the official pardon process; (2) a willingness to grant pardons based on a one-sided process in which no contrary information or view is solicited or considered; (3) the granting of pardons seemingly on the basis of partiality toward political allies and/or hostility toward prosecutors he deems to be adversaries; (4) repeated expressions of authority and/or inclination to grant pardons to individuals involved in investigations in which he is personally implicated, most particularly the inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian activities in the 2016 election; and (5) open hostility toward the special counsel, DOJ and FBI with respect to such investigations, which further signals to witnesses and targets that he may use his pardon and other powers to stop inquiry and prevent detection of wrongdoing. In addition to the foregoing, which is largely based on the public record, there is evidence (albeit controverted) that Trump personally tried to shelter a former aide (General Michael Flynn) from investigation and that his legal team discussed possible pardons with lawyers for Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

As I will explain in some detail, these facts are more than sufficient to justify the opening of an impeachment inquiry by the House of Representatives. Failure to do so is to invite further and more serious abuses of the pardon power in the future.

Today I will cover the president’s exercise of the pardon power to date.

The Perils of a One-Sided Process

The former pardon attorney, Margaret Colgate Love, has offered a qualified defense of President Trump’s pardons as a substantive matter, arguing that “[h]is grants to date, at least as he explains them, represent a classic and justifiable use of the pardon power to draw attention to injustice and inefficiency in the law.” However, she notes that Trump appears to be ignoring entirely the official process for receiving pardon applications and recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney in DOJ. Instead, “Trump appears to be relying exclusively on random, unofficial sources of information and advice to select the lucky beneficiaries of his official mercy.”

As noted in prior posts, there is no constitutional or legal obligation to follow the DOJ process, or any process at all. Moreover, some have argued that the official process has unwisely and inappropriately constricted the exercise of the pardon power. See Paul Rosenzweig, Reflections on the Atrophying Pardon Power, 102 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 593, 606 (2012) (“the advent of a pardon attorney has institutionalized the hostility of prosecutors to the exercise of the pardon power”).

Nevertheless, there are serious risks involved in circumventing the established process for considering clemency. It significantly increases the potential for favoritism and unfairness in the granting of pardons, as well as for public perception of the same. The last days of the Clinton administration, likened by one observer to a “Middle Eastern bazaar” of pardon lobbying by Clinton friends, family, and other well-connected individuals, are a good illustration of the problem. SeeAlbert W. Alschuler, Bill Clinton’s Parting Pardon Party, 100 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 1131, 1136 (2010). As former Clinton White House Counsel Beth Nolan testified, pardon requests “were coming from everywhere,” including from politicians and celebrities. See id. 

Viewed in the most charitable light, this deluge of pardon requests overwhelmed the system and prevented President Clinton from getting accurate information or objective advice about requests brought to him by various interested parties with access to the White House. See H.R. Rep. No. 107-454, vol. 3, at 3294-95 (2002) (Minority Views of Members of the House Comm. on Gov. Reform) (“Under these circumstances, and working against the clock, the White House and Justice Department officials responsible for assisting the President could not and did not conduct appropriate review of every petition.”). As a result, Clinton made a series of highly questionable grants of clemency in the final hours of his presidency, most notoriously the pardons of wealthy fugitives Marc Rich and Pincus Green. See id. at 3295 (“The Marc Rich pardon was .  . . the product of a rushed and one-sided process, and it reflected deeply flawed judgment by the President.”). Note that these are the views of Clinton’s political allies in Congress.

Viewed more skeptically, the one-sided nature of the Clinton pardon process was a feature, not a bug, designed to enable Clinton to grant clemency as favors to family members, political cronies and wealthy donors. See H.R. Rep. No. 107-454, vol. 1, at 28-29 (2002) (House Comm. on Gov. Reform) (“In his rush to grant pardons and commutations in the waning hours of his presidency, Bill Clinton ignored almost every applicable standard governing the exercise of the clemency power.”). This resulted in pardon grants that were at best motivated by blatant favoritism and at worst actually corrupt. See id. at 27 (noting that pardons of Rich and Green “raised substantial questions of direct corruption,” while other cases “involved indirect corruption, where close relatives of the President—namely Roger Clinton, Hugh Rodham, and Tony Rodham—apparently traded on their relationships with the President to lobby for pardons and commutations.”); see also Alschuler, 100 J. Crim. L & Criminology at 1137-60, 1168 (reviewing Clinton’s most controversial pardons).

In either event, the Clinton pardons illustrate the perils of granting clemency based on a one-sided process and/or without adequate (or any) deliberation. Trump’s reliance on “random, unofficial sources of information” (including celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Sylvester Stallone) poses similar risks.

These risks may be even greater because Trump has built his pardon “back door” so early in his presidency. Clinton and other presidents issued their most controversial pardons at the very end of their administrations. While this is bad from the standpoint of electoral accountability, it also limits the damage because, once out of office, the (former) president can issue no more pardons. If, on the other hand, potential pardon seekers believe the current president is willing to use his power to reward friends and allies, they have an incentive to seek his favor in the hope of receiving clemency. This is a particular issue for those who have reason to believe (as will be discussed later) the president may be willing to shelter them from justice.

Trump’s Controversial Pardons

Notwithstanding Love’s benign take, several of Trump’s pardons have been controversial on the merits. Here we must be careful because there are no constitutional standards for granting pardons, and therefore no pardon is “wrong” or improper as a constitutional matter. Criticism, however well-founded, of the merits of a particular pardon is in itself simply a political or policy disagreement, not a legitimate basis for impeachment.

Nonetheless, the merits of a pardon decision may still be relevant to whether there has been an impeachable abuse of the pardon power. A dramatic departure from traditional norms and standards, including the Justice Department’s criteria for evaluating pardon decisions, may suggest that a pardon was motivated by something other than the president’s sincere view of the merits. See generally H.R. Rep. 107-454, vol. 1, at 29-31 (describing DOJ standards for pardons). A pattern of questionable pardons given to friends or allies may suggest favoritism, corruption or some other improper motive. The granting of pardons without serious consideration of countervailing factors, such as their potential to undermine the administration of justice, may suggest recklessness and a breach of the duty to take care the laws be faithfully executed. Cf. id. at 35-37 (criticizing Clinton’s pardons as establishing “two standards of justice” and undermining “efforts of law enforcement officers everywhere”).

Of the five pardons and two commutations granted by President Trump to date, three stand out as problematic. The very first pardon, that of Joe Arpaio, was particularly controversial. Arpaio, an Arizona sheriff and close Trump ally, had been found guilty of contempt for defying a court order that prohibited him from arresting aliens not suspected of criminal activity. Trump pardoned Arpaio before the court had even imposed a sentence.

We put aside here policy and political disagreements over immigration and Arpaio’s treatment of and attitude toward immigrants. The Arpaio pardon is still troublesome for several reasons. First, contempt of court is a serious offense that impacts the functioning of an independent branch of government. Indeed, there was once a conflict of authority on whether criminal contempt could be pardoned at all, and in Ex Parte Grossman, 267 U.S. 87, 119 (1925), it was “urged that criminal contempts should not be held within the pardoning power because it will tend to destroy the independence of the judiciary, and violate the primary constitutional principle of a separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers.” The Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Taft, rejected that argument but noted that the hypothetical abuse of the pardon power to interfere with a court’s authority “would suggest a resort to impeachment.” Id. at 121.

Second, the Arpaio pardon was clearly inconsistent with Justice Department guidelines on making pardon recommendations. Among other things, those guidelines place a strong emphasis on acceptance of responsibility, remorse and post-conviction conduct evidencing rehabilitation. See H.R. Rep. No. 107-454, vol. 1, at 29. None of these was applicable in Arpaio’s case.

The guidelines also emphasize that for very serious offenses, such as those involving breach of public trust, “a suitable length of time should have elapsed in order to avoid denigrating the seriousness of the offense or undermining the deterrent effect of the conviction.” Id. Moreover, “[i]n the case of a prominent individual or notorious crime, the likely effect of a pardon on law enforcement interests or upon the general public should be taken into account.” Id. All  of these factors counsel against the pardon, prior to sentencing, of a prominent public official who openly flouted court orders. As Andrew McCarthy, who is often sympathetic to the president, observed at the time, the pardon put “Trump in the position of endorsing Arpaio’s misconduct—a law officer’s arrogant defiance of lawful court orders, which themselves were issued as a result of judicial findings that Arpaio discriminated against Latinos in conducting unlawful arrests.”

Furthermore, the timing of the pardon was not only contrary to DOJ guidelines, it was unnecessary and imprudent because Arpaio had more than one avenue of judicial relief still available. Noting “[t]here was no sensible reason to pardon Arpaio at this time,” McCarthy criticized the “decidedly unpresidential impulsiveness of the pardon.”

Finally, it hardly seems controversial to note that Arpaio’s pardon was “for the benefit of a political crony” and was not even ostensibly based on an impartial consideration of the merits. If there is any evidence to suggest Trump considered arguments against the grant of the pardon, such as its effects on the administration of justice, I am not aware of it. There is every reason to believe that Trump’s process was as one-sided as Clinton’s, if not more so.

Of course, Trump is not the first president to pardon a political ally or supporter. It is instructive, however, to compare how President George W. Bush approached an analogous situation. Bush faced enormous pressure from his own vice president, Richard Cheney, to grant a pardon to Scooter Libby, Cheney’s former chief of staff. Libby (who ironically made a cameo appearance in the Clinton pardon saga as one of Marc Rich’s lawyers) had been convicted of perjury and obstruction of a special counsel’s investigation into alleged misconduct by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Like Arpaio, Libby was convicted of an offense against the administration of justice in connection with an investigation that his defenders, who were also the president’s allies, viewed as politicized and unfair. Bush, however, declined to pardon Libby, accepting the advice of White House counsel that Libby “hadn’t met the criteria: accepting responsibility for the crime, doing time and demonstrating remorse.” As one participant in the process explained: “Pardons tend to be for the repentant, not for those who think the system was politicized or they were unfairly targeted.”

Bush did agree to commute Libby’s sentence, but the statement he issued carefully weighed both sides of the controversy. It did not excuse Libby’s conduct or endorse claims that he had been targeted for political reasons. Bush was careful to express respect for the special counsel, his investigation and the jury verdict in Libby’s trial.

Bush’s commutation decision contrasts not only with the Arpaio pardon, but with another controversial pardon granted by Trump: that of Libby himself. On April 13, 2018, Trump granted Libby a full pardon, saying in an official statement: “I don’t know Mr. Libby, but for years I have heard he has been treated unfairly.”

Trump’s reference to unfairness contrasts with Bush’s approach and certainly can be construed as an aspersion on the special counsel investigation at issue. It may not be entirely coincidental that the special counsel who prosecuted Libby was appointed by then-deputy attorney general James Comey. And, as in Arpaio’s case, there is reason to question whether Trump gave consideration to both sides of the issue, or whether he listened only to those who thought Libby had been treated “unfairly.”

Trump’s third controversial pardon presents similar problems. On May 31, 2018, he pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, a well-known conservative commentator and author, who had pleaded guilty to straw donor campaign finance violations in 2014. According to a White House press release, the president believed D’Souza to be “a victim of selective prosecution,” and Trump himself tweeted that D’Souza “was treated very unfairly by our government!”

D’Souza’s defenders (who include McCarthy) argue that his offenses were minor and ordinarily would be treated as a civil matter; they ascribe his prosecution by the prior administration as retaliation for his strident criticism of President Obama. Perhaps this is true, but anyone seeking to make a fair evaluation of that claim would need to hear the perspective of the prosecution as well. Compare H.R. Rep. No. 107-454, vol. 1, at 32 (Rich and Green “maintained that they were ‘singled out’ and unfairly prosecuted”) with id. at 104 (“The White House never consulted with the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York regarding the Rich case.”). In the absence of evidence President Trump consulted prosecutors or anyone other than D’Souza’s supporters, there is at least a prima facie case that this pardon was also motivated by favoritism and/or hostility toward prosecutors in the Obama administration, particularly the then-U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, now an outspoken Trump critic.

Taken together, these three pardons (Arpaio, Libby and D’Souza) suggest a one-sided process, blatant favoritism, and an “unpresidential impulsiveness” inconsistent with the president’s duty of care. (There is no reason to believe that Trump intends to change his practices in this regard; to the contrary, he has publicly mused about additional clemency actions for Martha Stewart and former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.) Those concerns would serious enough, but they are dramatically heightened when one considers the president’s posture toward the investigation of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. I will turn to that subject in my next post.

Pardons, Self-Pardons and Impeachment (Part II)

Following on my last post, we will now turn to the pardon power generally and what role Congress plays in checking abuses of that power.

The Pardon Power and Congressional Oversight

The power to pardon is, as Maddie McMahon and Jack Goldsmith note in a recent Lawfare post, “among the broadest of presidential powers.” The Supreme Court has stated:

The power thus conferred [by the Pardon Clause] is unlimited, with the exception stated [i.e., impeachment]. It extends to every offence known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency or after conviction and judgment. This power of the President is not subject to legislative control. Congress can neither limit the effect of his pardon nor exclude from its exercise any class of offenders. The benign prerogative of mercy reposed in him cannot be fettered by any legislative restrictions.

Ex parte Garland, 71 U.S. 333, 380 (1866); see also Schick v. Reed, 419 U.S. 256, 266 (1974) (pardon power “flows from the Constitution alone, not from any legislative enactments, and  . . . cannot be modified, abridged, or diminished by the Congress.”); United States v. Klein, 80 U.S. 128, 147 (1871) (“To the executive alone is intrusted the power of pardon; and it is granted without limit.”).

Not surprisingly, executive branch lawyers have been particularly forceful in applying this view to a number of issues surrounding the president’s exercise of the pardon power, resulting in what McMahon and Goldsmith term an “extraordinarily broad” interpretation of that power.

For example, the executive branch recognizes no congressional oversight authority with respect to pardons, either generally or in specific cases. Citing the line of Supreme Court authority noted above, the Office of Legal Counsel has opined that “the pardon power is different from many other presidential powers in that it is textually committed exclusively to the President.” Whether the President May Have Access to Grand Jury Material in the Course of Exercising His Authority to Grand Pardons, 24 Op. Off. Legal Counsel 366, 368 (Dec. 22, 2000). Thus, in finding that Congress was not entitled to information regarding President Clinton’s exercise of the pardon power, Attorney General Janet Reno advised that “Congress’ oversight authority does not extend to the process employed in connection with a particular clemency decision, to the materials generated or the discussions that took place as part of that process, or to the advice or views the President received in connection with a clemency decision.” Assertion of Executive Privilege With Respect to Clemency Decision, 23 Op. Off. Legal Counsel 1, 3-4 (Sept. 16, 1999).

This position might strike some as extreme (it so struck me, as I was advising the House committee seeking this information). While no one disputed the president’s unreviewable power to make the clemency decisions in question, one still might conclude the Congress may inquire as to whether congressionally funded resources, such as the Office of the Pardon Attorney, were being properly or effectively used.

The executive’s position, however, flows from its view that the pardon power is not merely unreviewable; it is subject to no objective standards whatsoever. See 24 Op. Off. Legal Counsel at 370 (“it is important to keep in mind that the factors bearing on the President’s decision to exercise his pardon power, as an act of mercy, are subjective and undefined.”). As the pardon attorney wrote to a senator in 1952: “In the exercise of his pardoning power, the President is amenable only to the dictates of his own conscience, unhampered and uncontrolled by any person or branch of Government.” See id. at 370-71. Under this view, the pardon power is truly an example of “l’etat c’est moi;” while a pardon may be criticized as unjust or ill-advised, it can never be illegal or unconstitutional.

The Pardon Power Contrasted with Impeachment

It may be useful to contrast the pardon power with another power the Constitution vests exclusively in one branch of government: the impeachment power. It is generally accepted that Congress has the exclusive and nonreviewable power to impeach and remove the president, the vice president or any civil officer of the United States. See generally Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993). Thus, for example, whether the Senate has conducted a constitutionally adequate trial within the meaning of the Impeachment Trial Clause is a nonjusticiable political question. Id. at 236-38.

The finality and non-justiciability of Congress’s impeachment determinations, along with the significant discretion it exercises in determining what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors,” occasioned then-Representative Gerald Ford’s famous and much-criticized remark that “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history; conviction results from whatever offense or offenses two-thirds of the other body considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office. . . .” Some argue that this is an accurate description of how impeachment works. See Michael J. Gerhardt,The Federal Impeachment Process: A Constitutional and Historical Analysis 103 (1996) (“Ford’s observation captures the practical reality of impeachment . . . .”).

As a normative and legal matter, however, Ford was clearly wrong. The Constitution establishes a standard for impeachment and removal (“Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”), which is textually incompatible, as Professor Rob Natelson has recently observed, with unlimited discretion. The framers specifically rejected a broader formulation, which would have included “maladministration,” precisely on the ground that it would confer too much discretion on Congress and amount to the president holding office “during the pleasure of the Senate,” as James Madison put it. See Charles L. Black, Jr., Impeachment: A Handbook 27-33 (1974).

Thus, while Congress’s impeachment judgments are final, they are not necessarily correct or even defensible. Unlike pardons, specific impeachment decisions can be criticized as legally wrong and unconstitutional. Ford’s observation is therefore perhaps best understood as a parallel to Justice Robert Jackson’s remark about the Supreme Court: “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” In matters of impeachment, Congress is “infallible” only because it is final.

In addition to the constitutional standard, there are significant structural safeguards that limit Congress’s discretion in impeachment matters. First, the initial decision to impeach must be made by the House of Representatives. Even if one believes (reasonably enough) that members “care more” about politics than law, building a solid prima facie case that the constitutional standards have been met is a practical necessity for developing a political consensus in favor of impeachment. Members know they will be accountable to their constituents for a vote to impeach. If impeachment is successful, moreover, the case moves to the Senate, where House managers act as prosecutors in an adversarial proceeding before that body. This creates a strong incentive not to bring cases that are factually or legally weak with regard to whether the accused has committed high crimes or misdemeanors.

As Professor Gerhardt points out, the Constitution provides a number of safeguards “to ensure that Congress will deliberate carefully prior to making any judgments in an impeachment proceeding.” Gerhardt, The Federal Impeachment Process 110. In addition to the House’s role, already noted, in a bifurcated process, these include that the Senate must (1) sit as a court of impeachment “on Oath or Affirmation;” (2) reach a judgment only after conducting a trial; and (3) convict only on the concurrence of two-thirds. The judicial nature of the proceedings is emphasized further when the president is on trial because the chief justice presides. These safeguards help ensure that impeachments do no occur for mere maladministration or policy/political differences. Id. at 111.

In contrast, the pardon power is exercised by a single individual, subject to no constitutional standard, and not required to follow any process at all to ensure careful deliberation. It is not subject to ordinary congressional oversight. There is thus only one constitutional check on the abuse of the pardon power. That check is impeachment.  Continue reading ‘Pardons, Self-Pardons and Impeachment (Part II)’ »

Pardons, Self-Pardons and Impeachment (Part I)

Let me digress from our discussion of legislative discontinuity to address a more topical issue: presidential self-pardons. The question whether the president may validly grant a pardon to himself has been sporadically discussed since the inception of the current administration, but the debate accelerated following President Trump’s issuance on June 4, 2018 of the following tweet:

As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong? In the meantime, the never ending Witch Hunt, led by 13 very Angry and Conflicted Democrats (& others) continues into the mid-terms!

Whether Trump in fact has the “absolute right” to pardon himself is not at all clear, but it is not a very important issue at this juncture. In fact, as I will explain over this series of posts, it is not a question that should be of much interest to Congress at all. What should matter to Congress is why the president is raising the possibility of a self-pardon, how this relates to his use (or abuse) of the pardon power to date, and whether his current or potential exercise of the pardon power constitutes a prima facie impeachable offense.

Before getting to that, however, let us consider what “numerous legal scholars” have actually said about presidential self-pardons.

The Constitutional Validity of the Self-Pardon

Contrary to the president’s tweet, there is no scholarly consensus on the validity of self-pardons. As Professor Brian Kalt has explained (well before the current administration):

Courts cannot overturn—or even review—an ill-advised pardon, but they can reject an invalid one. Self-pardons are on the margin. There is a good, simple argument that self-pardons are valid, and a worthy, more complicated argument that they are not. There is no consensus among lawyers or scholars sufficient to stop a president from pardoning himself, or to deter a prosecutor from challenging such a pardon. So the prosecutor would prosecute, the president (or ex-president by that point) would resist, and the courts would decide the issue.

Brian C. Kalt, Constitutional Cliffhangers: A Legal Guide for Presidents and their Enemies 41 (2012). Note that this issue will not and cannot be resolved unless and until some president attempts to pardon himself, and at that point it will be up to the courts, not Congress, to decide on the validity of the pardon.

Continue reading ‘Pardons, Self-Pardons and Impeachment (Part I)’ »