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The Speech or Debate Clause and Protection of Informal Information Gathering

A couple months ago we discussed the question of whether informal information gathering is a legislative activity protected by the Speech or Debate Clause. As I noted at the time, there is case law suggesting that some informal information gathering is protected, but significant uncertainty as to how one defines the type of information gathering meriting such protection.

An easy case would be a witness interview conducted by committee investigators. Such an interview would be informal in the sense that the witness’s attendance is voluntary, there would (probably) be no transcript of the interview, and there would be no formal procedures for asking questions and making objections. Yet in function and substance such an interview is very similar to a committee deposition, and thus a strong case can be made that it warrants the same level of protection.

Now extend that to a telephone conversation in which a committee investigator calls a witness to ask the same sort of questions. This is even more informal than a scheduled, in-person interview, but if it is clear from the circumstances that the investigator is gathering information for use in a committee investigation, it would make sense to treat it the same way.

The problem comes in trying to extend this principle to the myriad conversations and meetings that a typical committee staffer (or any congressional staffer) would have during the course of a day. These could include discussions with agency officials, constituents, lobbyists, interest groups, government contractors, legislative support staff and many others. During any one of these conversations a staffer might gather some information of potential use to the committee’s investigatory and oversight activities, but the same conversation might cover many other matters, such as constituent complaints, efforts by lobbyists and others to obtain contracts, favors or other benefits from the legislative or executive branches, or “cajoling” of agencies by members of Congress. One might also distinguish between the type of general background information that might be covered in a typical agency briefing and specific information that might be obtained from a fact witness on a matter the committee is investigating.

One question that might be asked is whether any statements made by the outside individual to the congressional staffer would be covered by the False Statements Act, 18 U.S.C. 1001, which criminalizes false statements to Congress in the course of “any investigation or review, conducted pursuant to the authority of any committee, subcommittee, commission or office of the Congress, consistent with applicable rules of the House or Senate.” That section would seem to presume some sort of structure or formality to connect the false statement to the investigation or review, as opposed to statements that might be made in the course of impromptu conversations with congressional staff.

An interesting recent case on this issue is Williams v. Johnson, Civ. Action No. 06-2076, in which the plaintiff, an employee of the DC Department of Health, sued the DC Government for allegedly retaliating against her for remarks she made in testimony before the DC Council Committee on Health and in a separate meeting with the chairman of that committee, David Catania, and two of his aides. She subpoenaed Catania and one of his aides to testify and produce documents related to these events, and they moved to quash on the basis of DC’s Speech or Debate statute, which has been interpreted to provide the same protection as the federal Speech or Debate Clause. Continue reading ‘The Speech or Debate Clause and Protection of Informal Information Gathering’ »

Senator Ervin on Congressional Discipline and Speech or Debate

I have previously explained that the Speech or Debate Clause does not protect members from discipline by their legislative body, up to and including expulsion. Since the subject arose again in the last couple of days (in the course of a Glenn Greenwald initiated thread on Twitter), it may be worth adverting to Senator Ervin’s argument before the Supreme Court in Gravel v. United States.

Senators Ervin and Saxbe represented the Senate as amicus curiae in the case, and the Court gave the Senate time during oral argument. Ervin’s argument stressed that the Senate “holds no brief” for Senator Gravel or his actions (i.e., reading of the classified Pentagon Papers in a subcommittee meeting). He acknowledged that Gravel’s actions may have been improper and/or in violation of Senate rules, but he contended that the Constitution places these questions exclusively within the jurisdiction of the Senate.

Senator Ervin stressed that a member of Congress is “not accountable” to the executive or judicial branches for his legislative activity, whether that activity is “regular or irregular under the rules of the legislative body of which he is a member.” In Gravel’s case, those questions were the business only of the Senate itself. In response to a justice who asked “That inquiry or discipline or both is something exclusively for the Senate?,” Ervin responded, “That’s right.”

Pointing out that the Rules of Proceedings and Discipline Clauses are in the section of Article I immediately preceding the section in which the Speech or Debate Clause appears, Ervin reiterated: “Our position is that . . . even though Senator Gravel may have violated Senate rules and even though he may have acted improperly, that is a matter for the judgment of the Senate and no other power in our government has the right to make any official pronouncement on that subject.”

Greenwald and his ilk argue that senators who believe (or claim to believe) that classified information should be released should put their money where their mouth is by reading the information on the floor of the Senate, where they would be protected by Speech or Debate immunity from legal punishment (though not from congressional discipline). Whatever one thinks about such congressional “civil disobedience” as a normative matter, I am puzzled that anyone would advocate it when the senators have not yet used, or attempted to use, the established Senate procedure for releasing classified information.

Renzi Loses Coming and Going on Speech or Debate

As the Ninth Circuit helpfully explained yesterday (hat tip: Zoe Tillman) in affirming former congressman Rick Renzi’s conviction on various corruption charges, “Congressmen may write the law, but they are not above the law.” In doing so, the panel rejected two Speech or Debate arguments Renzi raised on appeal. (For Renzi’s prior unsuccessful trip to the Ninth Circuit on Speech or Debate, see here).

The first issue revolved around two pieces of testimony the prosecution elicited from Joanne Keene, Renzi’s former district director. Keene testified that (1) Renzi’s interest in a potential land exchange bill seemed to depend on whether the tract of land belonging to his secret business partner was included and (2) Renzi indicated to her that he was having second thoughts about the land exchange legislation because of the news about Duke Cunningham’s indictment on corruption charges. The prosecution contended that this testimony did not violate the Speech or Debate Clause because it directly rebutted evidence Renzi had offered to show that his actions in the legislative process were taken for legitimate reasons.

The Ninth Circuit agreed, holding “if a member of Congress offers evidence of his own legislative acts at trial, the government is entitled to introduce rebuttal evidence narrowly confined to the same legislative acts, and such rebuttal evidence does not constitute questioning the member of Congress in violation of the Clause.” This sounds likes a waiver analysis, but the court declined to characterize it as such (in order to avoid Supreme Court caselaw setting a very high bar for waiver of Speech or Debate). Instead, the court concluded somehow that Renzi was not being “questioned” within the meaning of the Clause. Nevertheless, the court’s basic approach, which accords with that of other circuits, seems to make sense. After all, it is hard to see how a member of Congress can introduce exculpatory evidence of legislative acts and not have that evidence subject to some degree of rebuttal or cross-examination. (On the other hand, the D.C. Circuit appears to have adopted something akin to a no cross-examination rule in the context of congressional employment cases).

The more interesting language from the court’s opinion, though, appears in footnote 24, where the Ninth Circuit indicates that the evidence challenged by Renzi would in any event not violate the Speech or Debate Clause because it concerned only Renzi’s performance of future legislative acts. The footnote suggests there is no protection for discussion of potential legislation that has not actually been introduced, while discussion of introduced legislation may be considered part of the legislative process and therefore protected.

As far as I know, this is the first time a court has suggested that the formal introduction of legislation is key to determining the applicability of the Speech or Debate Clause. This would mean, for example, that if Renzi had drafted a land exchange bill, but told his staff to hold off introducing it because of the Duke Cunningham investigation there would be no protection. On the other hand, if Renzi actually introduced the legislation, but told his staff to hold off seeking co-sponsors for the same reason, the Clause would apply. It is hard to see how this distinction makes sense as a matter of constitutional text or purpose. If taken seriously, it would call into question whether legislative activities such as fact-gathering or bill-drafting would be protected.

But the Ninth Circuit panel itself may not take the distinction that seriously. This is shown by the court’s disposition of Renzi’s second Speech or Debate argument. Renzi had wanted to call the former chief of staff to Congressman Kolbe to testify about “conversations between Kolbe and Renzi regarding the proposed [land exchange] bill.” However, “[b]ecause this testimony directly implicated Kolbe’s legislative activities,” the appellate panel concluded that this testimony was properly excluded as violating Kolbe’s Speech or Debate privilege.

The land exchange bill in question, however, was never actually introduced: thus it would seem that Kolbe’s discussions with Renzi should have been unprotected under the court’s own reasoning. It appears that the trial and appellate courts applied the Clause inconsistently to allow evidence the prosecution wanted to introduce but block evidence that Renzi wanted to introduce. Perhaps there is an explanation for this discrepancy, but it is not obvious to me.

Maybe they just don’t like congressmen who think they are above the law.

In Case You Haven’t Had Enough of the Disqualification Clause Already

Professor Brian C. Kalt has posted this response to Benjamin Cassady’s article on the Impeachment and Disqualfication Clauses. (Hat tip- Seth Barrett Tillman. Apparently there is a whole symposium on this topic, and more articles will be forthcoming). I had to smile when I read Professor Kalt’s opening paragraphs:

Benjamin Cassady has put great effort into an arcane subject: When someone is impeached and convicted, and disqualified from any “office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States,” can that person be elected to Congress? I am one of a group of people who would discuss subjects like these endlessly, but for the fact that members of our group can be hard to find. As such, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity both to read Mr. Cassady’s article (referred to below as Your Crook) and to write this response.

This response will disagree with some things in Your Crook, and the discussion may get a bit animated. But this is the excited disagreement of a kindred spirit, not of a harsh critic. When football fans shout at each other about who was the greatest running back in NFL history, it is because they love football, and because they have more fun probing their disagreements than they would cataloguing their much-more-voluminous common ground. So too with the Disqualification Clause of the Constitution. I agree with Your Crook that disqualification does not apply to election to the House or Senate, and I agree that voters should have as free a hand as the Constitution will allow to elect representatives and senators that others in Congress might find scurrilous.

For what its worth, I pretty much agree with everything that Kalt has to say with regard to the application of the Disqualification Clause to the House and Senate. His claim that Barry Sanders is the greatest running back of all time, on the other hand . . .

 

Is the Presidency an Office “Under” the United States?

Applying Benjamin Cassady’s “electoral pardon” principle might suggest that the Disqualification Clause is inapplicable to the presidency (and vice-presidency). After all, if voters are allowed to disregard a candidate’s prior impeachment (or expulsion) and elect “their crook” to Congress, why shouldn’t the same hold true for a candidate for president? Professor Tillman maintains that the Disqualification Clause doesn’t apply to any elected offices, whether in Congress or the executive branch, thus consistently preserving the “electoral pardon” principle. Cassady, on the other hand, contends that the Framers did not take the principle that far:

[I]t should be noted that the Presidency was a uniquely American institution, substituting an elected and impeachable chief executive for an English monarch who was legally unreachable because he was presumed incapable of wrongdoing. As a result, the Wilkensian lessons of popular sovereignty and electoral pardon did not develop in the context of the executive branch, and it is sensible that the Framers would settle on a different default rule (impeachment and disqualification) for the elected President than the rule (expulsion and re-election) applied traditionally to the people’s legislators. Put another way, disqualifying an elected President for official wrongdoing couldn’t encroach on the people’s traditional right to pardon and re-elect a chief executive, because no such right existed in English history.

Cassady, 32 Quinnipiac L. Rev. at 276 n. 332.

Frankly, this explanation strikes me as rather circular. As indicated in my last post, however, I don’t find the “electoral pardon” principle all that persuasive in explaining the Disqualification Clause in the first place, and it seems to me that there is a stronger policy reason for disqualifying candidates for the presidency than for other offices, elected or appointed. But, as I am sure Professor Tillman would be quick to remind me, my policy intuitions are not constitutional law.

The precise question is whether the president holds an “Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States” as that phrase is used in the Disqualification Clause. Cassady’s article sheds some light on the origin of this language. He provides examples in English statutory law that referred to some variant of an “Office of honor, Trust or Profit,” where it almost always referred to offices conferred by the Crown. Id. at 278-80. As such, the offices were often identified as being “under” the Crown.

Early state constitutions also used terminology like “offices of honor, trust or profit” to refer generally to positions in the executive and judicial branches. See id. at 280-81 (“The overwhelming majority of examples from state constitutions distinguishes sharply between those who hold offices of honor, trust, or profit and members of the legislature”) & n. 355. Sometimes these offices were identified as being “under this state,” “under this commonwealth,” or “under the government.” See, e.g., Ga. Const. of 1777, art. XI (“No person bearing any post of profit under this State . . . shall be elected as a representative.”).

Continue reading ‘Is the Presidency an Office “Under” the United States?’ »

House of Cads: Legislators and the Disqualification Clause

So I have now read Benjamin Cassady’s “You’ve Got Your Crook, I’ve Got Mine,” 32 Quinnipiac L. Rev. 209 (2014), to which Professor Tillman’s article responds. Cassady makes the case that the Constitution’s Impeachment and Disqualification Clauses do not apply to federal legislators. Much of the article is devoted to explaining why this result makes sense as a policy matter: basically that a crooked legislator is not as dangerous as a crooked judge or executive official and that voters should be able to “pardon” a crooked legislator by returning her to office with full knowledge of her misdeeds.

Cassady discusses at some length the famous case of John Wilkes, a radical and controversial member of Parliament who was expelled multiple times by the House of Commons for libelous comments but continually re-elected by his constituents. He argues that the fall-out from this case ultimately led to the recognition of an “electoral pardon” principle in the United States, pursuant to which it is improper for a legislator to be expelled (or not seated) based on conduct known to her constituents at the time they elect her.

I think Cassady is correct in his interpretation of the Impeachment and Disqualification Clauses. He may or may not be right that the “electoral pardon” principle explains why the Constitution treats legislators differently in this regard than executive or judicial officers. I am not sure myself that this distinction, particularly with regard to disqualification, makes that much sense from a policy standpoint. One might argue that there is no more reason to disqualify an impeached official from a future appointment to an executive or judicial office than from a future election to a congressional seat. After all, if the “voters” (who, in the case of senators, would originally have been the members of the state legislature) can “pardon” a candidate for a congressional seat, why shouldn’t the president and the Senate be permitted to “pardon” a nominee to an executive or judicial office?

Continue reading ‘House of Cads: Legislators and the Disqualification Clause’ »

Tillman on the Disqualification Clause

Professor Seth Barrett Tillman has posted this draft article on the Disqualification Clause of Article I, § 3, cl. 7, which provides that “Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.” Long story short, Professor Tillman argues that an “Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States” extends exclusively to statutory or appointed offices and excludes elected positions such as President, Vice-President, Senator and Representative. Thus, under his theory if a president, vice-president or a civil officer of the United States is impeached, removed from office and disqualified, that individual remains eligible to serve in any of the aforementioned elected positions. Tillman cites a number of pieces of evidence which he believes support this conclusion (some of which we have discussed in prior posts), and he argues that it is consistent with the “democracy canon” that, all other things being equal, the people should be entitled to vote for whomever they please to represent them.

This particular issue may be of limited practical importance, unless you are planning to work on the Porteous 2016 campaign, but it is of some interest with respect to the methodology of constitutional interpretation as well as other constitutional provisions that apply to “officers of” or “offices under” the United States. Related discussions may be found here (“May the President Accept a Foreign Title of Nobility?”), here (“Tillman’s Puzzles for Amar (or Who You Callin ‘Atextual’?)”) and here (“Six Answers for Six Puzzles”).

 

Two lobbyists and a congressional staffer walk into a strip club called Privilege

This is surely the start of an awesome joke. Email me when you come up with the rest.

Ok, I could have entitled this “D.C. Circuit issues mildly interesting decision on the Speech or Debate Privilege,” but then you wouldn’t be reading it, would you?

Anyway, the court just issued this decision upholding the conviction of Frasier Verrusio, the hapless former policy director for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, who somehow managed to parlay a night of boring Washington-style debauchery into three felony counts of receiving illegal gratuities.

Basically, there were two lobbyists, Todd Boulanger and James Hirni, who were scheming to get some language inserted into the federal highway bill at the last minute on behalf of a client called United Rentals. They sought assistance from Verrusio and a Senate staffer named Trevor Blackann for this so-called “airmail strategy.” Then the client representative, Todd Ehrlich, snagged some tickets to the first game of the 2003 World Series, and the rest was history:

Hirni invited Blackann and Verrusio to the World Series game and made clear that United Rentals would cover the costs. Both men accepted the invitation. Hirni and Blackann flew to New York together and met Ehrlich there. Over drinks, Blackann described the airmail strategy that he, Verrusio, and the two lobbyists had agreed was “the best course of action.” Shortly thereafter, Verrusio joined them for dinner. According to Hirni, the four men “talked a lot about United Rentals” and “got into a conversation about concepts and ideas United Rentals had for federal legislation.” Verrusio was “the senior guy at the table,” Blackann testified, and was “leading the conversation.” Verrusio “walked them through” the airmail strategy, indicating that it had “the best chance for ultimate success.” Ehrlich paid for the dinner and drinks.

On the way to Yankee Stadium, the chauffeured car carrying the four men stopped at a convenience store, where Hirni bought several small bottles of liquor for the group. The men then went on to the game. On their way out of the stadium, Verrusio signaled to Hirni that he and Blackann wanted souvenir jerseys. Hirni paid for them with his corporate credit card.

After leaving the stadium, the group went to a strip club called Privilege. Hirni paid the cover charge and the cost of drinks, while Ehrlich paid for several lap dances. Hirni also bought Verrusio and Blackann t-shirts from the club. When the group left, they stopped for pizza before returning to their hotel. The next morning, Hirni paid the hotel expenses, and Verrusio, Blackann, and Hirni took a car to the airport and flew to Washington, D.C.

Slip op. at 5-6 (citations omitted).

None of that is particularly important, but I wanted you to know that I didn’t make up the part about the strip club.

So on to the Speech or Debate issue.

Continue reading ‘Two lobbyists and a congressional staffer walk into a strip club called Privilege’ »

SSCI’s Approach to Releasing its Classified Report Weakens the Senate’s Prerogatives

Section 8(a) of S. Res. 400 provides that SSCI “may, subject to the provisions of this section, disclose publicly any information in the possession of such committee after a determination by such committee that the public interest would be served by such disclosure.” Chairman Feinstein clearly wants to publicly release SSCI’s report on the CIA detention and interrogation program and she believes that disclosure would be in the public interest. Yet she has not asked SSCI to take a vote under Section 8(a). She has not acknowledged any obligation on SSCI’s part to make a determination under Section 8(a) and she has not explained SSCI’s failure to use its authority under Section 8(b) to release classified information. Indeed, she has acted as if Section 8 does not exist, and no one in the media has bothered to ask her why.

The effect of this approach is to make public release of the SSCI report turn entirely on whether the report is declassified, and therefore cedes decision-making power to the President and the executive branch. Thus, when Feinstein announced in April that SSCI had voted to “declassify” its report on the CIA detention and interrogation program, I pointed out that the committee doesn’t have the authority to “declassify” anything. In reality, all the committee could do was ask the executive branch to conduct a declassification review and hope for favorable results.

Shortly after my post, Professor Lederman was able to get this helpful clarification from SSCI staff: Continue reading ‘SSCI’s Approach to Releasing its Classified Report Weakens the Senate’s Prerogatives’ »

A Closer Look at the Senate’s Procedures for Releasing Classified Information under S. Res. 400

As discussed in my last post, there is (or should be) no serious controversy regarding the Senate’s authority to release classified information unilaterally pursuant to Section 8 of S. Res. 400. Yet the full Senate has apparently never taken a vote to release information under Section 8, perhaps in part because of that section’s elaborate procedural requirements.

At the outset, SSCI must make a determination, by a formal vote, “that the public interest would be served by such disclosure.” Senator Ribbicoff observed that this provision, embodied in Section 8(a), “establishes the basic rule that the committee may disclose information where disclosure is in the public interest.” CRS Legislative History of S. Res. 400 at 88.

Under Section 8(b), however, SSCI must take additional steps where the disclosure involves “any information which has been classified under established security procedures, which has been submitted to it by the Executive branch, and which the Executive branch requests be kept secret.” Such information may only be released pursuant to the process further described in Section 8(b).

The first step in this process is for SSCI to notify and consult with the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders regarding the vote to disclose classified information. The rule specifies that this consultation must take place prior to providing formal notice to the President. The purpose of this step, which was not added to Section 8 until 2004 (by S. Res. 445), is presumably to afford the Senate leadership with an opportunity to resolve the situation before formal notice to the President is given.

Once the President is notified, a five-day clock starts ticking. After five days have expired, SSCI may publicly disclose the information that was the subject of the vote, unless the President properly objects within this period. To do so, he must, “personally” and “in writing,” notify SSCI of his objection to disclosure, provide his reasons therefor, and certify “that the threat to the national interest of the United States posed by such disclosure is of such gravity that it outweighs any public interest in the disclosure.”

Continue reading ‘A Closer Look at the Senate’s Procedures for Releasing Classified Information under S. Res. 400’ »