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House Mulls Appeal of SEC Subpoena Decision

Judge Gardephe of the federal district court for the Southern District of New York has issued his long-awaited ruling in SEC v. Committee on Ways & Means, an enforcement action by the SEC to require the House committee and its former subcommittee staff director to comply with administrative subpoenas. The court rejected the House’s broadest arguments (by which it sought to avoid compliance with the subpoenas entirely), but it issued guidelines allowing the House to withhold certain information pursuant to the Speech or Debate Clause. The House was initially given ten days to comply with the subpoenas as limited by the court’s ruling (which would have meant complying during the week of Thanksgiving).

Personally, I think the decision was about as favorable to the House as reasonably could be expected (with one exception, which I will get to in a minute). It should have been no surprise that the court rejected the House’s sovereign immunity argument (see here and here). Judge Gardephe surveyed prior case law on inter-branch subpoenas and flagged House Rule VIII, which expressly mandates compliance with administrative subpoenas. See op. at 12-18. He concluded: “Given that no court has ever held that sovereign immunity applies to an inter-branch subpoena, and given that House rules appear to acknowledge that no blanket sovereign immunity applies to an administrative subpoena issued by a Federal agency to the House, a House member, or House staff, this Court concludes that sovereign immunity has no application here.” Id. at 18. Moreover, even if sovereign immunity applied, the court found that Congress waived it for these purposes by passing the STOCK Act. Id. at 21.

On Speech or Debate, the court agreed with the House on two key issues. First, it agreed that the Clause provides a non-disclosure privilege for documents reflecting legislative acts, disagreeing with the Third and Ninth Circuit position that Speech or Debate is merely a non-use privilege with regard to documentary evidence. Op. at 63. The court noted: “Whether an Executive Branch subpoena seeks testimony from a Member concerning a ‘legislative act’ or documents that fall ‘within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity’ is, in this Court’s view, immaterial under the Speech or Debate Clause. . . . The issuance of such subpoenas, and a judicial practice of enforcing them, also presents a significant risk of intimidation, and upsets the checks and balances the Framers envisioned, and put in place.” Id. at 58.

Second, the court agreed that the Speech or Debate Clause protects both formal and informal legislative information gathering. Op. at 58. Although the court did not define precisely the outer boundaries of informal information gathering, it seemed to take a broad view of this activity, explicitly noting that it would “extend to a legislator’s gathering of information from federal agencies and from lobbyists.” Id. at 49. Thus, for example, communications from the Greenberg law firm to Brian Sutter, the committee staffer, could be protected if they were part of the committee’s “informal information gathering concerning a matter that might be the subject of legislation.” Id. at 64.

These victories may not benefit the House much in the short term because the court’s opinion allows the SEC to obtain the information it primarily seeks, i.e., whether Sutter tipped off a Greenburg lobbyist as to a pending decision on Medicare reimbursement rates. (This result is not surprising either.) But over the longer term the court’s language and reasoning provide a useful precedent for House lawyers seeking to protect the institution from intrusive subpoenas.

There is, however, one exception. The court ordered the House to provide a privilege log for any documents that it withheld on the basis of the Speech or Debate privilege. House and Senate lawyers have always resisted providing such logs, arguing that requiring them itself intrudes on the privilege. As far as I know, neither the House nor Senate has provided such a log in the past. Requiring them as a routine matter, at least, would place a burden on Congress’s exercise of the privilege that its counsel would rather avoid.

In any event, the House has requested an extension of time to comply with the court’s order, stating that it needs to consider whether or not to appeal. Citing both the sovereign immunity and privilege log issues in particular, the House explains that the court’s ruling presents “multiple issues of tremendous institutional importance to the U.S. House of Representatives, and our structure of government in general.”

In response to the House’s request, Judge Gardephe has extended the deadline to December 7. Stay tuned.

Organizations Call for a House Task Force on Privately-Financed Foreign Travel

A group of watchdog organizations, including the Campaign Legal Center and Common Cause, sent this letter to Speaker Ryan (congratulations/condolences to the new speaker, BTW) last week asking for a moratorium on privately-financed foreign travel and the creation of a task force to review House rules and procedures related to such travel. Revelations relating to the Baku trip, the letter says, “highlight the failure of current travel rules to protect the integrity of the House.”

Questions the Task Force should address, the letter says, include (1)”are current procedures used by the House Committee on Ethics adequate to discover if shell entities are providing resources to a sponsoring organization?”; and (2) “what in House rules and procedures prevents foreign governments and businesses, which may be working against U.S. interests, from funneling money to an organization by paying for congressional trips?”


Was House Ethics Tricked into Letting Gulenists Treat?

A USA Today investigation by Paul Singer and Paulina Firozi finds some spooky things going on with congressional travel sponsored by Gulenist groups over the past decade:

A dozen different Gülen groups have sponsored congressional travel since 2008 and have filed forms with the House certifying that they were paying for the trips. The House Ethics Committee approved all the trips in advance based on the forms the Gülen groups submitted.

But a USA TODAY investigation found many of those disclosures were apparently false. Some of the Gülenist groups claimed to be certified nonprofits, but they do not appear in state or IRS databases of approved charities. Groups that did register with the IRS filed tax forms indicating that they did not pay for congressional travel. And five of the groups admitted to congressional investigators earlier this year that a Gülenist group in Turkey was secretly covering the costs of travel inside Turkey for lawmakers and staff.

Very scary. The Ethics Committee seems to be having a hard time detecting these ghost sponsors. Maybe it needs some help.


Court Rejects Justice Department Plan to Avoid the Merits of House’s Obamacare Lawsuit

Yesterday Judge Collyer rejected the Justice Department’s motion to certify for interlocutory appeal her ruling that the House has standing to pursue its claim that the Obama administration has illegally spent billions of dollars in “cost-sharing” payments to insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act. The Justice Department had candidly admitted that it wanted an immediate appeal in part to avoid the “potential political ramifications” of an adverse judgment on the merits, which it seems to fully expect. See DOJ Reply Brief at 7.

The court, however, apparently did not think that saving the administration from the political embarrassment of a loss on the merits was a valid reason for certification. Instead, it emphasized that allowing an immediate appeal was unnecessary because the merits of the case can be resolved quickly. The “facts are not in dispute,” the court notes, and “[d]ispositive motions can be briefed and decided in a matter of months—likely before an interlocutory appeal could even be decided.”

The judge set an aggressive briefing schedule that will be complete by January 18. As much as the administration would like to avoid the question of where it got the legal authority to spend billions of taxpayer dollars, it better start thinking of its defense.

“Thorough Review” of Baku? I Say Not True.

On July 31, 2015, the House Ethics Committee issued its report on the trip to Baku, Azerbaijan by some 42 House members and staffers. The primary purpose of the trip, which took place at the end of May 2013, was to attend a conference in Baku entitled “U.S.-Azerbaijan: Vision for the Future.” The conference was organized by two American non-profit organizations, the Turquoise Counsel of Americans and Eurasians (TCAE) and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ), both of which were headed by a man named Kemal Oksuz.

All the congressional travelers sought and received the Committee’s prior approval for the trip, as has been required by House travel regulations since 2007. The Committee’s report contends that this approval was not a mere rubber stamp, stating that “[s]ince the House rule changes regarding  privately-sponsored travel in 2007, the Committee has conducted a thorough review of each proposed privately-sponsored trip.” 7-31-15 Rep. at 11 (emphasis added). These reviews are conducted by the Committee’s “nonpartisan, professional staff,” which “recommends changes where necessary to bring a proposed trip into compliance with relevant laws, rules, or regulations and, on occasion, informs House Members and employees that a proposed trip is not permissible.” Id.

Five different nonprofit organizations, including TCAE, “separately invited” particular members and staff to travel to Baku for the conference. 7-31-15 Rep. at 1. The other four were (1) the Council of Turkic American Associations (CTAA); (2) the Turkic American Federation of the Midwest (TAFM); (3) the Turkic American Alliance (TAA); and (4) the Turkic American Federation of the Southeast (TAFS). Each of these organizations completed a Primary Trip Sponsor Form stating that it was the sole sponsor with respect to its travelers and that it had “not accepted from any other source funds intended directly or indirectly to finance any aspect of the trip.” Id. at 12.

The Committee states that its “staff reviewed these forms and asked Members and sponsors for additional information where necessary.” 7-31-15 Rep. at 12. No detail is provided on what additional information was asked for or received. However, it is implied that little information was needed with regard to funding because “[n]othing in those submissions gave the Committee reason to doubt the truth or accuracy of the purported sponsors’ representations regarding the sources of the Trips’ funding.” Id. at 2.

At the time the Committee issued its report, it declined to release the longer and more detailed review by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). See 7-31-15 Rep. at 13-16. On October 7, however, the OCE Board decided to release the results of its review, including its report and findings, along with more than 1,000 pages of exhibits. I had requested the release of this material (though I doubt this had any influence on the Board’s decision) in part to see what kind of “thorough review” the Committee did before approving the Baku trip.

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Close Enough for Government Work

From Andrew Glass at Politico: “On this day in 1918, the House agreed to do business with fewer than 50 members present on the floor and the public galleries shuttered. It did so, despite the absence of a quorum, in response to the Spanish flu pandemic that was sweeping the globe.”


Not So Fast, Speaker Winfrey

Is it a “fact” that non-members of the House are constitutionally eligible to serve as Speaker? The keepers of congressional knowledge and precedent (i.e., the Parliamentarians, the House historian, and other recognized experts on this sort of thing) would tell you, with perhaps an unwarranted degree of confidence, that the answer to this question is “yes.”

The basis of this answer seems to be the following: (1) the Constitution says only that the “House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers,” but does not specify any qualifications for these positions; (2) it is well accepted that the House’s “other Officers” (e.g., Clerk, Sergeant at Arms and Chaplain) need not be, and indeed never are, members; (3) although the House has always elected a member as Speaker, an occasional vote for a non-member candidate has been cast without being ruled out of order; and (4) various congressional publications say in passing that a non-member could serve as Speaker. The last point, of course, is a somewhat circular reason as it merely reflects the written assertion by some of the congressional experts already noted.

Personally, I have not questioned this received wisdom, but I haven’t thought much about it either. Now, however, with the House speakership up for grabs, some people are discussing, with more or less seriousness, whether the House could look outside its membership for a candidate. Suggestions have included Newt Gingrich, Arthur Brooks and Oprah.

Some lawyers and scholars argue that allowing a non-member to be eligible for the speakership would violate separation of powers principles by, for example, raising the possibility that the President or Vice-President could simultaneously serve as Speaker.  Professor Schaub also argues that a non-member Speaker would conflict with the constitutional text, particularly the fact that “the Constitution vests its specified legislative powers in Congress, composed of a Senate and a House, each in turn composed of members, elected by the people.” Therefore, she argues, “[l]egislative powers cannot be lodged in the hands of a non-legislative person.”

These arguments are not without force, but it seems to me that they largely go to why the House should not, rather than cannot, elect a non-member as Speaker. Schaub may be right that “it simply never occurred to [the Framers] that someone would take it into his head to contend that the Speaker of the House could be an individual who was not a fellow legislator.” But Professor Tillman is right that the mere fact that the Framers and everyone else expected the Speaker to be a member is not enough to prove that there is a constitutional prohibition on electing a non-member to that position.

This is particularly true when you consider that the Constitution expressly leaves the choice of Speaker up to the House. The Framers may have very well assumed that the House would never consider a non-member as Speaker except in extraordinary circumstances; it doesn’t follow that they saw the necessity to preclude the House from choosing a non-member under any circumstances.

A strong argument against the constitutional eligibility of non-members would depend on showing that the meaning of the word “Speaker” as used in the Constitution was limited to members of a legislative body. As Professor Rappaport notes, it would be a necessary, but not sufficient, component of this argument to show that the speakers of the British House of Commons and state/colonial legislatures were invariably members of the body.

What about the semantic content of the word “speaker” at the time of the framing? Johnson’s Dictionary gives one meaning of “speaker” as “the prolocutor of the commons,” which is very helpful unless, like me, you have no idea what “prolocutor” means. Fortunately, it defines “prolocutor” as “the foreman; the speaker of a convocation.” And it defines “foreman” as “the first or chief person.” So one might argue that the “speaker” of a legislative body is the first or chief person of that body, and therefore necessarily a member (as the foreman of a jury is necessarily a member). Not a terrible argument, but hardly a slam dunk either.

In short, the question of whether a non-member can be Speaker remains an open constitutional question (the House never having had occasion to address it in a serious way) and the correct answer is less than obvious, at least to me.

A Tenuous Recess Appointment in Virginia

An interesting recess appointment issue has arisen in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Article VI, section 7, of the Virginia constitution provides that justices of the state supreme court, who serve for 12 year terms,  “shall be chosen by the vote of a majority of the members elected to each house of the General Assembly.” Under Article V, section 7, the constitution also provides that “[t]he General Assembly shall, if it is in session, fill vacancies in all offices which are filled by election by that body.”

The governor, however, has the “power to fill vacancies in all offices of the Commonwealth for the filling of which the Constitution and laws make no other provision.” Va. Const., art. V, § 7. This includes making temporary appointments to fill supreme court vacancies when the General Assembly is not in session: “Gubernatorial appointments made to fill vacancies in offices which are filled by election by the General Assembly . . ., made during the recess of the General Assembly, shall expire at the end of thirty days after the commencement of the next session of the General Assembly.” Id.

These provisions came into play earlier this year when a sitting justice of the Virginia Supreme Court (LeRoy F. Millette, Jr.) announced his retirement effective at the end of July. Because the General Assembly was not in session, Governor McAuliffe recess appointed Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush to fill the vacancy on a temporary basis. No one disputes that this was within the governor’s power under the above-cited provisions.

Matters became more complicated, though, when McAuliffe called a special session of the General Assembly to consider revising the state’s congressional districting map, which had been struck down by the federal courts. See Va. Const., art. IV, § 6 (“The Governor may convene a special session of the General Assembly when, in his opinion, the interest of the Commonwealth may require . . . .”). The General Assembly convened on August 17, 2015, pursuant to the governor’s call.

Once the special session convened, the General Assembly undeniably had the power to elect a “permanent” (i.e.. for the remainder of the 12-year term) replacement for Justice Millette. Republicans in the legislature attempted to elect another judge to fill the seat, but this move was blocked in the senate. The senate then voted to adjourn sine die. The house, however, neither adjourned nor consented to the senate’s adjournment.

Everyone agrees that when the General Assembly convened on August 17, it commenced the “next session” of the General Assembly following Roush’s recess appointment. Thus, the thirty-day clock started on August 17, and Roush’s appointment expired on September 16.

The controversy centers on whether the senate’s vote to adjourn sine die has ended the General Assembly’s special session. If not, the General Assembly remains in session and retains the power and responsibility to fill the seat that Judge Roush had temporarily occupied.

This is the view of the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. In a letter to the governor, the speaker relies primarily on the following provision of the Virginia constitution: “Neither house shall, without the consent of the other, adjourn to another place, nor for more than three days.” See Va. const., art. IV, § 6. This “clear, unambiguous and emphatic” language, according to the speaker, establishes that the senate cannot unilaterally end the General Assembly’s session. Thus, the senate’s adjournment sine die was ineffective and the General Assembly remains in session. Under the speaker’s position, the General Assembly’s session would not end until both houses agree to adjourn or until “dissolution by the efflux of their time,” which would presumably occur at the beginning of the new legislative session in 2016. Cf. House Rules and Manual § 590 (Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice).

The governor’s position, explained by his counsel Carlos L. Hopkins, is otherwise. Hopkins maintains that the senate’s adjournment sine die was effective. His primary argument is that the adjournments clause relied on by the speaker applies only to regular sessions, not to special sessions. As an additional (or possibly alternative) ground, he contends that “the lack of continuous activity or remaining business before the General Assembly argues against the body continuing to remain in session.”

Based on the legal position that the General Assembly was no longer in session, the governor gave Roush a second recess appointment after her first one expired.

Key to assessing these competing claims is understanding the history of the relevant provisions of the Virginia constitution and their relationship to the corresponding provisions in the U.S. Constitution. I do not purport to be an expert on the Virginia constitution, but I am well acquainted with the law and practice of recess appointments at the federal level (click on the “Recess Appointments” category to the right if you don’t believe me).

This background plus the research set forth below convinces me that the Virginia adjournments clause applies to special sessions and thus the senate’s adjournment on August 17 was ineffective. The argument that the General Assembly is no longer in session because it has ceased to conduct any business is somewhat stronger, but, for the reasons set forth below, the better view is that the General Assembly remains in session. Accordingly, Governor McAuliffe’s second recess appointment of Judge Roush appears to be invalid.

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The Judicial Conference on Impeachment of a Former Judge

In this certification pursuant to the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act, the Judicial Conference “certifies to the House of Representatives its determination that consideration of impeachment of former United States District Court Judge Mark E. Fuller (M.D. Ala.) may be warranted.”

The Judicial Conference’s certification was based on findings that Judge Fuller had (a) repeatedly physically abused his wife, (b) lied under oath about his misconduct to the Special Committee to the Judicial Council of the Eleventh Circuit, and (c) “made false statements to the Chief Judge of the Eleventh Circuit in late September 2010 in a way that caused a massive disruption in the District Court’s operation and loss of public confidence in the Court as an instrument of justice.”

It is not surprising that these findings led to a referral to the House for possible impeachment proceedings, but it is noteworthy that the referral occurred even though former Judge Fuller had already resigned his office. As we have discussed before, whether a former officer is subject to impeachment remains an open constitutional question, but the certification of the Judicial Conference here adds to the weight of authority in support of an affirmative answer to that question. See M. Gerhardt, The Federal Impeachment Process 79 (1996) (noting “a surprising consensus among commentators that resignation does not necessarily preclude impeachment and disqualification”).

Congressional Standing to Protect the Power of the Purse

Do you remember how last summer I suggested the House’s odds of prevailing (in particular, with respect to standing) in a potential Obamacare lawsuit were in the vicinity of the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell? You don’t? Good, because that turns out to be not exactly correct.

To be fair (to myself), I was discussing a somewhat different lawsuit than the one the House ended up bringing. As originally explained by Speaker Boehner, the purpose of the suit was “to compel the president to follow his oath of office and faithfully execute the laws of our country.” Specifically, it was understood that the proposed lawsuit would “focus on the Obama administration’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act, particularly the failure to implement the employer mandate in accordance with the January 1, 2014 effective date set forth in the law.”

The House ultimately ended up bringing suit against the Secretaries of HHS and Treasury for disregarding the employer mandate deadline specified in the ACA and for reducing the statutory percentage of employees who are required to be offered insurance under that mandate. These are essentially the claims we anticipated before the suit was filed (although the House wisely decided to bring them against cabinet officials rather than the president).

In addition to these employer mandate claims, however, the House alleged that the defendants had illegally spent billions of dollars in “cost-sharing” payments to insurance companies under the ACA. Such payments were made pursuant to section 1402 of the ACA in order to compensate insurance companies for reducing the out-of-pocket cost of insurance for lower income beneficiaries.

According to the House’s complaint, payments under section 1402 must be funded through the normal annual appropriations process. Although the administration initially recognized this by submitting an FY 2014 appropriations request for these payments, it changed its position after Congress refused to appropriate the funds. Beginning in January 2014, the administration drew and spent money from permanent appropriations to make the section 1402 payments. The House maintains that this was illegal and unconstitutional because there was no permanent appropriation that covered these payments.

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