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Still More on Article V Justiciability: Idaho v. Freeman

The second important district court opinion on the justiciability of Article V claims is Idaho v. Freeman, 529 F.Supp. 1107 (D. Idaho 1981), judgment stayed sub nom. Natl Org. of Women v. Freeman, 455 U.S. 918 (1982), vacated as moot and remanded to dismiss, 459 U.S. 809 (1982). Before turning to Freeman’s justiciability analysis, it is important to understand the facts before the court. In March 1972, Congress proposed the Equal Rights Amendment (acting, of course, by a two-thirds vote in each house as required by Article V) and set a seven-year period for ratification by state legislatures. Congress is not required to set a time limit for ratification, but it has customarily done so since it proposed the 18th amendment in 1917. This practice was upheld by the Supreme Court in Dillon v. Gloss, 256 U.S. 368 (1921).

The Idaho legislature ratified the ERA almost immediately after it was proposed. The resolution ratifying the amendment recited the seven-year time limit for ratification contained in the congressional resolution. By 1977, however, with the ERA not having received the requisite ratification by three-quarters of the state legislatures, Idaho changed its mind and rescinded its prior ratification.

By late 1978, the ERA had still not been ratified by the required supermajority. 35 states had ratified the amendment (three short of the required 38). Moreover, five of those states, including Idaho, had rescinded their ratifications. Faced with this situation, Congress acted to extend the ratification deadline until June 39, 1982, just over three years after the original deadline would expire on March 22, 1979.

A lawsuit challenging this action was brought by the states of Idaho and Arizona, as well as the legislative leadership and individual legislators from those states (joined by some individual legislators from the state of Washington). In essence, Idaho argued that (1) Congress could not extend the deadline for ratification of the ERA; (2) Congress could not count Idaho’s ratification of the ERA because it was predicated on a seven-year ratification period; and (3) Congress certainly could not extend the ratification period and then ignore Idaho’s rescission of its ratification. (A subsidiary issue was whether Congress could extend the deadline by a simple majority vote).

On the merits, these arguments seem extremely powerful. It is hard to see how Congress can set a seven-year ratification period and then unilaterally extend that period, at least without starting ratifications over at zero. It is inconceivable to me that Congress could extend the ratification period and at the same time prohibit states like Idaho, which ratified based on an understanding of a seven-year ratification period, from rescinding their prior ratifications. This would amount to a constitutional fraud on the states. Or so it seems to me and, I suspect, seemed to the district court in Freeman, which was unusually motivated to reach the merits.

It is worth mentioning that the defendants in Freeman twice sought to disqualify the district judge on the grounds that his leadership position in the Mormon Church (which officially opposed both the ERA and Congress’s extension of the ratification deadline) could cause his impartiality to be questioned. See Idaho v. Freeman, 507 F. Supp. 706 (D. Idaho 1981); Idaho v. Freeman, 478 F. Supp. 33 (D. Idaho 1979). In response to the first motion, brought by the Department of Justice, the court observed:

It is rather ironic that defendant should raise the issue of judicial prejudice in this particular action. It is apparent that in this case the district court is only a conduit for passing these issues on to the circuit court and ultimately, the Supreme Court of the United States. It is obvious from the pleadings that the evidence will almost entirely consist of public documents and records about which there is no dispute. In such a case, the rules which the appellate courts follow permit them to utterly disregard the district court’s decision and to review the evidence and the law as if the case had been initially tried before them.

478 F. Supp. at 37.

While this observation is accurate as a practical matter, it might be seen to indicate the mindset of a judge who expects to issue what in effect is an advisory opinion, rather than a binding resolution of a dispute between the parties. It provides some further evidence, along with the issues discussed in this post and the fact that the district court’s ruling was ultimately vacated by the Supreme Court, that the Freeman decision not only lacks any formal precedential authority, but is likely to be seen as an outlier with regard to its analysis of justiciability. Continue reading ‘Still More on Article V Justiciability: Idaho v. Freeman’ »

More on Article V Justiciability: Dyer v. Blair

In my last post on the justiciability of Article V cases, we discussed the Supreme Court’s 1939 decision in Coleman v. Miller and whether that decision would be applied broadly to block most or all Article V claims as nonjusticiable political questions. Those who would read Coleman narrowly often cite two district court decisions from the 1970s which addressed justiciability of claims related to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. While these cases do provide some support for a narrower application of the political question doctrine, they also illustrate other justiciability issues which may be equally if not more problematic for an Article V plaintiff.

Today I will discuss one of those cases, Dyer v. Blair, 390 F. Supp. 1291 (N.D. Ill. 1975), which was brought by members of the Illinois General Assembly seeking declaratory and injunctive relief regarding the attempt to ratify the ERA during the 78th Session of the General Assembly. During that session, votes in both the house and senate resulted in a majority, but less than three-fifths, supporting ratification of the amendment. Neither house deemed this vote sufficient to pass the ratification resolution. In the house, the speaker ruled that a supermajority was necessary under both a provision of the Illinois constitution and a house rule, each of which declared a three-fifths vote was required to ratify amendments. The senate presiding officer also ruled that a three-fifths vote was needed for ratification, despite a recently adopted senate rule allowing a simple majority vote, presumably on the basis that the state constitutional provision took precedence.

The plaintiffs sought declaratory relief that the Illinois constitutional provision and similar house rule were void and of no legal effect under Article V, which (they argued) requires that ratification of proposed amendments be by a simple majority. The also sought injunctive relief against the house speaker and senate president, prohibiting these officers from applying any supermajority requirement to ratification votes and ordering them to sign and certify the ratification resolutions that had previously received majority approval.

A three-judge court was convened, including then-Judge (and future Justice) John Paul Stevens, who wrote the court’s opinion.

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Virginia Supreme Court Takes on Speech or Debate

The Virginia Supreme Court recently issued a decision in Edwards v. Vesilind, No. 160643 (Va. Sept. 15, 2016), a case involving the application of the Virginia constitution’s speech or debate clause to a subpoena for documents directed to Virginia state senators and the Division of Legislative Services (DLS), a legislative agency that provides legal and other research services to the Virginia General Assembly. The subpoena, which arose from a lawsuit alleging that certain state house and senate districts violated the Virginia constitution, sought written communications and other documents related to the legislature’s formation of these districts, including documents that discussed (1) compactness, population and other criteria used to form the districts; (2) the role played by partisan or incumbent-protection considerations; and (3) the process of preclearance through the Virginia attorney general.

The Virginia senators and DLS objected to the subpoenas based on the Virginia speech or debate clause, which provides “Members of the General Assembly . . . for any speech or debate in either house shall not be questioned in any other place.” The trial court, however, narrowly construed this privilege as applying only to “purely internal legislative communications solely among legislators, and between legislators and legislative staff.” Moreover, it defined “legislative staff” as “legislative assistants and/or aides who are employed and paid by the individual legislators, a legislative committee, or the legislature as a whole.” It found DLS and its employees to fall outside these parameters and therefore held that agency entirely unprotected by legislative privilege. It further found that the senators could not withhold communications with DLS, political consultants or other third parties.

The trial court’s ruling was certified for direct appeal to the Virginia supreme court because of the importance of the questions presented, which were ones of first impression concerning the scope of the Virginia speech or debate clause. The supreme court’s ruling as to the scope of the privilege and who may invoke it is also of wider interest because it construed the Virginia clause as co-extensive with the federal Speech or Debate Clause. As the court noted, the language in the Virginia constitution is derived from the federal Clause, and “[b]oth provisions afford similar protections because they are based on the same historical and public policy considerations.” Slip op. at 8.

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Pagliano’s Contumacious Failure to Appear

Last night the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (COGR) voted to approve a contempt resolution for Bryan Pagliano, who failed to appear before the committee in response to a subpoena to testify. Pagliano, you may recall, is the IT specialist who was in charge of setting up Secretary of State Clinton’s private email server. Pagliano previously asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in both congressional and Justice Department/FBI investigations. He was given use immunity by DOJ/FBI to provide information regarding their investigation into whether the use of the email server by Clinton or others violated laws against the disclosure or mishandling of classified information.

Although the criminal investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified information terminated with FBI Director Comey’s public statement a couple of months ago, COGR says it is continuing to investigate this issue as well as other matters that the FBI investigation did not address. Specifically, the contempt report indicates that COGR’s ongoing investigation includes:

(1) seeking information about former Secretary Hillary Clinton’s use of a private, non-secure email server during her time at the Department of State, as well as the transmittal of classified national security information on that server; (2) examining the circumstances that resulted in the failure to preserve federal records arising during Secretary Clinton’s tenure, as required by the Federal Records Act, and to produce such records pursuant to Congressional requests or request made pursuant to the Freedom of Information and; (3) determining what, if any, changes to the Federal Records Act of 1950, Freedom of Information Act of 1966, Ethics in Government Act of 1978, or any other federal law(s) may be necessary to prevent these or similar circumstances from recurring.

No one, I think, would seriously dispute that these are proper matters for the committee to investigate, nor that Pagliano is a witness with information relevant to them.

Instead, the question is whether Pagliano, having informed COGR through his attorney that he will continue to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege with respect to any questions that the committee asks him about these issues, was required to appear at a hearing to assert the privilege in person. Citing legal ethics opinions, Pagliano’s attorneys at Akin Gump contend that Pagliano is not required to appear at an open hearing, although they said that he was willing to appear at a closed session. Backed by committee Democrats, they argue that requiring Pagliano to appear “in front of video cameras six weeks before the presidential election, betrays a naked political agenda and furthers no valid legislative aim.”

This is not a new issue. Congressional committees have been faced with such objections for decades, at least since a 1977 DC Bar opinion that an attorney serving as counsel to a congressional committee was prohibited by the disciplinary rules from requiring a witness to appear at televised hearings when the committee had been notified in advance that the witness would refuse to answer questions based on the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

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Coleman v. Miller and the Political Question Doctrine

Following on my last post, our analysis of the justiciability of claims related to the Article V convention will begin with Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433 (1939) and the political question doctrine. Coleman involved the purported ratification by the Kansas legislature of a child labor constitutional amendment proposed by Congress in 1924. After both houses of the Kansas legislature had rejected the proposed amendment in 1925, the Kansas house passed a resolution of ratification in 1937. The Kansas senate then equally divided (20-20) on the resolution, and the Lieutenant Governor, over the objections of those who opposed the amendment, broke the tie in favor of ratification.

Kansas legislators, including the 20 senators who voted against ratification, challenged this action in state court, and the case was ultimately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The plaintiffs advanced three grounds for invalidating the purported ratification: (1) that the 13 years between proposal and ratification was too long; (2) that the prior rejection of the amendment by the Kansas legislature precluded subsequent ratification and (3) that the Lieutenant Governor was not part of the “legislature” under Article V and therefore could not vote on ratification.

In a famously splintered opinion, the Coleman Court declined to reach the merits of any of these issues. In an opinion by Chief Justice Hughes designated as the “Opinion of the Court” (but joined by only two other justices), the Court held the Kansas legislators had standing to bring the suit, but found that two of the plaintiffs’ claims raised political questions that could only be resolved by Congress.

With respect to the whether the Kansas legislature’s previous rejection of the child labor amendment precluded its subsequent ratification, the Court stated that this “should be regarded as a political question pertaining to the political departments, with the ultimate authority in the Congress in the exercise of its control over the promulgation of the amendment.” 307 U.S. at 450. The Court found no basis for the proposition that it “should restrain the state officers from certifying the ratification to the Secretary of State because of an earlier rejection, and thus prevent the question from coming before the political departments.” Id.

Although the Supreme Court had previously held that ratification of amendments must take place within a reasonable time, the Coleman Court rejected the notion that “in the absence of a limitation by the Congress, the Court can and should decide what is a reasonable period within which ratification may be had.” 307 U.S. at 452. Determining what constitutes a reasonable time for ratification in any particular case would require “an appraisal of a great variety of relevant conditions, political, social, and economic,” which according to Chief Justice Hughes would involve questions that are “essentially political, and not justiciable.” Id. at 453-54.

With regard to the issue of the Lieutenant Governor’s participation in the ratification process, the Coleman Court declared: “Whether this contention presents a justiciable controversy, or a question which is political in its nature and hence not justiciable, is a question upon which the Court is equally divided, and therefore the Court expresses no opinion upon that point.” Id. at 447. (If you wonder how a 9-member Court came to be “equally divided,” the answer, though not relevant to our analysis, may be found here)

In his concurrence (joined by Justices Frankfurter, Roberts and Douglas), Justice Black suggested that the Court had not gone far enough in denying judicial power to resolve Article V controversies. While agreeing with the Court that Congress has the “exclusive power” to resolve “political questions” such the validity of ratification after prior rejection and the length of time within which an amendment could be ratified, Black criticized the Court for leaving an opening for any judicial resolution of Article V questions. See Coleman, 307 U.S. at 458 (“To the extent that the Court’s opinion in the present case even impliedly assumes a power to make judicial determination of the exclusive constitutional authority of Congress over submission and ratification of amendments, we are unable to agree.”). Instead, Black stressed that all Article V questions should be considered political and not justiciable:

Such a division between the political and judicial branches of the government is made by Article V, which grants power over the amending of the Constitution to Congress alone. Undivided control of that process has been given by the Article exclusively and completely to Congress.  The process itself is “political” in its entirety, from submission until an amendment becomes part of the Constitution, and is not subject to judicial guidance, control, or interference at any point.

Coleman, 307 U.S. at 458-59 (Black, J., concurring).

Two additional opinions were written in Coleman. Justice Frankfurter wrote for himself and Justices Black, Roberts and Douglas in a separate opinion rejecting the Court’s conclusion that the Kansas legislators had standing to sue. See Coleman, 307 U.S. at 460 (Frankfurter, J., concurring). Frankfurter argued that the injury asserted by the plaintiffs, namely that the Kansas legislature had followed unconstitutional procedures in ratifying the child labor amendment, was not the type traditionally redressed by the judiciary and would open the federal courts to “sit[ting] in judgment on the manifold disputes engendered by procedures for voting in legislative assemblies.” Id. at 469-70.

Finally, Justice Butler authored a dissent, for himself and Justice McReynolds, arguing that the Court should have reached the merits and struck down Kansas’s ratification as untimely. Coleman, 307 U.S. at 470 (Butler, J., dissenting). It should be noted, however, that Butler did not actually express an opinion on whether the timeliness of ratification was a political question. Instead, he pointed to the fact that the Court had previously treated it as a justiciable question, and he argued that the Court should not have reversed itself on this point without argument or briefing.

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The Justiciability of Controversies Related to the Article V Convention

As you may know, there is increasing chatter about the possibility of Congress calling an Article V “convention for proposing amendments” (sometimes referred to, inaccurately, as a “constitutional convention”).

Recently the New York Times featured a front page article by Michael Wines entitled “Inside the Conservative Push for States to Amend the Constitution.” The focus of the article is on the effort to call a convention to propose a federal balanced budget amendment, which I know something about through my association with with the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force (BBATF), one of the three groups featured in the piece.

If I might digress for a moment, I note that Wines’s suggestion that the balanced budget amendment effort is “often funded by corporations and deeply conservative supporters like the billionaire Koch brothers and Donors Trust” is, unfortunately, not true, certainly with respect to the BBATF. To the contrary, the BBATF operates with little outside funding of any kind and depends on the work of citizen activists who volunteer their time and often pay their own travel expenses. (No need to mention that last part to my wife, though). But if you happen to be a wealthy donor, feel free to click through to the BBATF website and look for the donate button. . .

Anyway, as Wines notes, “Article 5 of the Constitution . . . allows the states to sidestep Congress and draft their own constitutional amendments whenever two-thirds of their legislatures demand it.” Thus far, “28 states have adopted resolutions calling for a convention on a balanced-budget amendment, including 10 in the past three years, and two, Oklahoma and West Virginia, this spring.” Thus, only six additional states are needed to trigger an Article V balanced budget amendment convention.

Wines is also correct that there are substantive legal issues which will undoubtedly be raised if and when the states reach the magic number of 34. For example, Wines says that “[e]ven if the two-thirds threshold were reached, a convention would probably face a court battle over whether the legislatures’ calls for a convention were sufficiently similar.”

What he refers to is the fact that the 28 existing applications for a balanced budget amendment convention do not use identical language, and it can be argued (and undoubtedly will be argued) that some of them are substantively different from the others in terms of the scope of the convention they seek. If Congress calls a convention based upon these applications, someone is likely to go to court to stop the convention from being held. Thus, Wines is right that there probably will be a “court battle” of some kind.

This doesn’t mean, however, that a court would actually consider such a case on its merits. Before doing so, it will have to answer a novel question: when (if ever) are claims related to the Article V convention justiciable?

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An Urgent Need to Combat Executive Privilege after COGR v. Lynch

In the Federalist Society Review, Chris Armstrong, the Deputy Chief Oversight Counsel for Chairman Hatch at the Senate Finance Committee, has written an article entitled “A Costly Victory for Congress: Executive Privilege after Committee on Oversight and Government Reform v. Lynch.” (Actually, he wrote this in June, but I am a little behind on everything, as you may have noticed).

Although the House committee mostly “won” this case at the district court level because Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered DOJ to turn over many of the Fast and Furious related documents the committee was seeking, Armstrong points out the the court’s reasoning actually “lay[s] out a vision of an expansive deliberative process privilege that—if it stands—may diminish Congress’s powers to investigate the Executive Branch.” Specifically, by allowing the assertion of a constitutional privilege against Congress for any records that would reveal aspects of the executive branch’s deliberations with respect to policies or decisions it makes, the court opened the door to a privilege that “can be invoked against producing nearly any record the President chooses.”

Armstrong is right to be concerned about the implications of the district court’s ruling. As I pointed out earlier this year, Congress can expect that agencies will seize upon Judge Jackson’s opinion to resist congressional oversight. Armstrong suggests this is already happening, noting a recent “marked increase” in deliberative process claims “across agencies and to a wide range of congressional committees conducting active investigations.” He further expresses the concern that “we may be entering an era in which fewer disputes are resolved through good faith negotiation and the federal judiciary becomes the primary venue for settling these disputes,” a result that “may not bode well for Congress.”

This would indeed be an unfortunate development. However, as I wrote in my post on this topic, Congress can avoid this result by taking action to limit the types of subpoena enforcement cases that come before the judiciary. Essentially, such cases should be limited to situations where the president has not invoked executive privilege, thereby leaving the courts without any constitutional dispute to resolve (there still could be non-constitutional issues such as the committee’s jurisdiction and the relevance of the information sought).

So how should congressional committees go about enforcing their subpoenas when the president invokes executive privilege? A number of ideas have been floated, including using the appropriations process to restrict funding for agencies that refuse to comply with congressional subpoenas. The Select Committee on Benghazi, for example, recommends that “House and Senate rules should be amended to provide for mandatory reductions in appropriations to the salaries of federal officials held in contempt of Congress.” (see section IV, p. 66 of the Select Committee report). Other ideas include reinvigorating inherent contempt (in which the legislative body itself punishes the recalcitrant official), amending the criminal contempt statute to provide for appointment of a special counsel to prosecute contempt by executive officials (another recommendation of the Select Committee), and impeachment.

Whatever mechanism(s) Congress (and/or the House and Senate individually) settle on, the time to act is now. With the two leading presidential contenders not exactly known for their commitment to transparency, there can be no doubt that the next administration will see a continuation, if not an escalation, of these problems.

Neither is there any reason to wait on the outcome of the appellate process in COGR v. Lynch. The briefing schedule is rather leisurely: appellant’s brief is due October 6, appellee’s brief is due December 20, and any reply brief is not due until January 17, 2017. By the time briefing is complete, it seems likely that the case may be overtaken by events, and I would guess that the D.C. Circuit will never reach the merits of the case. In any event, Congress cannot afford to leave its institutional prerogatives in the hands of the courts.


Should SCOTUS Hear Senator Menendez’s Speech or Debate Case?

A Third Circuit panel recently rejected Senator Menendez’s Speech or Debate appeal, thereby clearing the way for his corruption trial to proceed. United States v. Menendez, No. 15-3459 (3d Cir. July 29, 2016) (slip opinion). Menendez, it is reported, may seek further review from the full Third Circuit and/or file a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court. While the court’s conclusion is no surprise, its reasoning raises some questions which could be fodder for Supreme Court review.

To briefly recap the facts, Menendez is accused of having intervened with the executive branch on behalf of one Dr. Salmen Melgen in exchange for personal gifts and campaign contributions. For example, Menendez allegedly sought to persuade/pressure executive officials to drop a Medicare fraud investigation into Melgen’s billing practices.

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Senate Enforcement Action against Backpage CEO

I am a little late on this, but last month the Senate authorized a rare civil action to enforce a subpoena, utilizing a statutory mechanism for enforcement of Senate (but not House) subpoenas. See 28 U.S.C. § 1365. Under this mechanism, if a subpoena recipient fails to comply with a subpoena from a Senate committee or subcommittee, the committee reports a contempt resolution to the Senate, which may then adopt a resolution directing the Senate Legal Counsel to bring an enforcement action in federal court. See 2 U.S.C. §§ 288b, 288d.

The subpoena in question was issued by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (affectionately known as “PSI”) to the CEO of a company called, which runs an online classified advertising website. PSI opened an investigation of internet sex trafficking in April 2015, and, according to its opening brief in the enforcement case, its “research and investigation have shown that Backpage is a dominant presence in the online market for commercial sex and that numerous instances of child sex trafficking have occurred through its website.” The PSI subpoena sought documents related to Backpage’s practices in this regard, particularly with respect to screening of advertisements and other measures designed to prevent sex traffickers from using its website.

According to PSI, Backpage’s CEO refused to produce or even to search for documents responsive to the subpoena, claiming that “the subpoena is outside the Subcommittee’s jurisdiction, intrudes on his First Amendment rights, and seeks materials not pertinent to the Subcommittee’s investigation.” We will see what Backpage (represented by former House Counsel Steve Ross) has to say in response, but those do not sound like winning objections to me.

The Senate unanimously adopted a resolution authorizing enforcement on March 17, and on March 29 Senate Legal Counsel filed the action on PSI’s behalf in DC federal court. When I say this action is “rare,” the last time Senate Legal Counsel brought such a case was in 1993, when the Ethics Committee sought to force Senator Packwood to produce his diary.



Some Schocking Information About Congressional Records

Former congressman Aaron Schock, under investigation for financial misconduct while in office, has been in various disputes with the Justice Department about documents prosecutors are seeking from him. One of those disputes involves the somewhat peculiar legal status of documents from a Member’s personal congressional office. So the blog having been on hiatus for a couple of months, I will ease back into things with a discussion of this obscure topic.

You may be aware, unless you happen to be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that the records of federal agencies and the executive branch generally are subject to extensive regulation and control by various statutes, including the Federal Records Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the Presidential Records Act. You may or may not be surprised to know, however, that few if any of these laws apply to Congress. As the House Rules Committee observed in this 1988 report, the Privacy Act and FOIA explicitly exempt Congress from their coverage, and “[n]o statute comparable to the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act has ever been enacted with respect to congressional records.” Hmm, I wonder how that happened.

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