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The U.S. Attorney’s Troubling Decision in the Lois Lerner Case

Here is a link to US Attorney Ronald Machen’s letter to Speaker Boehner declining to submit the Lois Lerner contempt to the grand jury. Machen makes three points in this letter. First, he rejects the argument that the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform failed to follow proper procedures in notifying Lerner that her Fifth Amendment privilege claim had been overruled. Instead, he agrees with the COGR majority that “Ms. Lerner was given notice that her claim of privilege had been rejected and sufficient opportunity to answer the Committee’s questions after receiving that notice,” and he points out that the three Supreme Court cases relied on by Lerner’s defense (and the COGR minority) are clearly distinguishable. This conclusion is in accord with my views. See Can Lois Lerner Skate on a Technicality?

Second, Machen contends, contrary to the COGR majority, that Lerner did not waive her Fifth Amendment privilege. He concludes because Lerner only made general assertions of innocence “lacking substantive content,” her exculpatory opening statement did not constitute a waiver of the privilege. He relies primarily on two court of appeals decisions and one D.C. district court decision, all from the 1950s and none representing controlling precedent in his jurisdiction.

Moreover, it is not clear that these cases would dictate a finding in Lerner’s favor if followed. For example, even the parenthetical Machen uses for one of the cases, Ballantyne v. United States, 237 F.2d 657 (5th Cir. 1956), suggests that it is distinguishable. Ballantyne says that “the United States Attorney could not, by thus skillfully securing from appellant a general claim of innocence, preclude him from thereafter relying upon his constitutional privilege when confronted with specific withdrawals.” But the whole point of the Lerner waiver is that no one elicited her claim of innocence, skillfully or otherwise; her opening statement was entirely voluntary. Manchen obliquely acknowledges this point, but offers little more than the bare assertion that it is “doubtful” this would be sufficient to support a waiver.

This is not to say that Machen’s conclusion on waiver is unreasonable. As I have said, this is a close legal question, and reasonable people can disagree on the outcome. The issue is whether the decision should be made by the U.S. Attorney or by a court.

This brings us to Machen’s third point. Notwithstanding the apparently clear language of the statute requiring that a congressional contempt be presented to a grand jury (see, for example, then-Speaker Pelosi’s position in the Miers case), Machen contends that the decision is within his discretion. He further maintains that under DOJ policies that it is not proper to bring the matter before a grand jury unless he is convinced that Lerner’s privilege claim is invalid. Machen’s position here conflicts with both statutory text and congressional intent, IMHO, although I am not particularly surprised that he has taken this stance.

Essentially the U.S. Attorney’s office is reserving the right to make its own independent judgment about the legitimacy of a congressional contempt citation, even if that means resolving a close legal question in a way that protects a witness in an investigation that could embarrass the administration he serves. It is another in a long line of examples demonstrating Congress’s institutional weakness in controlling the executive.

Can a House Committee Subpoena Clinton’s Server?

On the Megyn Kelly show last night, Judge Napolitano stated that Secretary Clinton’s server could not be subpoenaed by a House committee, but only by the House itself, because the committee lacks the power to subpoena “tangible things.” This echoes views expressed by Trey Gowdy, chairman of the Benghazi select committee, who claimed that his committee could not subpoena the server and suggested that whether even the House could subpoena it is an “open constitutional question.”

The Napolitano/Gowdy position strikes me as overly cautious. Admittedly, the question of whether a congressional subpoena can reach “tangible things” very rarely arises, and I am not aware of any precedent or even internal congressional guidance on the point. The quite comprehensive Congressional Oversight Manual, for example, does not seem to mention the issue. However, as described below, it is not necessary to resolve this general question to conclude confidently in favor of a House committee’s authority in the circumstances presented.

Continue reading ‘Can a House Committee Subpoena Clinton’s Server?’ »

Speech or Debate issues in the Menendez investigation

According to a sealed opinion inadvertently and briefly posted on the Third Circuit’s website, two aides to Senator Robert Menendez are refusing to answer certain grand jury questions based on the Speech or Debate privilege. The opinion is no longer available online, but this New Jersey Law Journal article summarizes the issue before the court.

The investigation concerns Menendez’s relationship with a Dr. Melgen, a Florida eye doctor accused of overbilling Medicare by millions of dollars. Melgen also owns a company that contracted to provide x-ray inspection services for shipping containers in the Dominican Republic. The Justice Department is apparently seeking to determine if Menendez intervened with government agencies on behalf of Melgen’s business interests and whether any such actions were related to campaign contributions and personal gifts Melgen provided to the senator. (For more on the investigation, including a quote from me, see this Washington Post article).

The more interesting Speech or Debate issue relates to meetings and discussions that Menendez had with executive branch officials and agencies regarding Melgen’s Medicare billings. The NJLJ article explains:

The government alleges that Menendez and his staff advocated on behalf of Melgen in a June 7, 2012 meeting with Marilyn Tavenner, then acting administrator of CMS; that Menendez later had a follow-up call with Tavenner; and that Menendez and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, met on August 2, 2012, with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

The government wants to question a Menendez staffer, Michael Bernard, about these conversations and “other communications between the senator’s office and Alan Reider, Melgen’s lawyer and lobbyist, about the conversations with those officials.” Bernard refused to answer some 50 questions about these subjects based on the Speech or Debate privilege.

It is easy to understand why the district court would have looked askance at this privilege assertion. In Hutchinson v. Proximire, 443 U.S. 111, 121 n. 10 (1979), the Supreme Court stated that “[r]egardless of whether and to what extent the Speech or Debate Clause may protect calls to federal agencies seeking information, it does not protect attempts to influence the conduct of executive agencies….”; see also Doe v. McMillan, 412 U.S. at 313, 93 S.Ct. at 2025 (“Members of Congress may frequently be in touch with and seek to influence the Executive Branch of Government, but this conduct `though generally done, is not protected legislative activity.’” (quoting Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606, 625 (1972))).

On its face, a conversation between Senator Menendez and executive branch agencies about Dr. Melgen’s case sounds a lot more like an attempt to influence or cajole the agencies than like an attempt to gather information for use in the legislative process. Moreover, even if the conversation could be characterized as partially for the purpose of informal information-gathering, this alone may not be enough to protect the conversation, for reasons that we have discussed before. Unless every conversation that might conceivably produce useful information is protected, there has to be some more specific showing to tie the conversation to a particular legislative activity, such as a committee investigation. Finally, the attempt to protect discussions with Melgen’s lobbyist seems even more far-fetched. Accordingly, it is not surprising that the district court rejected the privilege assertion.

Nevertheless, Menendez’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, was able to convince the Third Circuit that there was at least a chance that these conversations were protected by Speech or Debate. The appellate panel distinguished between manifestly legislative acts protected by the privilege and “others, such as informal fact-finding and oversight, [which] are not manifestly legislative and can look like unprotected political acts.” If Menendez can prove that the “predominant purpose” of the conversations in question was to gather information for legislative purposes, rather than to get the agencies to act on Melgen’s behalf, his privilege claim should be sustained. Accordingly, the court remanded the case to the lower court for more specific findings as to the content and purpose of each disputed communication.

It still seems to me to be a long shot that Speech or Debate would protect against disclosure of these communications. But note that if Menendez persuades the court that particular communications are protected by the privilege, the government would be precluded from putting on evidence about these communications at trial, even from executive branch witnesses. This could significantly complicate any prosecution.

The other Speech or Debate issue relates to the government’s attempt to take testimony from Menendez’s former chief counsel, Kerri Talbot as to whether the senator would invoke the Speech or Debate privilege with respect to certain emails sent to CBP regarding Melgen’s business in the Dominican Republic. Talbot refused to answer these questions on the basis of Speech or Debate privilege. This refusal seems to me to be proper, and, even if it isn’t, it is hard to understand what legitimate interest the government has in asking a staffer about this subject. If it wants to know what Menendez’s legal position is, it can ask Abbe Lowell.

 

Some Concluding Thoughts on House Delegates

Our review of the House’s treatment of delegates shows (1) the House has traditionally seen the line between debating and voting as the demarcation of appropriate delegate participation; (2) the proper role of delegates has also been described as merely advisory in nature; (3) participation in select and later standing committees has been viewed as falling within the proper debating/advisory function of delegates; (4) since 1970 the House has also permitted delegates to vote on committees and this practice no longer appears to be controversial; and (5) with respect to the constitutional limits of delegate participation, the House has never articulated or recognized a distinction between delegates and other non-members.

The issue of delegate voting in the Committee of the Whole remains a flashpoint of constitutional controversy. The House first permitted such voting in 1993 at the start of the 103d Congress, when the Democrats were in the majority, and has allowed it in subsequent congresses when the Democrats were in control. The Republicans, on the other hand, maintain that such voting is unconstitutional, and it has not been permitted during periods when they were in control.

As the Michel v. Anderson litigation made apparent, the constitutional disagreement between the two parties is actually quite narrow. Because the House Democrats recognized the new rule “came perilously close” to “granting delegates a vote in the House,” they provided for a revote in situations where the delegates would otherwise determine the outcome, and the House Counsel in Michel argued that the revote made the rule “only symbolic.” 14 F.3d at 632. In other words, because the delegates could not influence the outcome directly, their votes were merely advisory.

The Michel litigants vigorously disputed whether the new rule actually gave the delegates some influence over legislative outcomes greater than what they had before. But this was the wrong issue to focus on. Nothing in the Constitution prohibits either house from giving non-members significant influence over the shaping of legislation, and in some cases congressional rules give non-members (e.g., the president in fast track legislation) greater influence than that enjoyed by any individual member.

The real question in Michel should have been whether the Constitution prohibits giving a formal, even if meaningless, vote to non-members in the Committee of the Whole. All parties and the court seemed to agree that the Constitution bars giving any non-member, including delegates, a formal vote in the House itself, even if that vote were purely symbolic. And they also agreed that no non-member other than delegates could be given such a symbolic vote even in the Committee of the Whole.

The notion that there is some unwritten constitutional principle that embodies these distinctions seems faintly ridiculous, and, as we have discussed, the D.C. Circuit offered no real justification for them. So while there is no definitive answer to the question of whether the Constitution prohibits giving delegates a vote in the Committee of the Whole (subject to a revote), we can say with confidence the following: (1) such a vote is contrary to House precedent prior to 1993, including the 1794 precedent that sheds direct light on the intent of the Framers; (2) given the fact that the Committee of the Whole includes all members of the House and is largely indistinguishable from the House itself in its operation, a delegate vote involves different and more significant constitutional concerns than such a vote in a standing committee; and (3) any principled resolution of the issue would have to apply to any non-member, so that allowing delegates to vote in Committee of the Whole would open the door to a rule allowing mayors to vote as well.

In light of these conclusions, one has to wonder whether this game is worth the candle. Is it worth rending the constitutional fabric to give the delegates a symbolic vote that, at the end of the day, does nothing to benefit their constituents? Surely the House could find a way to increase the influence of delegates on issues of importance to DC and the territories without raising this type of constitutional doubt. Although Judge Greene’s claim that delegates traded their right to vote on committees for other concessions in 1871 appears apocryphal, it’s not a bad suggestion for how the House should proceed today.

Delegate Norton’s idea of taking a fresh look at this controversy would be a good start. The House should do so.

Krauthammer on the Post-Nuclear Senate

As I noted in November: “The Senate Republicans may also find that they have a problem with their constituents. If the Democrats filibuster a measure that is important to the Republican base, it will be difficult to explain why the Republican majority is bound to adhere to rules that their opponents do not recognize.”

Senate Republicans, meet your constituent, Charles Krauthammer.

The D.C. Circuit and the “Would-be Congressmen”

Delegate Norton cites the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Michel v. Anderson, 14 F.3d 623 (D.C. Cir. 1994), for the proposition that delegates may be authorized to vote in the Committee of the Whole, but a close examination of this decision reveals it to be poorly reasoned and internally incoherent.

The court advances the following propositions: (1) delegates may serve and vote on House standing committees; (2) non-members other than delegates may not serve or vote on House standing committees; (3) it would likely be unconstitutional to give delegates a true vote in the Committee of the Whole; (4) because the revote provision in House rules makes the delegate vote in the Committee of the Whole largely symbolic, it is not unconstitutional; (5) nevertheless, giving even such a symbolic vote in the Committee of the Whole to non-members other than delegates would violate the Constitution; and (6) giving a symbolic vote in the House itself to anyone, including delegates, would violate the Constitution.

As Professor Currie notes, these propositions are supported by little more than fiat.

Continue reading ‘The D.C. Circuit and the “Would-be Congressmen”’ »

The Role of Delegates on House Committees

Returning to the role played by delegates in the House, today we will look at their history on committees.

In contrast to the initial debate over admitting territorial delegates to the House, there appears to have been little or no controversy in the early Congresses about allowing delegates to serve on committees. James White was appointed to a select committee in 1795, and William Henry Harrison, the first delegate from the Northwest Territory (and future president), also served on a number of select committees. Indeed, in December 1799, Harrison was appointed to chair a select committee established to inquire into any necessary alterations “in the laws relating to the sale of lands in the Territory Northwest of the Ohio.” 6 Annals of Cong. 527.

The most controversial issue has been whether these delegates may constitutionally cast votes in committee, and whether this would be inconsistent with the House’s longstanding view that delegates may debate, but not vote.

Continue reading ‘The Role of Delegates on House Committees’ »

Felons on the Floor?

The Telegraph reports that a point of order has been raised in Parliament with regard to the propriety of allowing a “convicted criminal” the right of access to Westminster. A former member of Parliament named Chris Huhne, who two years ago resigned and pled guilty to the offense of “perverting the course of justice” (something having to do with his wife taking his “speeding points”), applied for and received a parliamentary pass that is customarily made available to former MPs.

The point of order, raised by a conservative MP (Huhne was a Liberal Democrat), questions whether these privileges can be revoked with regard to Mr. Huhne:

Given the low esteem many members of this House are held in by our constituents in regard to poor behaviour, is there any method [by which] we can actually rescind this application to ensure someone who is a convicted criminal cannot freely walk around the Palace of Westminster?

Judging by the speaker’s response, the answer is no. But this got me to wondering whether we could have the same issue in Congress. Both the House and Senate allow former members floor privileges and certain other courtesies. This handy and delightfully brief CRS report describes these privileges and notes certain exceptions. For example, former members cannot access the floor if they are registered lobbyists.

But there appears to be no exception for felons.

More Fun with House Guests: Admitting Cabinet Officials to a Seat in Congress

A recent post by Professor Gerard Magliocca brought to my attention a matter which sheds further light on how the House of Representatives has viewed participation by non-members in its proceedings. In 1864, a House select committee favorably reported a bill providing that the heads of the Executive Departments “shall be entitled to occupy seats on the floor of the House of Representatives, with the right to participate in debate upon matters relating to the business of their respective departments, under such rules as may be prescribed by the House.”

This proposal was inspired at least in part by Justice Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution.  In a passage quoted at some length by the House committee, Story commented: “If it would not have been safe to trust the heads of departments, as representatives, to the choice of the people as their constituents, it would have been at least some gain to have allowed them seats, like territorial delegates, in the House of Representatives, where they might freely debate, without a title to vote.”

The House report reflects the same view of participation by non-members as won the day during the debate over the admission of James White seventy years earlier. The report states:

The committee entertains no doubt of the power of Congress to pass this resolution. . . . [M]embers of the Cabinet do not by this resolution become members of the House; nor are they invested with any of the powers belonging to members, except to enter on the floor and to participate to a limited extent in debate. The right of each house to admit persons, not members, on its floor, and to allow them to debate any measure which may be pending, is too clear for argument. . . . It is exercised at every session when by resolution a contestant is allowed the privileges of the floor, and the right to debate the questions involved in the contest. It is exercised whenever action is had under the provisions of the general law of 1818, taken from the provisions of each special law for the organization of a Territory, passed prior to that date, that delegates from Territories shall be elected “for the same term of two years for which members of the House of Representatives of the United States are elected, and in that House each of the said delegates shall have a seat with the right of debating, but not of voting.”

In other words, the House’s authority to admit non-members, either for a limited time and subject or to a seat that continues for the entire Congress, extends to all persons, not merely to territorial delegates. Just as the House concluded in the debate over James White’s admission, the limitation is not the credentials of the persons who can be so admitted, but the fact that such persons may only debate, not vote.

As a side note, the legislation to admit cabinet members was never acted on by the full house, but later was introduced in the Senate. Many years later, as Professor Magliocca reports, President Taft picked up on the idea and included in his 1912 state of the union message a proposal that cabinet officers be provided seats in both the House and Senate. He recognized, though somewhat lamented, the fact that these officers could not vote:

Objection is made that the members of the administration having no vote could exercise no power on the floor of the House, and could not assume that attitude of authority and control which the English parliamentary Government have and which enables them to meet the responsibilities the English system thrusts upon them. I agree that in certain respects it would be more satisfactory if members of the Cabinet could at the same time be Members of both Houses, with voting power, but this is impossible under our system.

Needless to say, this proposal also never made it anywhere, although the closely related idea of providing a parliamentary-style “question time” in Congress for cabinet officials or even the president surfaces from time to time.

Quinnipiac Law Review Symposium on the Disqualification Clause

A forthcoming issue of the Quinnipiac Law Review features four articles responding to Benjamin Cassady’s “You’ve Got Your Crook, I’ve Got Mine”: Why the Disqualification Clause Doesn’t (Always) Disqualify, 32 Quinnipiac L. Rev. 209 (2014). The editors were kind enough to ask me to write the foreword, which you can find here. It’s extremely hilarious and entertaining. (Not really).

The articles by Peter Charles Hoffer, Brian C. Kalt, Buckner F. Melton, Jr. and Seth Barrett Tillman are well worth reading.