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The House All In on Sovereign Immunity

The House Ways & Means Committee has filed its response to the SEC’s enforcement action (see here and here). The House’s brief sheds some, though not much, light on its argument that the doctrine of sovereign immunity bars the subpoenas in question.

The House relies primarily on a Second Circuit case, In re SEC ex rel Glotzer, 374 F.3d 184 (2d Cir. 2004), which held that “a party seeking judicial review of an agency’s non-compliance with a subpoena must first exhaust his or her administrative remedies pursuant to APA § 704.” Glotzer involved two subpoenas issued by a party (specifically Martha Stewart) in a federal civil lawsuit to (ironically) SEC attorneys. An SEC official considered the subpoenas in accordance with the agency regulations and determined that the attorneys should not be authorized to testify. Rather than seeking further agency review, as required by the regulations, Stewart sought direct judicial enforcement by the district court in which the civil case was pending.

The Second Circuit found that the district court lacked jurisdiction to enforce the subpoenas. It relied on circuit precedent establishing that a motion to compel an agency to comply with a subpoena implicates the doctrine of sovereign immunity and therefore such compulsion may take place only in accordance with the federal government’s waiver of sovereign immunity in the APA. Because the APA requires exhaustion of administrative remedies before judicial review may occur, the Second Circuit concluded that the jurisdictional pre-requisite for judicial review had not been met.

The House’s application of this decision is straightforward. The doctrine of sovereign immunity applies to Congress (several circuits have so held) and therefore subpoenas cannot be enforced against Congress absent a waiver. The APA does not apply to Congress and so does not waive its sovereign immunity. The SEC having identified no other valid waiver, the House argues, the subpoenas cannot be enforced, period. Notably, the House brief does not discuss the possibility that Rule VIII constitutes a waiver and, in fact, does not mention the rule at all.

It seems to me unlikely that the Second Circuit, which purported to be addressing a narrow question of first impression, would take its decision as far as the House would. The court mostly seemed concerned that a litigant not be able to circumvent an agency’s established procedures for responding to subpoenas. This is not an issue with Rule VIII, where the administrative procedures have already been exhausted. Moreover, the Second Circuit construed Stewart’s motion as one to compel the agency itself, rather than merely the subpoena recipients, see footnote 7, which may provide a ground for distinguishing two cases. In any event, nothing in the Glotzer decision suggests that the court expected it to have the far-reaching implications that are entailed by the House’s interpretation.

If the House were correct, it would mean that no subpoena, administrative or judicial, could be enforced against any legislative entity or a legislative official acting in an official capacity. It would seem, for example, that the grand jury subpoena to a Senate aide in Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606 (1972), would have been barred by sovereign immunity. The same would be true, presumably, of the civil subpoena in Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. Williams, 62 F.3d 408 (D.C. Cir. 1995), as well as the subpoenas in many of the other Speech or Debate cases discussed in the House’s brief. None of these cases even discuss sovereign immunity, which, if a substantial jurisdictional question, should have been considered by the courts even if not raised by the parties.

There are other implications of the House’s position which are, to put it mildly, surprising. What about subpoenas to executive branch officials not covered by the APA, such as the criminal trial subpoena to President Nixon? See United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974). For that matter, what about congressional subpoenas to executive branch officials? Are they barred by sovereign immunity as well?

Perhaps there is a limiting principle in the House’s brief that is not apparent to me. For the moment, lets just say that nothing has changed my deep skepticism about this argument.

 

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