A Former President’s Authority to Assert Executive Privilege is Incompatible with Executive Branch Doctrine

Last week the Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State held a programentitled “Congress’s Interbranch Role: The Executive, the Court, and Dobbs.” The first panel focused on conflicts between Congress and the executive, particularly disputes over congressional access to information and executive privilege. The panel, consisting of three DOJ/OLC veterans (Professor Josh Chafetz, who was supposed to represent the congressional perspective on these issues, was unfortunately unable to make it), provided an excellent if somewhat executive-tilting overview of the issues in such disputes.

What struck me in listening was the divergence between the principles underlying standard executive branch doctrine on congressional oversight and the theory that a former president may assert executive privilege. Because the panel did not discuss executive privilege as it relates to former presidents, it is worth expounding on that divergence here.

As explained by Will Levi, who was chief of staff to Attorney General Barr in the Trump administration, the executive branch views executive privilege as consisting of four components: (1) presidential communications- communications between the president and senior staff, as well as communications between senior staff and subordinate officials (or even private citizens!) for purposes of formulating advice to the president; (2) deliberative process- predecisional communications in the departments and agencies or other lower levels of the executive branch; (3) law enforcement information (which often arises in the context of attempts to obtain access to investigative or open case files); and (4) state secrets- information related to national security and foreign policy. Levi noted that the presidential communications and deliberative process privileges were qualified privileges that could be overcome by a sufficient congressional showing of need, but he maintained that the law enforcement and state secrets privileges were “more absolute.”

Continue reading “A Former President’s Authority to Assert Executive Privilege is Incompatible with Executive Branch Doctrine”

Checking the Office of Legal Counsel

As discussed in this Lawfare article by William Ford of Protect Democracy, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has asked GAO to study the feasibility of establishing a Congressional Office of Legal Counsel (COLC) to act as a congressional analogue to the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Department of Justice. The idea would be that COLC could issue opinions on controversial separation-of-powers subjects reflecting the views and perspectives of the legislative branch and thereby function as a counterweight to OLC’s invariably pro-executive positions.

The Lawfare article thoughtfully describes the pros and cons of establishing a COLC. I am skeptical of the idea myself, but I look forward to GAO’s analysis of the issue. In the meantime, there are steps that can be taken to level the playing field between Congress and the executive branch in terms of constitutional analysis.

For example, in recent testimony for the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, I proposed one small step. The House Counsel’s website could be significantly upgraded to provide more information about its legal functions, including “non-privileged information about its legal advice and representation, including court filings, legal opinions and select explanatory or historical documents that would shed light on its operations and the legal views of the House.” This would provide some modest counterbalance to OLC, which maintains an extensive (though selective) database of its opinions on its website.

Another check on OLC would be to obtain more transparency with respect to some of its most controversial opinions. For example, I have a FOIA request to OLC which seeks information about the January 19, 2020 opinion that it submitted in the first Trump impeachment trial. Specifically, I want to find out if the legal advice that it claimed to have given the administration in October 2019 was before or after the October 8, 2019 letter in which White House Counsel Pat Cipollone told the House it would not comply with any subpoenas relating to its investigation of the former president’s efforts to withhold military aid from Ukraine. So far I have not gotten much (a shocker, I know), but still I persist.

There are many other ideas for reining in executive constitutional overreach. In his recent book The Living Presidency, Professor Sai Prakash has suggestions ranging from defunding the White House Counsel and OLC (p. 255) to having Congress issue its own declarations on controverted constitutional issues (p. 265). Similarly, Professor Emily Berman, in Weaponizing the Office of Legal Counsel proposes a number of reforms, including requiring OLC to include “dissenting opinions” as part of the opinion-writing process and increasing the use of details to Congress to give executive branch lawyers from OLC and elsewhere a better sense of the congressional perspective on disputed constitutional matters.

Thus, there is no shortage of ideas for leveling the legal playing field between Congress and the executive branch. Getting Congress to pay attention to these issues when they are not in the headlines is, however, another matter.

January 6 Litigation and Federal Court Authority to Resolve Congressional Subpoena Disputes

As litigation regarding the subpoena and investigatory authority of the January 6 select committee proliferates, it is worth stepping back and asking a question that apparently is not being asked in any of these cases: do federal courts have the authority to adjudicate the merits of these disputes?

When a congressional committee first sought the assistance of a federal court to enforce a subpoena for executive branch information, the defense explained that “entry into the federal court is like opening a safe deposit box, where two separate keys are required.” Brief of Richard M. Nixon in Opposition to Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment at 9, Senate Select Comm. on Presidential Campaign Activities v. Nixon, 366 F. Supp. 51 (D.D.C. 1973) (No. 1593-73), reprinted in Appendix to the Hearings of the Senate Select Comm. on Presidential Campaign Activities, Legal Documents Relating to the Select Comm. Hearings, Part I, 93d Cong., 1st sess. 813 (Comm. Print June 28, 1974). The first key was constitutional justiciability; the second was statutory authority. Nixon argued that the Senate Watergate Committee lacked both keys.

For the moment, the question of constitutional justiciability has been settled, at least in the D.C. Circuit, by the ruling in Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn, 968 F.3d 755 (D.C. Cir. 2020) (en banc), where the court held that congressional committees have Article III standing to seek judicial enforcement of their subpoenas. While one might argue that this decision does not resolve all potential justiciability issues, the court’s reasoning seems likely to foreclose any successful challenge to the constitutional justiciability of controversies arising from the enforcement of congressional subpoenas, including those that involve attempts to obtain executive branch information.

The question of statutory authorization is murkier and messier. Whether there needs to be explicit statutory authorization to bring a suit to enforce a congressional subpoena remains open. Nearly a century ago, when a congressional committee first sought judicial assistance to enforce a subpoena, the Supreme Court rejected the suit on the ground that the committee lacked authorization to sue, though it left open whether such authorization required statutory enactment or could be accomplished by resolution of a single house. See Reed v. Cty Commissioners, 277 U.S. 376, 388 (1928). When a congressional committee next attempted to enforce a subpoena (the aforementioned Watergate case), Judge Sirica initially dismissed the case because there was no specific jurisdictional statute authorizing such suits. See Senate Select Comm. on Presidential Campaign Activities v. Nixon, 366 F. Supp. 51, 61 (D.D.C. 1973) (“The Court has here been requested to invoke a jurisdiction which only Congress can grant but which Congress has heretofore withheld.”). This problem was solved when Congress passed (and Nixon reluctantly signed) a bill specifically providing for federal court jurisdiction over subpoena enforcement suits by the Senate Watergate Committee (a broader bill that would have applied to suits by all congressional committees passed the Senate but not the House).

Since then there have been many developments, but on balance they are inconclusive. On the one hand, the statute governing general federal question jurisdiction (28 U.S.C. § 1331) was amended to eliminate the amount in controversy requirement, thereby obviating Sirica’s objection to the Senate committee’s attempt to rely on this statute. In the 1980s the Justice Department took the position that this statutory change enabled congressional committees to sue for enforcement of their subpoenas. See Response to Congressional Requests for Information Regarding Decisions made Under the Independent Counsel Act, 10 Op. OLC 68, 87-88 (1986). When the House Judiciary Committee sued to enforce subpoenas to George W. Bush administration officials, the Justice Department conceded that § 1331 provided jurisdiction over the matter, but it contended that the committee lacked a required statutory cause of action. Judge Bates agreed with it on the first point but not on the second. Comm. on the Judiciary v. Miers, 558 F. Supp.2d 53, 64, 78-94 (D.D.C. 2008). In subsequent cases DOJ withdrew its concession on jurisdiction, but several other district courts have agreed with Judge Bates on both points. See, e.g., Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn, 415 F.3d 148, 174-76, 193-95 (D.D.C. 2019) (Ketanji Brown Jackson, J.).

On the other hand, Congress has arguably acted as if express authorization for subpoena enforcement actions is required by repeatedly debating (but not passing) broad statutory authorizations and by passing narrower authorizations (such as the statute providing for enforcement suits by Senate Legal Counsel) that apply only to a subset of subpoena enforcement matters. Moreover, a D.C. Circuit panel recently issued an opinion, since vacated, holding that congressional subpoenas are judicially unenforceable in the absence of specific statutory authorization. See Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn, No. 19-5331 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 31, 2020) (holding that the committee lacked a cause of action to enforce its subpoena).

In contrast to the past controversy over congressional subpoena enforcement suits, however, the January 6 cases have proceeded without apparent objections regarding the absence of express statutory authorization, either with regard to subject matter jurisdiction or cause of action. The plaintiffs in these cases rely on §1331 for subject matter jurisdiction, and they presumably would (if challenged) make more or less the same cause of action arguments that congressional committees have advanced in subpoena enforcement cases.

The January 6 cases are different only in that the plaintiffs are the subpoena recipients, rather than the subpoena issuer. It is possible that this is a relevant distinction, but it is not obvious why. As a textual matter, it is difficult to explain how an action brought by a subpoena recipient to enjoin enforcement is one “arising under the Constitution” within the meaning of §1331, but an action by a committee to enforce the very same subpoena would not be.

From a policy standpoint, a regime in which the recipients of congressional subpoenas could avail themselves of judicial remedies, but the committees cannot, is not one that Congress would have chosen. But from Congress’s perspective the most important thing is to obtain clarity on what the state of the law is. To that end it is desirable that the courts address these issues in the January 6 litigation, however they may be resolved.

Two Lees, One Jackson, and Some Stonewalling

During the confirmation hearings for Judge (soon to be Justice) Ketanji Brown Jackson, she answered written questions for the record from a number of senators, including Senator Mike Lee. One of Senator Lee’s questions (hat tip: Ira Goldman) struck me as odd:

In Committee on the Judiciary v. McGahn, you took an extremely broad view of standing that all but ignored the previous elements of standing that you clung to in Federal Forest Resource Coalition (individualized injury). Setting aside the merits of the underlying controversy, your opinion never once mentions the phrase “political question.” Isn’t a case where the legislative branch is suing the executive branch a quintessential political question?

One problem with this question is that it was based on a false premise—as she pointed out in her answer, Jackson’s opinion in McGahn did in fact (more than once) use the phrase “political question” and it did so in the context of explaining why the political question doctrine was inapplicable to the case before her.  See, e.g., Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn, 415 F. Supp.3d 148, 178 (D.D.C. 2019) (“[T]he Supreme Court has specifically confirmed that not all legal claims that impact the political branches are properly deemed non-justiciable political questions.”).

To be sure, Jackson’s discussion of this issue was somewhat in passing. Her primary point was that the Justice Department’s legal arguments on standing and separation of powers sounded like attempts to evoke the political question doctrine without grappling with well-established limits on that doctrine. See id. at 177-78. But because the Justice Department (representing McGahn) did not actually assert that the political question doctrine applied, the judge presumably thought it unnecessary to discuss the doctrine in depth. Perhaps Lee should ask the Justice Department why it did not think McGahn presented a “quintessential political question.”

I think I can save him the trouble, though. There was a time when legal scholars (to the extent they thought about the issue) very likely would have agreed with the sentiment expressed in Lee’s question. As one noted constitutional expert wrote long ago: “In 1958, when the reach of the political question doctrine was far broader than it is today, no lesser an authority than Judge Learned Hand expressed the view that such a dispute [over a congressional subpoena] between two branches of government was a clear example of a nonjusticiable constitutional question.” Rex E. Lee, Executive Privilege, Congressional Subpoena Power, and Judicial Review: Three Branches, Three Powers, and Some Relationships, 1978 B.Y.U. L. Rev. 231, 266 (1978). For the last 60 years, though, the law has rejected such a broad view of political questions. Continue reading “Two Lees, One Jackson, and Some Stonewalling”

More on Bannon and OLC

In connection with my last post, I want to elaborate on Steve Bannon’s advice of counsel defense. The essence of this defense is that legal advice from his counsel that he was not obligated to comply with the select committee’s subpoena negated the “willfulness” required to violate the contempt of Congress statute (2 U.S.C. §192). Leaving aside the question whether this is a valid legal defense (spoiler alert: it is not), Bannon claims that this defense is bolstered by Office of Legal Counsel opinions which he interprets to excuse him from compliance with the select committee’s subpoena. For example, in his discovery motion, Bannon states “[Bannon’s lawyer] consistently advised the Government that Mr. Bannon was acting in accordance with legal opinions issued by the Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice, which analyzed the issues under analogous circumstances.”

The significance of the OLC opinions to the purported defense is unclear. One possibility is that Bannon was directly relying on the OLC opinions themselves, rather than simply on his lawyer’s interpretation of them. Another possibility is that the OLC opinions are cited to bolster the reasonableness of the legal advice the lawyer (Robert Costello) provided his client.

Bannon may also be trying to advance something of a slippery slope argument. If he cannot rely directly or indirectly on OLC opinions, then what of executive officials who receive an OLC opinion that specifically advises they need not comply with a congressional subpoena? This is the scenario that Judge Nichols was apparently concerned about when he posed a hypothetical in which Ron Klain refuses to testify based on OLC advice that he has absolute immunity from compelled congressional testimony. In this situation, Nichols asked, could DOJ advise Klain he is immune and then turn around and prosecute him for defying the congressional subpoena?

Continue reading “More on Bannon and OLC”

Should Judge Nichols Recuse Himself in the Bannon Case?

Many moons ago the Justice Department first presented in court its legal theory that senior White House aides are absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony with regard to their official duties. Although the DOJ attorney who argued the case did a pretty good job, he was unsuccessful in persuading the district court, which rejected the theory in no uncertain terms. See Comm. on the Judiciary v. Miers, 558 F. Supp.2d 53, 99 (D.D.C. 2008) (Bates, J.) (“[T]he asserted absolute immunity claim here is entirely unsupported by existing case law.”). More than a decade later, another district judge, who is currently nominated to sit on the Supreme Court, strongly agreed, finding that “the Miers court rightly determined not only that the principle of absolute testimonial immunity for senior-level presidential aides has no foundation in law, but also that such a proposition conflicts with key tenets of our constitutional order.” Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn, 415 F. Supp. 3d 148, 202-03 (D.D.C. 2019) (Ketanji Brown Jackson, J.). Although neither Miers nor McGahn resulted in an appellate decision on the merits, two D.C. Circuit judges wrote opinions strongly questioning or rejecting outright the absolute immunity theory, while not a single judge has expressed any degree of support for it. See Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn, 973 F.3d 121, 131 (D.C. Cir. 2020) (Rogers, J., dissenting) (McGahn’s claim of testimonial immunity is foreclosed by precedent); Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn, 951 F.3d 510, 536-40 (D.C. Cir. 2020) (Henderson, J., concurring) (explaining at some length why McGahn’s claim of immunity rests on a “shaky foundation”).

As fate and the random assignment system would have it, the DOJ attorney from the Miers case, Carl Nichols, is now himself a federal judge presiding over two high profile cases in which testimonial immunity may be an issue. Both cases arise out of the January 6 select committee investigation. The first is the prosecution of Steve Bannon for refusing to comply with the select committee’s subpoena for documents and testimony. The second is a lawsuit filed by Mark Meadows against the select committee seeking to prohibit the enforcement of subpoenas issued to him and his telecommunications provider. Among the grounds asserted by Meadows for invalidating the testimonial aspects of the subpoena directed at him was that it “contravene[d] Mr. Meadows’ testimonial immunity as a senior executive official.” Meadows Complaint ¶ 153.

Back in November a Politico article by Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein discussed whether Judge Nichols should recuse himself from the Bannon case (the Meadows lawsuit had not yet been filed) due to his participation in Miers.  According to former House Counsel Irv Nathan, who argued Miers for the House and is quoted in the piece, Nichols should have considered recusing himself because of the similarity of the issues in the two cases. Nathan explained that in Miers Nichols had “argued that a witness, a private citizen (a former Executive Branch official) following the direction of a President, need not comply with a Congressional subpoena and could refuse even to show up, produce any documents or even itemize the documents alleged to be privileged.” This in his view would undermine the judge’s appearance of impartiality in presiding over the Bannon trial.

Continue reading “Should Judge Nichols Recuse Himself in the Bannon Case?”

What Exactly is a Congressional Criminal Referral?

As discussed in my last post, the January 6 select committee has argued in federal court that there is sufficient evidence of misconduct by former President Trump to potentially warrant application of the crime/fraud exception to attorney-client privilege with respect to otherwise privileged communications he may have had with John Eastman. This in turn has sparked renewed speculation as to whether the committee will or should make a “criminal referral” to the Justice Department regarding the former president. According to this Politico article, while “Washington has viewed the decision on a criminal referral against Trump as a major pivot point in the Jan. 6 probe,” some think that the committee’s filing in the Eastman case makes such a referral less important or entirely unnecessary.

But what exactly is a congressional “criminal referral” and what is its significance, if any?

Continue reading “What Exactly is a Congressional Criminal Referral?”

The Eastman Emails, the Attorney Client Privilege, and the Mazars Overhang

In a recent Lawfare piece, Quinta Jurecic and Molly Reynolds argue that the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Trump v. Mazars, though limited by its terms to congressional subpoenas for the personal records of a sitting president, is having a profound effect on the broader legal landscape for the January 6 select committee and other congressional investigations. As further evidence of this phenomenon, I would point to the select committee’s recent filing in the John Eastman lawsuit, in which Eastman is seeking a court order prohibiting Chapman University, where he had been a law professor, from releasing to the committee allegedly privileged emails that Eastman sent or received through his university account. Specifically, Eastman claims that certain emails are privileged attorney-client communications and/or attorney work product arising out of his representation of Donald Trump, in his personal capacity as a candidate for office, and the Trump presidential campaign.

In a brief filed last week, the select committee advanced several arguments against Eastman’s claim of privilege, the most sensational of which was the committee’s contention that “evidence and information available to the Committee establishes a good-faith belief that Mr. Trump and others may have engaged in criminal and/or fraudulent acts, and that [Eastman’s] legal assistance was used in furtherance of those activities.” As this quote suggests, the committee’s argument is merely that there is sufficient evidence to warrant in camera review of the disputed material. Even if the court agrees with the committee on this point, it may ultimately conclude after review that the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege does not apply.

What I want to focus on today, however, is an argument that the committee did not make. At the outset of its brief, it refers to the standards applicable to establishing attorney-client privilege “to the extent attorney-client privilege applies in the context of a Congressional subpoena.” To explain this reference, the brief drops a footnote directing the reader to pages 37-39, which I suspect originally contained an argument that congressional committees are not bound to recognize common law privileges at all. This argument, however, was evidently removed, and now the committee’s discussion of the issue is confined to a footnote (no. 74), which states:

Congress has consistently taken the view that its investigative committees are not bound by judicial common law privileges such as the attorney-client privilege or the work product doctrine. See generally, Congressional Research Service, Congressional Oversight Manual 61-62 (March 21, 2021). This aspect of Congress’s investigative authority is rooted in the separation of powers inherent in the Constitution’s structure. Id. Congress and its committees make decisions regarding such common law privileges by balancing the important institutional, constitutional, and individual interests at stake on a case-by-case basis. Here, Congressional Defendants have determined, consistent with their prerogatives, not to submit an argument on this point. This is not, however, intended to indicate, in any way, that Congress or its investigative committees will decline to assert this institutional authority in other proceedings.

I am sure Senate Legal Counsel is relieved to hear the select committee is not purporting to waive the rights of “Congress or its investigative committees” in all future investigations, but why did the committee decide not to assert this longstanding congressional view here? In many ways this case would seem to provide a perfect illustration of why Congress believes it should not be bound by common law privileges. Continue reading “The Eastman Emails, the Attorney Client Privilege, and the Mazars Overhang”

Why the Courts Have NOT Decided the Constitutionality of Proxy Voting

A few weeks ago the Supreme Court denied certiorari in a case brought by House Republicans to challenge the constitutionality of the House’s proxy voting rule, which allows members, during a period of “public health emergency,” to vote on legislation and other matters without being physically present. The effect of the Court’s decision was to leave standing the D.C. Circuit’s decision to affirm the district court’s dismissal of the lawsuit on grounds of the Speech or Debate Clause. Speaker Pelosi praised the Court’s action and declared “[b]oth the Constitution and more than a century of legal precedent make clear that the House is empowered to determine its own rules—and remote voting by proxy falls squarely within this purview.” Yesterday the Speaker, based on a notification from the Sergeant-at-Arms and the Office of Attending Physician, extended the period of proxy voting through March 30, 2022, at which point the “public health emergency” will have lasted almost two years.

Contrary to the Speaker’s suggestion, neither the Supreme Court’s action nor the rulings of the lower courts say anything about the constitutionality of proxy voting. To the contrary, both the constitutionality and necessity of the House’s rule remain live issues, and the House should not be misled into thinking that the courts have resolved them. Continue reading “Why the Courts Have NOT Decided the Constitutionality of Proxy Voting”