BLAG’s Authority to Represent the House in Court

On February 11, 2019, the new General Counsel of the House, Douglas N. Letter, filed an amicus brief in U.S. Dept of Commerce v. State of New York, the case that challenges the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. A federal district court ruled that the addition of the question violated the Administrative Procedure Act, and the Solicitor General sought a writ of certiorari before judgment from the Supreme Court. Letter’s brief argues that the district court’s decision is correct and urges the Court, should it decide to hear the case, to do so promptly in order to avoid disruption or delay in the census. (The Court has now agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis, with argument scheduled for late April).

I have nothing to say, at least at the moment, about the merits of this dispute, but I do have an observation about the caption of the brief, which is styled “Brief of Amicus Curiae United States House of Representatives in Support of Respondents.” This caption took me by surprise because during my time in the House General Counsel’s Office amicus briefs reflecting House institutional positions were filed in the name of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), rather than in the name of the House itself (unless the House actually voted on the matter, which rarely if ever happened).

It turns out that I had somehow overlooked a small but potentially important change to House rules which took place in 2015 at the outset of the 114th Congress. House Rule II(8), which provides the authority for the House Office of General Counsel, was amended to include the following subparagraph (b):

There is established a Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group composed of the Speaker and the majority and minority leaderships. Unless otherwise provided by the House, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group speaks for, and articulates the institutional position of, the House in all litigation matters.

Continue reading “BLAG’s Authority to Represent the House in Court”

Is Senator McSally Unconstitutional?

An interesting Seventeenth Amendment issue is raised by this Atlantic article by Professor Garrett Epps.  Epps contends that the Arizona law which permitted the governor to appoint Martha McSally to fill the vacant senate seat arising from the death of Senator John McCain is unconstitutional. A new lawsuit filed in Arizona federal court, Tedards v. Ducey, seeks to force the governor to call an immediate special election to fill the vacancy.

To understand the issue, we should begin with the text of the Seventeenth Amendment:

When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

This seemingly straightforward language turns out to be more complicated on closer inspection. For example, what happens if a vacancy arises so close to the end of a senate term it is impossible or impractical to call a special election to fill the remainder of the term? A literal reading of the constitutional language might suggest that in such instances the governor is disabled from making an appointment at all because such an appointment would not be a “temporary” one lasting only until the people fill the vacancy by election.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the constitutional text has not been so interpreted, presumably because it makes little or no sense to deprive the governor of the authority to fill a vacancy in such circumstances and because to do so would contravene the important goal of ensuring that each state is fully represented in the Senate. See U.S. const., art. v (“no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate”). Indeed, there have been at least 27 instances since the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment where the governor’s appointee served out the balance of the senate term rather than being replaced at some point by a senator popularly elected to fill the vacancy. See Judge v. Quinn, 612 F.3d 537, 556 (7th Cir. 2010) (“Judge I“). This practice is at least some evidence that the Constitution does not require a special election in all circumstances when a senate vacancy is filled by executive appointment.

What about vacancies at the opposite extreme, namely those that arise relatively early in a senate term? The Seventeenth Amendment does not specify when the special election to fill a vacancy must take place. Thus, if a state were to provide that the special election to fill the vacancy take place at the time of the general election immediately preceding the expiration of the senate term, the election could theoretically take place more than five years after the vacancy arose. Although such a state law would not violate the literal terms of the Seventeenth Amendment, it arguably conflicts with the spirit of the amendment’s “primary objective of guaranteeing that senators are selected by the people of the states in popular elections.” Judge I, 612 F.3d at 555.

Continue reading “Is Senator McSally Unconstitutional?”

Can Virginia Lieutenant Governor Fairfax Be Impeached? It’s Complicated.

As I wrote a post recently regarding whether Virginia governor Ralph Northam could be impeached for a racist photo that appeared on his medical school yearbook page decades earlier (I said no), I temporized regarding a more difficult hypothetical. Suppose that after an individual has assumed office, it comes to light that he committed a serious crime, such as murder or rape, years before taking office and completely unrelated to his political life? Note that this question has implications for whether a president can be indicted because, if a president can neither be indicted nor impeached for some serious criminal offenses preceding his time in office, it means that he would be effectively immune from accountability for the remainder of his term.

Thanks to Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax (good job, Virginia), this hypothetical has come to life. Fairfax is accused of two separate sexual assaults, both of which long preceded his time in office. Fairfax denies the allegations. A member of the Virginia House of Delegates has announced that if Fairfax does not resign, he will introduce an impeachment resolution as early as Monday. This raises the question whether the allegations against Fairfax are grounds for impeachment.

This is not an easy question. In his recent book, Professor Michael Gerhardt, one of the leading scholars on impeachment, discusses the hypothetical of a presidential candidate “who lied about committing a murder during the campaign but then later is discovered to have been responsible for that crime.” Michael J. Gerhardt, Impeachment: What Everyone Needs to Know 56 (Oxford U. Press 2018). Gerhardt notes the recent case of federal judge Thomas Porteous, who was impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate in part based upon lying during the confirmation process about corrupt behavior as a state judge. (We also discussed the Porteous case here).

Continue reading “Can Virginia Lieutenant Governor Fairfax Be Impeached? It’s Complicated.”

The Justice Department’s Inventive New Process for (Not) Responding to Congressional Questions

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was scheduled to appear before the House Committee on the Judiciary tomorrow. According to the latest communication by the Department of Justice, however, he may refuse to appear because the committee has authorized a subpoena for his testimony (even though the subpoena has not actually been served on him). [Update: it seems he will appear after all].

This unusual chain of events began in early January, when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler invited Whitaker to testify before the committee at a general oversight hearing regarding the Department of Justice’s operations. Nadler identified a broad range of areas regarding which the committee would likely have questions. Some of these areas related specifically to the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller; others involved completely unrelated areas. The former included questions about Whitaker’s decision not to recuse himself from matters involving the investigation and the question of how the investigation is currently being supervised at the Department of Justice. In addition, Nadler notes “[w]e must discuss the impact of the President’s near-daily statements attacking the integrity of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.”

After some back and forth over scheduling, Whitaker agreed to testify at a February 8 hearing. On January 22, Nadler sent him a follow-up letter listing a series of specific questions Whitaker could expect to be asked at the hearing. Some of these questions fell clearly within the subjects delineated in Nadler’s earlier letter; others were arguably beyond the scope. For example, some of the questions focused on discussions with President Trump about the investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, something that was not specifically mentioned in Nadler’s first letter but is closely related the Special Counsel’s investigation as well as Trump’s general attacks on the Department of Justice.

In any event, Nadler explained that he was sending these questions because “your responses may implicate communications with the President of the United States.” Nadler directed Whitaker to “take any steps that may be necessary for the White House to consider these communications and for the President to determine whether he will invoke executive privilege.” Absent such a formal invocation of privilege by the president, Nadler stated “I will expect you to answer these questions fully and to the best of your knowledge.”

Earlier today, the committee held a business meeting for the purpose of authorizing a testimonial subpoena to Whitaker. According to Nadler, this was necessary “[i]n an abundance of caution to ensure Mr. Whitaker both appears in the hearing room on Friday morning and answers our questions cleanly . . . .”

As a legal matter, it is not clear why this step was deemed necessary. If Whitaker had simply failed to show up at the hearing after saying that he would (which seems unlikely), the committee would presumably have had to subpoena him for a future hearing, which could be easily done whether or not a subpoena had previously been authorized. On the other hand, if Whitaker showed up voluntarily, he would be under the same obligation to answer questions as he would have been under subpoena. See Sinclair v. United States, 279 U.S. 263, 291 (1929) (holding that the congressional contempt statute’s penalty for refusing to answer questions “plainly extends to a case where a person voluntarily appears as a witness without being summoned as well as to the case of one being required to attend.”).

In any event, the Department of Justice (through Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Stephen E. Boyd) responded to the committee’s authorization of a subpoena by demanding a written assurance “that the Committee will not issue a subpoena to the Acting Attorney General on or before February 8, and that the Committee will engage in good faith negotiations with the Department before issuing a subpoena.”

The first part of this demand is simply the flip side of the committee’s position and is rather silly. If Whitaker shows up at the hearing, there is no reason for the committee to serve him with a subpoena. Conversely, there is no reason to demand that the committee not serve him with a subpoena if he shows up. It really does not matter.

The second part of the demand, however, is different. The Department is using the committee’s theatrical and unnecessary authorization of a subpoena as an opportunity to establish a new and (as far as I know) unprecedented position regarding the process for responding to congressional questions at a hearing. According to Boyd’s letter, the appropriate process for responding to questions that may implicate executive privilege is that first the committee must ask the questions at a hearing in which the witness appears voluntarily, then there must be a period of negotiation in which the parties attempt to resolve differences and, only then, if an accommodation cannot be reached, the committee may issue a subpoena and the president may choose to formally invoke executive privilege.

This is ridiculous. In support of this theory, Boyd quotes an opinion by the once (and presumably future) Attorney General, Bill Barr. But Barr’s opinion related to the process for producing documents, not oral testimony. Although there is nothing prohibiting a committee from issuing a document subpoena in the first instance, the ordinary process is to begin with a document request, have a period of negotiation and the proceed to a subpoena. Indeed, my proposed House rule would formalize that process and add deadlines to ensure that committees are able to get a final response (including a decision by the president whether or not to invoke executive privilege) within a timeframe that is useful for fulfilling their oversight functions.

The proposed rule does not address oral testimony, however, because there the process is different. A committee is free to ask witnesses any questions pertinent to a matter within the committee’s jurisdiction. If the witness declines to answer on grounds of executive privilege (or, more precisely, that the question is one on which the president might decide to invoke executive privilege), theoretically the committee could move immediately to hold the witness in contempt. There is no need to issue a subsequent subpoena because, as we have already seen, the witness is under a legal obligation to answer at the time the questions are asked. As a matter both of practice and practicality, however, the committee should give the witness an opportunity to consult with White House counsel and others to determine whether the president intends to formally invoke the privilege before moving forward with contempt.

The problem is that there is no deadline within which the president must make this decision. The executive branch can (and does) drag the process out indefinitely, often citing the layers of legal counsel that must be consulted before a decision is reached (agency counsel, if applicable, then the Office of Legal Counsel, then the Attorney General, then the White House counsel, etc.). If Congress proceeds with contempt in the meantime, the president can invoke executive privilege immediately before the final contempt vote or even thereafter. And there is little Congress can do about it.

By informing Whitaker of the specific questions before the hearing, Chairman Nadler is cleverly trying to speed up this process (in a manner analogous to my proposed rule on document subpoenas). Whitaker is clearly on notice as to the types of questions that will be asked and has had an opportunity to consult with others in the Department and the White House as to where to draw the lines. But it would not be advisable to press this too far. Until the hearing is actually held, there is no way to say for sure what questions will be asked, whether the committee will be satisfied with Whitaker’s answers to particular questions, what follow up questions might be asked, etc. So assuming that the president does not formally invoke executive privilege before the hearing, the committee should provide Whitaker with a limited but reasonable period of time to determine whether the privilege will be invoked. If the time period expires without any invocation, the committee will be in as strong a position as possible to move forward with contempt.

Of course, the committee still has the problem of how to enforce the contempt. But we will leave that problem for another day.

Can Governor Northam be Impeached?

No.

Perhaps I should elaborate. Article IV, section 17 of the Virginia Constitution (adopted in 1971) provides: “The Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, judges, members of the State Corporation Commission, and all officers appointed by the Governor or elected by the General Assembly, offending against the Commonwealth by malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor may be impeached by the House of Delegates and prosecuted before the Senate, which shall have the sole power to try impeachments.”

This language is identical to that contained in the Virginia Constitution of 1902, except that the latter referred to the “State” rather than the “Commonwealth.” The reference to “high crimes and misdemeanors,” language also contained in the U.S. Constitution, dates back to the Virginia Constitution of 1830, which provided: “The Governor, the Judges of the Court of Appeals and Superior Courts, and all others offending against the State, either by maladministration, corruption, neglect of duty, or any other high crime or misdemeanor, shall be impeachable by the House of Delegates; such impeachment to be prosecuted before the Senate, which shall have the sole power to try all impeachments.”

It is clear that Governor Northam has not committed “malfeasance in office, corruption or neglect of duty.” This leaves “other high crime or misdemeanor” as the only charge that conceivably could be brought against him for the offending conduct (which, in case you have been under a rock for the past 48 hours, consists of offensive and racist photos on his medical school yearbook page in 1984).

The term “high crime and misdemeanor” as used in the U.S. Constitution is broad and, as we have discussed before, not necessarily limited to conduct while in office. There is precedent for the proposition (again, at the federal level) that conduct predating the office in question may constitute a high crime or misdemeanor if the misconduct related to a different office and/or can be causally linked to the gaining of the current office. Thus, for example, if an officeholder were to attain office by corruptly rigging an election, there is a strong argument that this could provide the basis for impeachment and removal.

In Northam’s case, one would have to argue that his failure to reveal his prior misbehavior, decades prior to his election as governor, constituted a fraud on the electorate that resulted in his attaining the governorship. Not only would that mean that every untruth told during a political campaign would be potentially impeachable, but that an officeholder could be impeached simply for failing to volunteer damaging information.

To be sure, impeachment has both legal/judicial and political attributes, and the latter is reflected in the “awful discretion which a court of impeachments must necessarily have” such that it “can never be tied down by such strict rules, either in the delineation of the offence by the prosecutors, or in the construction of it by the judges, as in common cases serve to limit the discretion of courts in favour of personal security.” The Federalist No. 65 (Hamilton). But to extend that discretion so far as to encompass any distasteful behavior at any point in an officeholder’s life would be to disregard entirely the judicial aspects of the proceeding and to make impeachment little more than a measure of political popularity.

It is difficult to draw a precise line as to when conduct preceding an officeholder’s tenure should be considered potentially impeachable. But non-criminal conduct that occurred decades before taking office cannot be close to that line.

 

Congressional Subpoenas, Contempt, and Executive Privilege: Molly Reynolds and Stan Brand Discuss

There will undoubtedly be a lot of content appearing in the next few months about congressional subpoenas and how to enforce them, along with the related topics of contempt of Congress and executive privilege. Most of this will be review for the regular readers of this blog (you can click on the “congressional investigations,” “contempt of Congress” or “executive privilege” categories to see Point of Order’s prior posts on these topics), but you still might want to check out this podcast featuring Molly Reynolds of Brookings and former House General Counsel Stan Brand, which provides a good overview of the subject as well as some history of the House Counsel’s office (you can find out, for example, why Neil Gorsuch might not be the biggest fan of the congressional subpoena power).

As Stan explains, the biggest problem with congressional subpoenas is that there is no clearly established mechanism to enforce them against the executive branch. Civil contempt is the only currently usable method, but it faces a number of obstacles, the greatest of which is that it is somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible to get a resolution within the time frame of a two-year congress. This gives the Justice Department and its clients a strong incentive to delay as much as possible, knowing that by the time a court gets around to deciding the dispute, it is likely that the whole matter will be moot.

As it happens, I have proposed a reform to House rules designed to address this problem (you can read about it here). Thus far the House in its wisdom has not seen fit to adopt this proposal, but perhaps someone will bring it to the attention of the new House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

Impeachment or Indictment: What If the President Actually Shoots Someone on Fifth Avenue?

Since the subject of my last post turns out to be somewhat hypothetical, let’s turn to another hypothetical that is often invoked to show that it must be possible to indict (and prosecute) a sitting president for some crimes. Here is how Professor Larry Tribe put it recently:

Nearly everyone concedes [a prohibition on indicting the president] would have to permit exceptions. The familiar hypothetical of a president who shoots and kills someone in plain view clinches the point. Surely, there must be an exception for that kind of a case: Having to wait until the House of Representatives impeaches the alleged murderer and the Senate removes him from office before prosecuting and sentencing him would be crazy.

CNN Anchor Erin Burnett also raised the hypothetical of a murderous president during a January 3, 2019 debate between Norm Eisen (representing the “pro-indictment” or “anti-immunity” position) and David Rivkin (representing the “pro-immunity” position):

BURNETT: Let me interject. The president once famously said I could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, we’re not even talking about Russian conspiracy. I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. You’re saying if he did that, if he murdered somebody he still above the law, still can’t indict him?

RIVKIN: No, he’s not above the law. He can’t be indicted for murder. There’s only one Constitution proper way to deal with an aberrant president. And that’s what the framers intended, beside from elections. And between elections, you got the impeachment process which features political accountability.

* * *
BURNETT: Norm, you heard David. Even in murder, he would put it to the political process of impeachment. Not indict somebody for murder?

EISEN: The murder example explains why this is so wrong, Erin.

You can watch the video here.

This is not a new hypothetical. In fact, it was raised as early as September 26, 1789, when Senator William Maclay entered into an argument with Vice-President John Adams, Senator Oliver Ellsworth and others who believed the president could only be impeached, not indicted. Maclay summarized the discussion:

I put the case: “Suppose the President committed murder in the street. Impeach him? But you can only remove him from office on impeachment. Why, when he is no longer President you can indict him. But in the meantime he runs away. But I will put up another case. Suppose he continues his murders daily, and neither House is willing to impeach him?” Oh, the people would arise and restrain him. “Very well, you will allow the mob to do what legal justice must abstain from.” Mr. Adams said I was arguing from cases nearly impossible. There had been some hundreds of crowned heads within these two centuries in Europe, and there was no instance of any of them having committed murder. Very true, in the retail way, Charles IX of France excepted. They generally do these things on a great scale. I am, however, certainly within the bounds of possibility, though it may be improbable.

William Maclay, Journal of William Maclay 166-67 (E. Maclay ed. 1890), quoted in Impeachment or Indictment: Is a Sitting President Subject to Compulsory Criminal Process?, Hearing Before the Subcomm. on the Constitution, Federalism, and Property Rights of the Senate. Comm. on the Judiciary, 105thCong., 2d Sess., at 41-42 (1998) (hereinafter the “1998 Hearing”) (testimony of Eric M. Freedman).

You can imagine this passage being read by Erin Burnett, complete with furrowed brow and skeptical expression. (What can I say? I’m easily amused.)  Continue reading “Impeachment or Indictment: What If the President Actually Shoots Someone on Fifth Avenue?”

Impeachment and the Cohen Allegations

Things are moving ahead at a rapid pace, and I am therefore going to interrupt my discussion of impeachment and indictment to discuss some breaking news. As you may have heard, it is being reported that “President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.”

Because the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) issued its Russia report in the spring of last year, we have a pretty good idea of what Cohen told the committee and how his testimony may have influenced its conclusions. First, let’s review the relevant sections of the report, as summarized in an earlier blog post:

[T]he report discusses the business relationship between Trump and Russia. For example, while Trump was in Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe pageant (which he owned at the time), he discussed with his business partners, the Agalarovs, the possibility of constructing a Trump Tower Moscow. Subsequently, during the presidential campaign, Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, worked on a potential Trump Tower Moscow deal with Felix Sater, a colorful and shady Russian-American businessman who had pleaded guilty in the 1990s to participation in a stock fraud scheme allegedly orchestrated by the Russian mafia.

In late 2015 and early 2016, Cohen and Sater had a number of communications related to the Trump Tower Moscow project. Many of these conversations involved the need to get Russian government backing for the project, including “an attempt to broker a meeting or other ties between candidate Trump and President Putin.” Sater claimed, perhaps falsely or with exaggeration, to have connections to Putin and other Russian government officials who would support the project. He also suggested that cementing a business deal between Putin and Trump would benefit the latter politically. In a November 3, 2015 email to Cohen, Sater wrote: “Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. . . . [If] Putin gets on stage with Donald for a ribbon cutting for Trump Moscow, . . . Donald owns the republican nomination.”

Much or all of this may have been grandiose puffery on Sater’s part, but Cohen was not merely pretending to represent Trump and the Trump Organization. Whether his clients were specifically aware of his communications with Sater, there does not seem to be any doubt they approved his efforts to move the Trump Tower Moscow forward in the midst of the presidential campaign or that they understood this would require the approval and support of the Russian government.

The Trump Tower evidence laid out by the committee would seem to establish, at the very least, (1) a conflict of interest that might reasonably be thought to explain Trump’s pro-Russia views and (2) corroboration of other evidence discussed in the report suggesting that Trump and/or his associates expected and welcomed Russian assistance in the campaign.

Since the issuance of the HPSCI report, additional facts have come to light regarding this project. For example, Cohen admitted that he lied to Congress when he claimed that the discussions regarding Trump Tower Moscow ended in January 2016; it appears that they continued until June of that year. It also transpired that Trump himself signed a letter of intent for the project in October 2015.

Note that even if everything Cohen had told HPSCI was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, his testimony should have been extremely troubling, to say the least. A candidate (1) with unusually pro-Russian policy positions, a campaign manager with a history of corrupt Russian dealings, and a number of campaign advisors with questionable Russian connections; (2) whose campaign engaged in inappropriate and ill-advised contacts with Russia, such as the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower New York (which HPSCI said evinced “poor judgment”); (3) whose praise for and campaign’s communications with Wikileaks, a hostile foreign intelligence service linked to Russia, HPSCI found “to be highly objectionable and inconsistent with U.S. national security interests”; and (4) who encouraged and benefitted from election interference by Russia and Wikileaks, also had business dealings with Russia during the campaign (i.e. for at least seven months after Trump announced his candidacy), in which the approval of high-ranking Russian officials would have bestowed a major financial benefit on the candidate.

Standing alone, these facts strongly suggest that Trump’s Russia policies may have been influenced by his financial interests and that Russia had a motive to help Trump win the election because it believed these financial interests would cause him to favor Russia. Trump’s “defense” of this conduct was as follows: “There was a good chance I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?” This is hardly reassuring, particularly given that Trump still owns a large business organization which, as far as we know, continues to look for opportunities in Russia and other hostile foreign countries.

Be that as it may, the HPSCI report states: “The Committee determined that the Trump Tower Moscow project did not progress beyond an early developmental phase, and that this potential licensing deal was not related to the Trump campaign.” The committee made this determination based on evidence which included Cohen’s false statement that the Trump Tower Moscow project petered out in January 2016, around the time the first Republican primaries began.

In fact, according to Cohen’s subsequent guilty plea, the negotiations went on until approximately June 2016, during which time Cohen had undisclosed communications with Russian officials as well as Trump and members of the Trump family regarding the project. In addition, during this period Cohen agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the project and also took steps to arrange a trip to Russia for Trump himself. Although it is not clear exactly how seriously the latter was considered, Cohen apparently discussed the idea with Trump and others, and contemplated the possibility of Trump traveling to Russia either immediately before or after accepting the Republican nomination. The possibility of Trump meeting with Russian President Putin during this trip was also discussed.

Interestingly, Cohen pleaded guilty to making a false statement only to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), perhaps because HPSCI would not provide the evidence needed to establish that his misrepresentation was “material” to its investigation. Nevertheless, it seems likely that a disinterested factfinder would find that his misrepresentation was material to both the HPSCI and SSCI investigations because materiality requires merely that the false statement have a “natural tendency to influence, or be capable of influencing, the decisionmaking body to which it is addressed,” not that it actually influenced the decisionmaker.

For purposes of discussion, I assume that if Trump directed Cohen to make these false statements to HPSCI and SSCI, he is guilty of obstruction of Congress. Whether or not the special counsel has the evidence to prove this crime beyond a reasonable doubt, however, it remains the position of the Department of Justice that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Indeed, as recently as a few days ago, Bill Barr, the nominee for attorney general (and someone I know well and think highly of), told the Senate Judiciary Committee he sees no reason to revisit the Justice Department’s longstanding position on this issue.

Thus, as I suggested in my last post (and will continue to discuss), impeachment, not indictment, is the only practical option for addressing presidential misconduct at the present time. If congressional Democrats are demanding an investigation of the latest revelations (as well they should), they have only themselves to petition for redress of grievances.

It is true that the House (or Senate, for that matter) can investigate this issue without instituting a formal impeachment inquiry. However, instituting such an inquiry sooner rather than later provides at least one advantage. Ordinarily it is extremely difficult for Congress to get evidence from an ongoing criminal investigation (it isn’t that easy to get it from a closed investigation for that matter, as discussed here pages 14-18). But since the president is subject only to impeachment, not indictment, the rationale for allowing an impeachment inquiry immediate access to this information is much stronger.

As former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal writes, “[t]o say that a prosecutor cannot indict a sitting president is, by definition, to say that the prosecutor’s evidence must be given to Congress so it may decide whether the president should remain in office.” While I don’t agree with everything Katyal says in this piece, I totally agree with that. And almost as importantly, so does Brett Kavanaugh. See Brett Kavanaugh, The President and the Independent Counsel, 86 Geo. L. J. 2133, 2161 (1998) (“When nonfrivolous allegations or evidence of wrongdoing by the President is received by a prosecutor, that evidence should be forwarded to the House of Representatives.”)

 

 

 

 

Impeachment or Indictment?

This was the question addressed by a Senate subcommittee about two decades ago (on September 9, 1998, to be precise). See Impeachment or Indictment: Is a Sitting President Subject to Compulsory Criminal Process?,  Hearing Before the Subcomm. on the Constitution, Federalism, and Property Rights of the Senate. Comm. on the Judiciary, 105thCong., 2d Sess. (1998) (hereinafter the “1998 Hearing”). Specifically, with the independent counsel report on misconduct by President Clinton about to be submitted to Congress (it came two days later), the subcommittee asked whether it was constitutionally permissible to pursue criminal charges against a sitting president, or whether such charges had to be deferred until after impeachment proceedings resulted in the president’s removal (or the president otherwise left office).

At the outset, the subcommittee chair, Senator John Ashcroft, posited two distinct questions. The first was whether “as a constitutional matter, can the President be indicted?” 1998 Hearing at 3. This was a “close and difficult” question, one about which legal scholars had “sharply different views.” Id. While Ashcroft leaned toward an affirmative answer to the question, he acknowledged substantial uncertainty on the point and stressed that it was only a “preliminary view” on which he remained “open to persuasion.” Id. at 1.

The second question was “even assuming a sitting President can be indicted, whether a sitting President should be indicted as long as impeachment remains an option.” 1998 Hearing at 4 (emphasis added). This question, Ashcroft explained, was one “of prudence, rather than of constitutional law,” and a matter “of judgment, not of law or whether or not there is authority.” Id.

In contrast to the uncertainty surrounding the first question, Ashcroft argued that the answer to the second was “crystal clear”: “As long as impeachment remains a viable option, impeachment should be the preferred course.” 1998 Hearing at 4. He noted that “[t]he act of disciplining a popularly-elected President is such an awesome task that it ought to be carried out by the most popularly-responsive mechanism possible.” Id. He cautioned, however, that “just as prudence dictates that a prosecutor should defer to Congress when impeachment is an option, prudence also demands that Congress not shrink from its responsibilities.” Id.

Interestingly, despite the intensely partisan context of the hearing, there was a great deal of agreement between Senator Ashcroft and his two Democratic colleagues on these points. Senator Robert Torricelli noted that “offenses by a President of the United States are to the body politic in its entirety, and therefore need to be judged not as narrow abuses against the criminal law.” 1998 Hearing at 6. The framers entrusted the Senate alone to sit in judgment of such offenses, and it was the Senate’s obligation “to actually live up to those responsibilities.” Id. at 5. Torricelli concluded that impeachment was a “condition precedent” to any criminal action against a president; “any indictment would have to follow impeachment and an action by the U.S. Senate to remove a person from the Presidency.” Id. at 6.

Senator Russell Feingold, like Ashcroft, expressed substantial uncertainty on the question whether a sitting president could constitutionally be indicted. While Feingold was uncomfortable with the idea of a president being “above the law,” even temporarily, “a strong argument can be made that the interest in protecting the proper functioning of the Executive Branch outweighs the interest in allowing indictment.” 1998 Hearing at 22. Regardless, Feingold agreed entirely with Ashcroft on the second question: “I think we can all agree . . . that even if indictment prior to impeachment is constitutionally permissible, impeachment first is by far the more prudent approach.” Id. at 21.

Torricelli suggested that the hearing might be important “in an unforeseen administration in undefined events at another time,” 1998 Hearing at 5, and I think it provides a good starting point for discussing the issues that consume much of official Washington in 2019. Legal experts are once again debating whether the Constitution permits the indictment of a sitting president, an issue that remains as open and unsettled today as it was in 1998.

Truth be told, however, no one is really interested in this abstract constitutional question. What people actually want to know is whether indictment is a prudent and practical alternative to impeachment. More specifically, they want to know if it is realistic to believe that President Trump could be indicted and prosecuted in such a way as to end his presidency. The answer to these questions is even more “crystal clear” today than it was in 1998. The answer is no.

As in 1998, considerations of constitutional legitimacy strongly militate in favor of impeachment rather than indictment. Even more clearly, though, indictment is simply not a viable option at all. Brett Kavanaugh wrote in 1998 that indictment of a sitting president would be “virtually untenable as a matter of practice and unwise as a matter of policy.” Brett Kavanaugh, The President and the Independent Counsel, 86 Geo. L. J. 2133, 2159 (1998). Developments since then (Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court being one, but far from the most important) make indictment of a president virtually impossible and all but guarantee that a hypothetical indictment of the current president would not lead to his removal.

Indeed, the effect (perhaps intended) of arguing the president can be indicted is to distract from the constitutional remedy of impeachment, thereby making it more likely that Congress will shrink from its constitutional responsibilities.

I will elaborate on these points in future posts.

North Carolina Ninth Congressional District: Status Unchanged

The updates on the North Carolina 9thcongressional district consist largely of things that have not happened. First, not surprisingly, no one has been sworn in to represent the district in the new Congress. Second, no one has been issued a certificate of election, although Republican candidate Mark Harris has filed suit asking a court to order the state elections board to issue him such a certificate. Third, while some investigation into the election by state election authorities continues, formal proceedings are on hold until a new state board of elections is constituted on January 31. Fourth, and somewhat more surprisingly, the House has not taken any formal action to assert jurisdiction or commence an investigation regarding the election, although House Democrats have been having discussions about possible next steps. A good summary of these nondevelopments can be found here.

It appears House leaders are inclined to wait on the outcome of the state election proceedings, unless a court should order Harris certified (in which case the House would refuse to seat Harris and commence its own investigation). They seem to be hoping that the state board of elections will order a new election, thereby obviating the need for the House to take any action.

The problem with this passive approach is that it could take weeks or months for the new state election board to act. Moreover, as suggested in my last post, there are questions about the interaction of the House’s authority to declare a vacancy, the governor’s authority to call a special election in the event of a vacancy, and the state board’s authority to order new elections under state law. These questions and uncertainties could further delay congressional representation for the 9th district.

In the meantime, the House seems to recognize that there is no vacancy in the North Carolina 9th congressional district. Up until yesterday the Clerk’s homepage showed the tally of members in the 116th Congress as including one vacancy, but that has now been changed to zero vacancies. The Clerk’s vacancies page confirms “there are no vacancies for the 1st Session of the 116th Congress.”

What this means for the Clerk’s authority over the empty congressional office remains to be seen. As of Tuesday afternoon, no one seemed to be in 132 Cannon (see photo of the uncollected mail). Unless the House takes further steps to empower the Clerk or someone else to manage the office or hire staff, the people of the district will have to look to their senators if they need constituent service.