Can a Court Resolve the Virginia Senate Deadlock?

Virginia Democrats may go to court over the issue of whether the Lieutenant Governor can break ties on organizational matters in the Senate. As indicated in a previous post, I am skeptical about the merits of this claim.

(Another useful resource on this subject is the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures, which contains a comprehensive list of state legislative chambers which have been tied over the years. Of particular interest here is NCSL’s note that “A lieutenant governor’s vote broke organizational deadlocks in Idaho (1990) and Pennsylvania (1992).  There was speculation that the lieutenant governor would determine party control in the Virginia Senate in 1995, but a power-sharing agreement between the political parties was negotiated instead.”)

For present purposes, however, lets assume that Virginia Democrats are correct on the merits. Can they get judicial relief? If this were a question of congressional organization, I would say the answer almost certainly would be no. Federal courts are extremely reluctant to intervene in the internal affairs of the legislature, and have employed a variety of doctrinal methods to avoid doing so. See, e.g., Vander Jagt v. O’Neill, 699 F.2d 1166 (DC Cir. 1983) (refusing to hear Republican challenge to allocation of committee seats in the U.S. House of Representatives).

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What Happens to the Supercommittee’s Records?

This story by Richard Lardner of the Associated Press (“Debt-reduction ‘supercommittee’ hid in plain sight”) discusses how the “Supercommittee” has conducted its business largely behind closed doors. The article cites this blog’s view that the committee’s narrow interpretation of the term “meeting” as used in its open meeting rule enabled it to conduct virtually all of its deliberations out of public view.

Lardner also raises an interesting question regarding the disposition of the committee records. Rule III(3) of its rules provides that “[u]pon termination of the Joint Select Committee, the records of the Joint Select Committee shall be treated as Senate records under S. Res. 474, 96th Congress as directed by the Secretary of the Senate.” S. Res. 474, in turn, provides that committee records, once archived, are to be made available to the public after 20 years unless (1) the records were already public before being archived (in which case they can be made available to the public immediately), (2) the records contain information relating to the privacy of specific individuals, such as investigative or personnel files (in which case they are not available for 50 years) or (3) the committee prescribes a different time for public release of its records.

As a practical mater, the decision as to what committee records are to be archived will be made by Senate archivists working with committee staff. My understanding is that the Senate archivists consider notes, emails and similar documents to be committee records, at least to the extent that they document significant committee matters. This understanding is based in part on my experience with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; following the enactment of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, the committee’s archivist asked staff to identify and collect emails, notes and drafts that would document the negotiating and deliberating process. (We grumbled, but made reasonable efforts to comply).

In the case of the Supercommittee, the fact that it has no permanent or clearly demarcated offices may make this process even more haphazard than usual. But one assumes that the Senate archivists, acting under the Secretary’s direction, will do their best to gather those records that would shed light on the committee’s work.

But who will see these records? Unless the committee adopts a resolution or order providing for earlier public release, all of these records (save those already public) will remain sealed at the National Archives until at least 2031.

Perhaps the Congressional Transparency Caucus would like to weigh in?

The Use and Abuse of Legislative Privilege- Canadian Edition

The Speaker of the Canadian Parliament (who is 32 years old!) issued this ruling last week in response to a point of order. The issue concerned the action of a Government Minister who had “tabled a document” with the House detailing a political donation made by a particular named individual. The point of order was whether this action invaded the privacy of the named individual and would “put the chill of fear into public servants and individuals in Canada donating to a political party that a minister will use that against them.”

The Speaker acknowledged “that ministers enjoy considerable latitude and may, at their discretion, table a wide range of documents in the House.” However, he also quoted a predecessor’s admonition regarding the “awesome and far-reaching privilege” of freedom of speech enjoyed by members of the House:

Such a privilege confers grave responsibilities on those who are protected by it. By that I mean specifically the Hon. Members of this place…. All Hon. members are conscious of the care they must exercise in availing themselves of their absolute privilege of freedom of speech. That is why there are long-standing practices and traditions observed in this House to counter the potential for abuse.

The Speaker also cited the admonition from the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, which states “Members are discouraged from referring by name to persons who are not Members of Parliament and who do not enjoy parliamentary immunity, except in extraordinary circumstances when the national interest calls for this.”

He concluded by reminding members “to use great care when referring to or singling out an individual who does not have a voice here in this House and to avoid circumstances when, by such reference, an individual could have his or her reputation damaged without having the opportunity to respond.”

A word to the wise.

Judge Griffith Will Be Delivering The Leventhal Lecture This Tuesday

This Tuesday, November 15, from 12 pm to 2 pm, the Administrative Law and Agency Practice Section of the D.C. Bar will host the Annual Harold Leventhal Lecture. Our speaker will be the Honorable Thomas B. Griffith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Judge Griffith will speak on “Congress in the D.C. Circuit.”

Judge Griffith brings a unique perspective to this topic. As we have discussed, relatively few federal judges have had prior legislative experience. Judge Griffith, however, is certainly the only federal judge to have served as the chief legal officer of either chamber of Congress. From 1995 to 1999, he served as Senate Legal Counsel, during which he advised the Senate on numerous legal matters of great significance, including the impeachment trial of President William J. Clinton.

I will be introducing Judge Griffith on behalf of the Administrative Law Section. Further details and registration information may be found here.

Breaking a Tie in the Senate

(Update- see this more recent post on the possibility of a court challenge to the Lieutenant Governor’s vote).

It appears the Virginia Senate, following Tuesday’s elections, will be equally divided, with Republicans holding 20 seats and Democrats holding 20 seats. The Democrats want a shared-power arrangement, meaning that committee chairmanships and other responsibilities would be divided equally between the two parties. This is apparently what was done on the one previous occasion, in the 1990s, where such a situation arose. Republicans, on the other hand, contend that they are entitled to control the chamber because the Republican Lieutenant Governor has the power to break ties.

One Democratic Senator, “Chap” Petersen, told the Washington Post that “the lieutenant governor is not a member of the Senate” and that, if Republicans seized power, Democrats could sue to stop it. Senator Petersen seems to be saying that the Lieutenant Governor lacks the constitutional power to break ties with regard to internal matters such as committee assignments and other rules.

The Virginia Constitution provides that “[t]he Lieutenant Governor shall be President of the Senate but shall have no vote except in case of an equal division.” This provision was apparently (my research on this is admittedly cursory) added as part of the Constitution of 1869. It closely parallels Article I, Section 3, clause 4 of the U.S. Constitution, which provides that “[t]he Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.”

Because of the similarity of the constitutional provisions, it is worth taking a look at how the U.S. Senate has dealt with similar issues.

On several occasions during the 19th Century, questions were raised as to whether the Vice President’s right to break ties extended beyond legislative matters. For example, in 1850 Vice President Millard Fillmore inquired of the Senate whether “he might vote in a case where there was a tie in the election of an officer of the Senate.” Senator (and former Vice President) John Calhoun responded that he had voted several times on executive nominations during his tenure as Vice President. “The opinion of the Senate seeming to be in favor of the power of the Vice-President to vote in the case before them, Mr. Fillmore cast his vote for one of the candidates.” Hinds Precedents § 5972.

In 1877 the issue arose again when the Senate was considering a question of whether to seat a Senator. The vote being equally divided, Vice President William Wheeler voted in the negative. Senator Thurman initially challenged the Vice President’s right to vote on the question, but, after a debate in which the Fillmore precedent was discussed, Thurman withdrew his challenge and Wheeler ruled that there was “no doubt of his right to vote in all cases in which the Senate is equally divided.” Id. § 5977.

Finally, in 1881 Vice President Chester Arthur cast the tie-breaking vote with regard to organizing the Senate at a time when the parties had equal voting strength. Although Senator Saulsbury expressed the opinion that the Vice President was not empowered to vote on such a question, the earlier precedent was again cited, and the Vice President proceeded to break the tie. Id. § 5975.

In the U.S. Senate, therefore, the precedent seems well-established that the Vice President’s tie-breaking vote extends to non-legislative votes, including matters relating to control and organization of the chamber.

The Solyndra Subpoenas and the White House Response

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has issued subpoenas to the White House Chief of Staff and the Chief of Staff to the Vice President, seeking documents relating to the Solyndra loan scandal. Specifically, each subpoena asks for “[a]ll documents referring or relating in any way to the $535 million loan guarantee issued to Solyndra, Inc. by the Department of Energy.” This is the only request made by the subpoenas. Although they provide a non-exclusive list of examples that would be responsive to the request, they ask for no other documents.

In this letter, the White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler responds that the subpoenas are “unprecedented.” Unprecedented in what sense? Obviously, congressional committees have issued numerous subpoenas to prior administrations, including subpoenas seeking documents and testimony from White House officials. Such subpoenas were rare before Watergate (and virtually unheard of before World War II), but they have become rather commonplace since. Here are some examples of congressional subpoenas issued to the Bush Administration. During the Clinton Administration, House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton became something of a legend for the number of subpoenas he issued (reportedly over a thousand), including many to the White House.

Perhaps there is something about these particular subpoenas that makes them, in Ruemmler’s view, “unprecedented.” But nowhere in her letter does she explain what that might be.

Instead, her primary objection seems to be that the subpoenas are “overbroad.” She characterizes the document request as “extremely broad” because it “encompasses all communications within the White House from the beginning of this Administration to the present that refer or relate to Solyndra,” and she suggests that “any document that references Solyndra, even in passing, is arguably responsive to the Committee’s request.” She contends that responding to such an “expansive request” would place “an unreasonable burden on the President’s ability to meet his constitutional duties.” As an example, she cites the fact that the subpoenas would require producing “thousands of pages of news clips” literally responsive to the requests.

It is hard to characterize this objection as anything but silly. Asking the White House to produce all documents relating to a single small company is hardly placing an undue burden on the presidency. Federal agencies routinely respond to subpoenas and FOIA requests that are far broader in scope. All that needs to be done is to identify those locations most likely to contain responsive documents and to conduct a reasonable search thereof. Since most if not all of those locations will consist of electronic databases, a single search containing the word “Solyndra” would likely suffice.

Continue reading “The Solyndra Subpoenas and the White House Response”