Though it might seem like a distant memory (what with everything else going on), the House’s civil contempt lawsuit against Attorney General Eric Holder still percolates in the courts. The House is investigating “Fast and Furious,” but the resulting litigation is more like “Slow and Cranky.”
On September 30, Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued a long-awaited ruling on the Attorney General’s motion to dismiss the complaint on jurisdictional grounds. Her opinion does not reach the merits of the case (which involves the question of whether the President validly invoked executive privilege over certain internal Justice Department documents subpoenaed by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform), but it decisively rejects the Attorney General’s argument that the court lacks the power to decide the case at all.
I will summarize the court’s ruling in another post, but the bottom line is this. The Obama Justice Department made almost exactly the same jurisdictional arguments that the Bush Justice Department made in House Committee on the Judiciary v. Miers, 558 F.Supp.2d 53 (D.D.C. 2008), and they left Judge Jackson every bit as unimpressed as Judge Bates was in Miers.
One interesting point to note in Judge Jackson’s ruling. She emphasizes that the House’s complaint “raises a narrow legal question: can the executive properly assert executive privilege to shield an agency’s deliberative processes when the records in dispute do not reveal advice provided to the President himself or address his core constitutional functions?” (slip op. at 27 n.7). She contrasts this “purely legal question” with the messier function of weighing COGR’s need for the documents it seeks against DOJ’s interest in protecting its internal deliberations. Slip op. at 40-41.
But the Fast and Furious lawsuit is limited to a “purely legal question” only if Judge Jackson decides that question in favor of the House. If she concludes that the President may invoke executive privilege with regard to the documents in question, then it would be necessary for the court to engage in the kind of weighing of interests that raise some of the hallmarks of a political question.
This in turn suggests that Jackson may be leaning toward deciding the merits of the legal question in the House’s favor, which would end the litigation and require DOJ to produce the documents. Alternatively, should she decide that the President did properly invoke executive privilege, she may be inclined to send the parties back to the negotiating table before trying to “wad[e] into the murk” of the political wrangling between the parties.