Judge Bates Dismisses Rangel’s Lawsuit

Last week, as expected, Judge Bates dismissed Representative Rangel’s lawsuit against the Speaker, the Clerk and various former members and staff of the Ethics Committee. As the court notes in conclusion, “everything on Rangel’s wish list implicates insurmountable separation-of-powers barriers to the Court’s exercise of authority,” with the “most problematic [being] Rangel’s unprecedented view that this Court may order the House to, in effect, un-censure him.”

This is certainly correct, and I think the court’s 49-page opinion gives Rangel’s arguments rather more attention than they deserve. Dismissal was more than justified by the following points made in the opinion:

  1. Rangel sued the wrong party. The court points out that “Rangel’s reputational harm was not caused by any of the defendants but by the House as an independent body- and it is not a party to this action.” (slip op. at 11)
  2. An order against these defendants would not have redressed Rangel’s alleged injuries because the defendants have no power to alter the House’s Journal (the relief requested by Rangel) on their own. (slip op. at 35)
  3. Even if the House had been a party, the court lacks the power to order the House to take any action that would redress Rangel’s alleged injuries. “This Court has the same ability to order the House to edit its own Journal as it does to order the House to discipline one of its Members or to promulgate a particular Rule- none.” (slip op. at 35-36)
  4. All of the defendants were in any event immune under the Speech or Debate Clause. (slip op. at 36-44)

Unfortunately, Judge Bates was not content to rest his opinion on these points but also engaged in an extensive, unnecessary and rather confusing discussion of the political question doctrine. He concludes that Rangel’s claims are barred by the political question doctrine, but only because Rangel failed to state a viable constitutional claim in the first place. The political question doctrine, however, is designed to identify situations in which a non-judicial body has the final say on a constitutional issue. If it applies only because the court finds no constitutional issue to resolve, invoking the doctrine seems pointless. The court seems to think that directly reviewing Rangel’s claims on the merits, rather than as part of the political question analysis, would evince a “lack of disrespect” (I think it means lack of respect) for the House, but the price of this politeness is to make the political question doctrine even murkier than it is already.

On balance, though, this opinion should stand as a caution against challenging House disciplinary proceedings in court, and that’s a good thing. One final note—someone should bring to the court’s attention that Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993) involved Judge Nixon, not former President Nixon. See slip op. at 33 (referring to “an ex-President challenging his impeachment in the courts.”).

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