Trump v. Cummings May Not Be a Slam Dunk for Congress

 

See update below:

On Monday Donald J. Trump (in his personal capacity) and several of his businesses sued Elijah Cummings (chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform), the committee’s chief counsel, and Mazars, an accounting firm that had provided services to Trump and his companies. The suit aims to prevent Mazars from complying with a committee subpoena seeking financial statements and similar records related to Trump and his business activities.

Many immediately dismissed this as a nuisance suit designed solely to delay the committee’s investigation. To be honest, this was my first reaction as well. Upon closer inspection, while I still think Trump will lose, the case is somewhat stronger than expected.

While there may well be issues I have not considered, I see the case unfolding in three stages. First, there is the question whether the suit is barred by the Speech or Debate Clause. The answer is yes as to the congressional defendants, but no as to the third party accounting firm. Although the court cannot grant relief against the congressional defendants, it can enjoin Mazars from complying with the congressional subpoena without offending the Speech or Debate Clause. See Eastland v. United States Servicemen’s Fund, 421 U.S. 491, 501 n. 14 (1975) (suggesting a court may inquire into the validity of a subpoena directed to a third party even though a subpoena recipient cannot bring a challenge directly against Congress itself); id. at 516 (“The Speech or Debate Clause cannot be used to avoid meaningful review of constitutional objections to a subpoena simply because the subpoena is served on a third party.”) (Marshall, J., concurring); United States v. AT&T, 567 F.2d 121 (D.C. Cir. 1977) (relying on Justice Marshall’s concurrence in Eastland for the proposition that “the fortuity that documents sought by a congressional subpoena are not in the hands of a party claiming injury from the subpoena should not immunize that subpoena from challenge by that party.”). Nor should it matter if the court dismisses the congressional defendants form the case; indeed, Chairman Cummings may want to remain a party so that he can defend the validity of the subpoena.

The second question is whether Trump has asserted a facially valid objection to the subpoena. In my view, a third party challenge to a congressional subpoena must assert a constitutional privilege or some other constitutionally protected right. Here Trump has asserted neither a constitutional privilege nor a statutory/common law privilege (he cites the duty of accounting firms to maintain confidentiality but stops short of claiming, at least as I read the complaint, a legally cognizable privilege).

Instead, Trump claims that the subpoena is invalid because it lacks a legitimate legislative purpose. This is an objection that can be made by the subpoena recipient, but the absence of such purpose does not violate any constitutionally protected right of a third party who may be inconvenienced by or simply opposed to the congressional investigation. Trump relies on the aforementioned footnote 14 in Eastland for the proposition that a third party can challenge the legitimate legislative purpose of a subpoena, but the Court’s reference there was in the context of a First Amendment challenge to a subpoena. I would not read it as allowing a challenge to the legislative purpose by a third party where that purpose was not relevant to an asserted constitutional privilege. Nonetheless, the Eastland footnote is ambiguous on this point and one cannot rule out the possibility a court could agree with Trump’s interpretation.

If a court is willing to scrutinize the legislative purpose here, that would bring us to the third question in the case. Is there a legitimate legislative purpose for the subpoena at issue? The immediate purpose of the subpoena, of course, is to obtain evidence to support allegations by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that Trump engaged in dishonest business practices (such as overstating or understating his net worth) in violation of federal law. But what legislative purpose is served by such information?

There are two arguments I can think of in support of Congress’s interest in obtaining the information in question. One would be that the evidence is potentially relevant to impeachment. This, however, is a weak argument. Even if sleazy and illegal business conduct that precedes the president’s time in office is a basis for impeachment, there is no impeachment inquiry in the House and the oversight committee would not have jurisdiction over such an inquiry anyway.

The stronger argument would be that the information is potentially relevant to matters on which legislation may be had. Because Congress’s authority to legislate is broad, and the courts are deferential to congressional judgments about what information may be needed for legislative purposes, this is normally a fairly easy standard to meet. It would probably be enough if the committee had jurisdiction over the federal laws Trump is alleged to have violated. However, it likely does not.

The committee does have broad jurisdiction over matters relating to federal government personnel and agency management and operations generally. Presumably the committee will be able to identify some link between the matters it is investigating and that jurisdiction, but let’s say that it doesn’t jump off the page. And, as Trump’s lawyers can be expected to stress repeatedly, the Supreme Court  has said “[t]here is no congressional power to expose for the sake of exposure.” Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178, 200 (1957).

In short, I think the committee probably wins this case at stage two. If it gets to stage three, the committee still probably has the edge, but it is not a slam dunk.

The good news is that even if the committee were to lose, it should not be on a ground that would compromise Congress’s ability to get information it truly needs. Moreover, by bringing this matter to court, Trump may have undercut arguments that his administration will want to make in the future against judicial involvement in enforcement of congressional subpoenas. This case therefore may inadvertently assist Congress’s forthcoming efforts to bring civil enforcement actions to secure compliance with its subpoenas and demands for information.

Update: Margaret Taylor (@MargLTaylor) points out that Chairman Cummings described the ostensible purpose of the Mazars subpoena in an April 12, 2019 memorandum to committee members. The memo states the committee “has full authority to investigate whether the President may have engaged in illegal conduct before and during his tenure in office, to determine whether he has undisclosed conflicts of interest that may impair his ability to make impartial policy decisions, to assess whether he is complying with the Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution, and to review whether he has accurately reported his finances to the Office of Government Ethics and other federal entities.”

The first claim, that the committee is looking into potential illegal conduct by the president, has the advantage of reflecting the actual purpose of the subpoena. On the other hand, it is not true (in my judgment) that the House or the committee has the authority to look into illegality by President Trump for its own sake, particularly with regard to his activities prior to taking office.

The other claims may strike the court as more pretextual, but they are probably close enough for government work. The House undoubtedly has the authority to investigate financial conflicts of interest and potential emoluments violations by the president. It is also plausible, if less than completely clear, that such an inquiry would fall within the committee’s general good government jurisdiction. Whether the committee is actually pursuing such an inquiry, and whether the subpoena to Mazars can reasonably be seen as a first step in pursuing that inquiry, may be more debatable, however.

To me the strongest claim of a legitimate legislative purpose is the last one. If Trump was falsifying his financial statements as a private businessman, it stands to reason that he might also have done so as public official. This seems like a legitimate reason to follow up on Michael Cohen’s allegations of falsified statements. It might not be the committee’s actual reason, but the courts are not suppose to probe the actual motives of members in evaluating legitimate legislative purpose.

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