What Does the D.C. Circuit’s Order In Blumenthal v. Trump Tell Us?

For one thing, there is not likely to be any emoluments discovery in this case in the near future, if at all. For another, we are likely to get a significant legislative standing decision from the D.C. Circuit in the not too distant future.

On July 19, a panel of the D.C. Circuit (Judges Millettt, Pillard and Wilkins, all Obama appointees) issued an order which, while denying President Trump the immediate relief he sought, strongly agreed with the president’s view that the legal issues in the case should be resolved before discovery (or at least anything more than “limited discovery”) takes place. Specifically, the panel indicated that there are two open legal issues that are potentially fatal to the claims brought by the congressional plaintiffs. It states that “because either of those issues could be dispositive of this case, it appears to this court that the district court abused its discretion” by refusing to certify the case for immediate appeal.

The D.C. Circuit also indicated its concerns with “the separation of powers issues present in a lawsuit brought by members of the Legislative Branch against the President of the United States.” These concerns, it strongly suggested, counsel against moving forward with discovery if the case may be resolved on legal grounds alone. (The district judge, Judge Sullivan, took the hint and suspended discovery immediately after the D.C. Circuit issued its order.).

Although the panel remanded the case to Judge Sullivan to reconsider the certification issue, its directive seems pretty clear: certify immediately. There is one caveat, however. The panel suggested that the district court might wish to address “whether discovery is even necessary (or more limited discovery would suffice) to establish whether there is an entitlement to declaratory and injunctive relief of the type sought by plaintiffs.” This raises the possibility the plaintiffs could win a victory at the district court level (e.g., an order from Judge Sullivan declaring that President Trump is violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause), which would be politically useful even though unlikely to survive legally.

The two legal issues that will soon be before the D.C. Circuit are (1) whether there is a cause of action against the president for violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause and (2) whether the congressional plaintiffs have standing to seek relief for violations of the clause. The latter question, as noted in my last post, has potentially broader significance for subpoena enforcement and other litigation by the House against the Trump administration. The panel made only one cryptic comment on the issue, noting the “standing question arises at the intersection of precedent” and citing Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, 139 S.Ct. 1945 (2019) and Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433 (1939).

Based on the current state of legislative standing precedent, I think the Blumenthal plaintiffs are likely to lose on standing. The question is whether or not they will lose on narrow grounds that otherwise leave untouched the ability of each house to enforce subpoenas and other information demands in court.

Emoluments Suits Status: Keep an Eye on Blumenthal v. Trump

The Fourth Circuit recently issued its decision in District of Columbia v. Trump (the emoluments lawsuit brought by DC and Maryland against President Trump) and, not surprisingly, the court ordered the case dismissed for lack of standing. Equally unsurprising was the court’s criticism of the district judge, who it found had committed a “clear abuse of discretion” in refusing to certify the case for appeal.

The court’s reasoning with respect to the plaintiffs’ standing theory (namely that these jurisdictions or their citizens are suffering competitive injury from the Trump Hotel in DC) largely tracks my earlier observations. This standing theory fails because (1) it is sheer speculation whether Trump’s alleged violations of the emoluments clauses inflict any injury at all, i.e., Trump’s relationship with the Trump Hotel may help its competitors as much or more than it hurts them; and (2) these competitive interests are not in any event within the zone of interests protected by the emoluments clauses.

The court gives short shrift, however, to one theory that seemed more plausible to me. The domestics emoluments clause appears designed to ensure that no state exercises undue influence over the president. To the extent Trump has accepted prohibited emoluments from certain states, it is arguable that other states (such as Maryland) have suffered an injury within the zone of interests protected by the clause. The Fourth Circuit rejected this theory as an attempt to assert a “generalized grievance,” but it did not directly confront the proposition that the clause protects the states qua states, not just the general public.

What does this mean for the prospects for the three emoluments lawsuits against Trump? Although the plaintiffs may seek further review, D.C. v. Trump is unlikely to go anywhere now. The other suit predicated on a competitive injury theory, CREW v. Trump, was dismissed by the district court and is now pending before the Second Circuit. It seems unlikely to make it to the discovery stage either, at least anytime soon.

The case to keep an eye on is Blumenthal v. Trump, which was filed by Democratic members of Congress in federal court in D.C. It presents distinct standing issues. The plaintiffs claim that they have suffered an institutional injury due to Trump’s failure to present (alleged) foreign emoluments to Congress for its consent under the Foreign Emoluments Clause. Judge Sullivan accepted this theory and refused to dismiss the case for lack of standing. This decision, however, is questionable at best under existing Supreme Court precedent, particularly in light of the Court’s most recent ruling on legislative standing.

The Justice Department has sought a writ of mandamus from the D.C. Circuit to prevent Judge Sullivan from moving forward with discovery in the Blumenthal case. It has indicated that if it does not receive a decision from the appellate court by July 22, it may seek relief from the Supreme Court, (hat tip: Seth Barrett Tillman). Should the Supreme Court agree to hear the case, it could use the opportunity to address broader questions of legislative standing that remain unresolved, which could affect the Ways and Means committee lawsuit to obtain Trump’s tax returns and other contemplated House litigation against the administration.

What to Look For in the Mazars Oral Argument

Tomorrow the Mazars subpoena case will be argued before the D.C. Circuit (Judges Tatel, Millett and Rao). In this appeal, President Trump (in his private capacity) has advanced a novel and audacious theory in support of his contention that the congressional subpoena at issue lacks a “legitimate legislative purpose.” Trump is asking the D.C. Circuit to reverse the decision of the district court, which denied Trump’s application for an injunction to prevent Mazars, his accounting firm, from producing financial records responsive to the subpoena.

As Judge Mehta pointed out in his decision below, the legal standards employed by the courts to review congressional subpoenas and investigations are generally so deferential that they “do not substantially constrain Congress.” Rather than fighting this proposition head on, Trump’s lawyers focus primarily on seeking a carve-out from Congress’s broad investigatory and oversight authority for those who hold constitutional offices (i.e., the president and Supreme Court justices).

The lynchpin of this argument is the distinction between Congress’s legislative and judicial powers. Although it has long been understood that Congress must have some ability to obtain information needed to consider and craft legislative measures, the scope of this power was once highly controversial. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168 (1880), which stressed that Congress, unlike the British Parliament, was not a court of general jurisdiction, it was widely believed that Congress’s authority to compel the production of information for legislative purposes was limited at best. This reading of Kilbourn, however, was undermined by later Supreme Court cases beginning with McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135 (1927). These subsequent cases, Judge Mehta noted, render Kilbourn “largely impotent as a guiding constitutional principle.”

Trump attempts to revive Kilbourn for a limited purpose. His theory goes something like this. Congress generally has broad legislative and oversight authority with respect to the departments and agencies of government, including offices created by statute. With respect to constitutional offices, however, Congress’s legislative authority is “severely constrained.” Trump Br. at 4, 38. Thus, Trump claims that Congress cannot rely on its legislative authority to seek his financial records because these records are not relevant to a subject on which legislation may be had.

To be sure, Trump acknowledges that Congress also has powers of a judicial nature. But, following Kilbourn, he stresses that these are not of general scope, but are limited to those areas expressly identified in the Constitution, namely judging elections, disciplining members, and, most importantly, impeachment. For those who hold constitutional offices, therefore, impeachment is the only method (Trump argues) by which Congress can investigate alleged wrongdoing.

Thus, “[w]hile Congress could presumably use subpoenas to advance these non-legislative powers, the Committee has not invoked them.” Trump Br. at 45. In fact, Trump takes pains to demonstrate that Speaker Pelosi has disavowed any intent to go down the path of impeachment. Trump Br. at 47-48.

The novelty of this argument is illustrated by the fact that one of the principal “authorities” cited in Trump’s brief is a three-page law student note that is more than a century old. See Note, Congressional Power to Punish for Contempt, 30 Harv. L. Rev. 384 (1917) (cited in Trump Br. at 17-18). The apparent utility of this note from Trump’s perspective is that it vividly distinguishes congressional contempt in the context of impeachment from that in the context of legislative oversight:

A committee of the House considering an impeachment is like a Grand Jury hearing evidence which may lead to the return of an indictment– it is a judicial body and it is one provided for by the Constitution. It must surely have the power to call witnesses, and the power is of little avail if these witnesses may contemptuously refuse to respond, or may be influenced or intimidated by outside contempts of the body before whom they are testifying. If the House is to sit in a judicial capacity, it must have the protection that a court has.

Note, 30 Harv. L. Rev. at 385. Yet even this note, which predates McGrain, concludes that “[t]he power to legislate . . . by necessary implication include[s] the power to examine witnesses and to compel them to respond by contempt proceedings.” Id. at 386.

Why would the Trump team rely on what seems like a very long shot argument? The short answer is I don’t know, but three possibilities come to mind. First, Trump’s lawyers may simply believe this is the best argument available to them. Second, it may be thought that stressing the lack of impeachment proceedings helps Trump’s cause beyond the confines of this particular case (e.g., with public opinion and/or with courts that will be ruling on more difficult subpoena enforcement issues in the months ahead). Third, Trump’s legal team may believe that advancing a bold legal theory is the best way to get the Supreme Court to grant certiorari, which strings out the proceedings even if it is unlikely to deliver an ultimate victory.

The two things to look for in tomorrow’s argument: (1) how much interest does the panel show in impeachment and why the House has declined to initiate impeachment proceedings to date, and (2) whether Judge Rao (the lone Republican appointee) seems at all open to Trump’s arguments. A unanimous panel opinion will make further review less likely.

It’s (Probably Not) Complicated: The House Lacks Standing in Nagarwala

A commentator has observed that “[t]he Supreme Court’s and lower federal courts’ jurisprudence on legislative standing is complicated.” Bradford C. Mank, Does a House of Congress Have Standing Over Appropriations?: The House of Representatives Challenges the Affordable Care Act, 19 U. Pa. J. Const. L. 141, 143 (2016). Generally speaking, this is true. A series of Supreme Court decisions over the past two decades have produced mixed and often inconclusive results, which tell us something about the views of individual justices but provide little in the way of definitive answers from the Court as a whole.

We know, for example, that there are two current justices at the most liberal/permissive end of the spectrum on legislative standing. Justice Breyer would have held that individual federal legislators had standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Line Item Veto Act (he was joined in this view only by the now-retired Justice Stevens). See Raines v. Byrd, 521 U.S. 811, 838 (1997) (Breyer, J., dissenting). In subsequent cases that presented the question whether state or federal legislative bodies had institutional standing, Justice Breyer supported legislative standing in each case. See Va. House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, No. 18-281 (June 17, 2019) (Virginia house of delegates); Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Comm’n, 576 U.S. __ (2015) (both houses of Arizona legislature); United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013) (U.S. House of Representatives); Department of Commerce v. United States House of Representatives, 525 U.S. 316 (1999) (U.S. House).

Justice Alito has also staked out what Professor Mank calls a “novel” and “broad” approach to legislative standing. See 19 U. Pa. J. Const. L. at 183, 189. In Windsor, although a majority of the Court found it unnecessary to  resolve the question of congressional standing, Justice Alito opined that “in the narrow category of cases in which a court strikes down an Act of Congress and the Executive declines to defend the Act, Congress both has standing to defend the undefended statute and is a proper party to do so.” Similarly, in this term’s Bethune-Hill decision, Alito (writing for himself, the chief justice, and Justices Breyer and Kavanaugh) would have found that the Virginia house of delegates had standing to defend the constitutionality of a redistricting plan passed by the Virginia general assembly. The Bethune-Hill majority, however, held that the Virginia house, “as a single chamber of a bicameral legislature,” lacked standing to assert an injury (invalidation of the redistricting plan) which had been suffered by the legislature as a whole.

Which brings us to the pending motion of the U.S. House of Representatives to intervene in United States v. Nagarwala, No. 19-1015 (6th Cir.). Nagarwala involves a criminal prosecution of individuals in Michigan for practicing female genital mutilation in violation of a federal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 116(a). The district court dismissed these charges on the ground that the statute exceeded Congress’s enumerated powers. The Justice Department initially filed a notice of appeal, but subsequently informed Congress pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 530D(a)(i)(B)(ii) that it lacked a reasonable basis to defend the constitutionality of the law and therefore would not pursue an appeal. The House, through the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), moved to intervene in the case to defend the constitutionality of the statute. Unlike other issues of legislative standing that may present themselves in the coming months, this one is fairly straightforward.  Continue reading “It’s (Probably Not) Complicated: The House Lacks Standing in Nagarwala”

Another Split Between House Ethics and the OCE Board

See update below.

This post is to flag an obscure dispute which popped up a few weeks ago between the House Ethics Committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics (hat tip: Bryson Morgan). The issue involves public disclosure of OCE referrals when (a) the referral recommends further review of allegations against a House member, officer or employee (the subject); (b) the ethics committee establishes an investigative subcommittee to review the allegations; and (c) the subject resigns from the House after the establishment of the investigative subcommittee but less than a year after OCE’s referral.

The relevant facts are as follows. On April 16, 2018, OCE transmitted a referral to the ethics committee recommending it further investigate Oliver Schwab, then the chief of staff to Representative David Schweikert, for certain alleged financial improprieties in violation of House rules, standards and federal law. On the same day OCE transmitted a separate referral regarding related allegations against Representative Schweikert. (Note: the merits of the allegations against Schweikert or Schwab are not pertinent to our discussion here).

On June 28, 2018, the ethics committee announced it was establishing an investigative subcommittee to inquire into the allegations against Schweikert and Schwab based on the OCE referrals. On July 9, 2018, however, Schwab resigned as chief of staff and left the House’s employ. Based on longstanding House interpretation and practice, this caused the committee to lose jurisdiction over Schwab.

The House rules provide that generally the ethics committee must make public the OCE’s report and findings within 45 days of receiving them, although the chair and ranking member may jointly decide to delay this action for up to another 45 days. House Rule XI(3)(b)(8)(B). Thus, the Schwab report and findings would normally have been required to be made public no later than July 16, 2018.

However, there are certain exceptions to this disclosure requirement, including the following:

[I]f the committee establishes an investigative subcommittee regarding [a matter referred by the OCE board], then the report and findings of the board shall not be made public until the conclusion of the investigative subcommittee process and the committee shall issue a public statement of the establishment of an investigative subcommittee . . . . If any such investigative subcommittee does not conclude its review within one year after the board transmits a report respecting any matter, then the committee shall make public the report and upon the expiration of the Congress in which the report is made public, the committee shall make public any findings.

House Rule XI (3)(b)(8)(B)(iii) [yeah, seriously you can spend 20 minutes trying to find this subparagraph in the House Rules].

One might think that Schwab’s departure from the House would represent the “conclusion of the investigative subcommittee process” with respect to him, thereby releasing the committee from the hold period and requiring it to make public the OCE’s report and findings under the general disclosure rule. The committee, however, did not make public the OCE’s report and findings regarding Schwab at any time during 2018.

On April 16, 2019, one year after the Schwab and Schweikert referrals were received, the ethics committee made public the Schweikert report and findings based on the fact that the investigative subcommittee was still conducting its investigation into the allegations against Schweikert and public release was therefore required due to the fact the subcommittee “d[id] not conclude its review within one year” of the OCE referral. The ethics committee, however, made no public disclosure with respect to Schwab.

The committee’s failure to make disclosure here was not an isolated action or based on any consideration peculiar to Schwab’s case. Instead, it appears the committee has followed a general practice of not disclosing the OCE report and findings for individuals no longer subject to its jurisdiction (it followed the same practice in the case of former Representative Jim Renacci, for example). The basis for this practice is unclear as the rules do not seem to contain an exception to public disclosure requirements for subjects who resign from the House prior to the time disclosure is required. The closest I can come up with is that the rules require the committee to provide one-day prior notice of disclosure to “the applicable Member, officer, or employee.” Rule XI (3)(b)(8)(A).  If one interprets this to require notice to a current member, officer or employee, one could conclude (I suppose) that disclosure cannot be made once the subject resigns.

Regardless, the OCE board apparently does not agree with the ethics committee’s interpretation of the rules. On June 7, 2019, the board “voted unanimously to release the OCE’s report and findings concerning former House employee Mr. Oliver Schwab, as the Board determined that release was mandated by the Resolution and House rules.” The board has followed the same course in earlier cases (including Renacci’s) where the committee failed to make public disclosure.

The problem is that even if one believes OCE’s interpretation of the governing rules is more persuasive than that of the ethics committee (a view to which I am inclined), nothing in either the House rules or OCE’s charter resolution (H.Res. 895) appears to require or authorize OCE to make public disclosures if the ethics committee fails to do so. [Update: Bryson Morgan points to Section 1(f)(1)(B) of H.Res. 895 as potentially authorizing OCE’s disclosure. This section generally prohibits any disclosure by OCE of testimony or other information, and states “[a]ny communication to any person or entity outside the Office may occur only as authorized by the board as necessary to conduct official business or pursuant to its rules.” This provision acknowledges that the board has the power to authorize disclosures “as necessary to conduct official business.” Whether this authorizes the board to make disclosures on the grounds that the ethics committee failed to do so is a question we will leave for another day.]  Thus far, however, the committee has been disinclined to make an issue of OCE’s actions, nor has any former member or staffer sought to challenge OCE’s authority in this regard.

All of which is pretty inside baseball, but if something should blow up in the future, you will be prepared.