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.

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