Judge Leon’s Ruling in the Kupperman Case Could be Important Even if it Does not Reach the Merits

The lawsuit brought by former deputy national security advisor Charles Kupperman continues, for the moment, despite the House’s withdrawal of its subpoena. Most likely, Judge Leon will end up dismissing the case as nonjusticiable on one ground or another. However, it could matter a good deal which ground(s) the court relies upon.

If the case is dismissed as moot due to the withdrawal of the subpoena, it would be of little consequence. On the other hand, if the court were to base its dismissal on the president’s lack of authority to direct Kupperman not to appear in response to the subpoena, its ruling is potentially of much greater significance. As Jonathan Shaub has noted in connection with the House’s lawsuit against former White House counsel Don McGahn, a judicial ruling that the president lacks authority to direct former officials how to respond to congressional subpoenas might be more important than a ruling on the merits of the absolute immunity issue. While the latter would affect only the relatively small group of senior White House advisors who allegedly are protected by absolute immunity, the former “could be far-reaching, encompassing all disputes involving former officials whether they are grounded in immunity or executive privilege.”

Kupperman’s complaint alleges that he “has a duty to abide by a lawful constitutional assertion of immunity by the President and a lawful instruction by the President that he decline to testify before Congress concerning his official duties as a close advisor to the President.” Complaint ¶ 41. Note that this arguably constitutes two distinct assertions. At one level, it is an assertion that if the claimed immunity exists, it belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official, and therefore Kupperman cannot or should not waive it contrary to the president’s instruction. This makes sense to me. Since the immunity (if it exists) is designed to protect the presidency, it should be the president’s decision whether to assert or waive it.

Of course, as Eric Columbus has pointed out, former officials not infrequently choose to disclose confidential information regarding their government service in medial interviews or tell-all books. Indeed, former national security advisor John Bolton, who is currently declining to testify before Congress based on the president’s assertion of “absolute immunity,” has a book deal in which he will presumably discuss many of the matters allegedly covered by that immunity. (As one Twitter wag put it, absolute immunity is a monarchical doctrine so naturally it has a “royalty exception.” Ok, that wag was me.). While there is a tension between this fact and the non-waiver principle, in my view it simply illustrates that the executive branch has no means of punishing former officials who violate a duty not to disclose non-classified information (about which more below).

Kupperman also appears to be making a second and stronger assertion. He seems to be claiming that a former official has a duty to obey the president’s instruction, regardless of whether the former official agrees with the president’s legal position. As Shaub points out, though, it is not clear where the president gets the authority to direct a private citizen’s response to a congressional subpoena. OLC’s past pronouncements suggest it believes the president has this authority, but it fails to “offer any constitutional analysis to support that conclusion.” (Shaub, this might be a good place to note, is a former OLC lawyer).

If Judge Leon were to conclude the president lacks authority to direct Kupperman’s response to the subpoena, he could dismiss the case without reaching the merits. Kupperman claims to be facing “irreconcilable commands” from the executive and legislative branches, but if he is not bound to obey the president’s command, the alleged conflict disappears and can provide no basis for him to sue. He then would be in a posture no different than any other congressional witness who asserts a potentially valid privilege. He can choose to assert absolute immunity if he wishes and, when the committee (properly) rejects that assertion, he can decide whether to comply or risk the possibility of a contempt proceeding. There is no reason why he, any more than any other congressional witness in this situation, should be entitled to an advance court ruling to forestall contempt.

A somewhat narrower approach the court might take is to side step the question of legal duty entirely. Instead, the court might ask what injury Kupperman would suffer should he choose to ignore the president’s directive not to testify. Kupperman alleges that “an erroneous judgment to appear and testify in obedience to the House Defendants’ subpoena would unlawfully impair the President in the exercise of his core national security responsibilities,” Complaint ¶ 2, but it is hard to see how this constitutes an injury to Kupperman. As suggested earlier, there do not appear to be any practical repercussions to a former official who reveals confidential but non-classified information, whether before Congress or in a tell-all book. In the absence of any adverse consequence Kupperman will suffer as a result of disregarding the president’s order, it would seem he lacks standing to sue regardless of whether the president has the authority to issue the order.

Even if Kupperman has a legal duty to assert absolute immunity when instructed to do so by the president, it does not follow that he is obligated to go into contempt to protect the president’s privilege. For example, a lawyer who is subpoenaed by a congressional committee to provide privileged information of a current or former client is obligated to assert the privilege if her client so instructs, but she is not obligated to go into contempt in order to fulfill her professional obligations. See D.C. Bar Ethics Opinion 288 (Feb. 1999). There is no reason why a former government official should be required to do more when instructed by the president; after all, the president has ample other tools, including filing his own lawsuit, to protect whatever confidentiality interests are at issue.

In short, a non-merits dismissal of Kupperman v. House could still have a significant (and beneficial) effect on the House’s ability to get information in the current impeachment inquiry and/or in future information disputes between the political branches.

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