You Can Take this to the (En) Banc

If we can say one thing for certain in this crazy mixed up world, it is that the full D.C. Circuit will soon be considering whether or when a chamber of Congress may bring suit or otherwise seek assistance of a federal court. There are currently at least three cases before D.C. Circuit panels in which this issue is presented and they do not, to put it mildly, seem to be producing a consensus as to the proper approach or result.


In Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn (which presented the question whether the Judiciary committee could sue a former White House counsel to require his compliance with a testimonial subpoena), three separate opinions were written. Judge Griffith wrote the “majority” opinion which held that “Article III of the Constitution forbids federal courts from resolving this kind of interbranch information dispute.” Griffith op. at 2.

Of critical importance to Griffith was that the lawsuit “has no bearing on the ‘rights of individuals’ or some entity beyond the federal government.” Griffith op. at 8. This assertion is puzzling because the case in fact revolves around whether an individual (McGahn) has the right to ignore a congressional subpoena and whether his failure to obey the subpoena would subject him to criminal penalties and coercive sanctions for contempt of Congress. As the court acknowledges, either a criminal proceeding against McGahn or a habeas proceeding brought by McGahn after the House imprisoned him for contempt would constitute a justiciable case or controversy under Article III. Griffith op. at 22. Presumably, moreover, McGahn would have standing to sue the committee for a declaratory judgment invalidating the subpoena (though such a suit would be barred by the Speech or Debate Clause). In Judge Griffith’s view, however, the committee’s lawsuit against McGahn constitutes an “interbranch information dispute” while these other proceedings, though presenting precisely the same legal issue (whether McGahn was required to comply with the subpoena), would not.

A major element of Griffith’s reasoning is that courts do not want to be dragged into disputes between the political branches. As he notes, if courts are routinely placed in this position, “we risk seeming less like neutral magistrates and more like pawns on politicians’ chess boards.” Griffith op. at 10. This is a reasonable concern, though its relevance to the legal question before the court is debatable. Moreover, courts would be in an even more difficult position if Congress begins arresting recalcitrant witnesses; Judge Griffith is just gambling this won’t happen.

Apart from the reluctance to become involved in politically charged interbranch disputes, Griffith’s decision is founded essentially on “historical analysis,” meaning his view that “[n]either interbranch disputes (in general) nor interbranch information disputes (in particular) have traditionally been resolved by federal courts.” Griffith op. at 14-15. This approach, he contends, is compelled by Raines v. Byrd, 521 U.S. 811 (1997), where the Court based its refusal to recognize standing for individual members of Congress in their challenge to the constitutionality of the Line Item Veto Act in part based on the fact analogous historical disputes had not given rise to lawsuits between the branches.

It is beyond the scope of this post to fully critique Judge Griffith’s opinion, but I will make two observations here. First, his reliance on Raines ignores the numerous distinctions between that case and McGahn, distinctions which are laid out by the dissent (as well as in a prior post here), any one of which, according to the Raines Court itself, could change the outcome.

Second, the historical approach is extremely vulnerable to “looking over a crowd and picking out your friends,” to use an expression often employed to show the uselessness of legislative history. For example, Griffith analogizes the McGahn suit to historical interbranch information disputes, but the latter overwhelmingly were disputes between Congress and the president about access to documents in the president’s control, not disputes over testimony by a private citizen who once was a government official. He observes that “we do not address whether a chamber of Congress may bring a civil suit against private citizens to enforce a subpoena,” Griffith op. at 35, but fails to explain why that is not precisely the case before the court. He also distinguishes United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), on the ground that it involved a judicial, not a congressional, subpoena, but prior to 1974 there was no historical precedent for a court ordering the president to comply with either type of subpoena (a point President Nixon unsuccessfully made in attempting to resist the subpoena in that case). In short, “historical analysis” seems to pretty much allow the court to pick out whatever analogy fits with the result it wishes to reach.

Finally, Judge Griffith states “we do not decide whether a congressional statute authorizing a suit like the Committee’s would be constitutional.” Griffith op. at 35. As the dissent points out, this statement seems entirely inconsistent with his claim that Article III bars courts from hearing this type of dispute. It makes one wonder whether Judge Griffith fully believes the rationale he has advanced for rejecting the committee’s standing.

This brings us to Judge Henderson’s unusual concurring opinion. She begins her opinion by rejecting the Justice Department’s position that would “foreclose Article III standing when the Congress, or a House thereof, asserts any institutional injury in any interbranch dispute,” explaining that she “do[es] not believe . . . Supreme Court precedent supports a holding of that scope.” Henderson op. at 1. Since this is precisely the position that Judge Griffith accepts (apart from the possible caveat should a statute expressly authorize suit), it appears Judge Henderson does not agree with his reasoning.

Judge Henderson elaborates that existing Supreme Court precedent does not decide the question of whether the Judiciary committee has standing to enforce a subpoena. See Henderson op. at 1 (“[T]he issues [here] are far from being on all fours with Raines.”); id. at 7 (“[T]he Supreme Court’s post-Raines precedent does not categorically foreclose the possibility that the Committee’s asserted injury could support Article III standing.”). Nonetheless, she reads this precedent as being generally hostile to congressional standing. Therefore, rather than identifying which interbranch disputes Congress may bring to the federal courts, Judge Henderson says that task must be left to the Supreme Court. See Henderson op. at 8 (“judicial restraint counsels that we find the Committee lacks standing for want of a cognizable injury”); id. at 9 (“If federal legislative standing is to be given new life, it must be the Supreme Court– not an inferior court– that resuscitates it.”). This seems like an odd approach to take (the judicial equivalent of voting “present”) and leaves me wondering whether the judge might change her vote if the case is reheard en banc.

Judge Rogers issued a vigorous dissent which explains in detail why Raines does not control the case. See Rogers op. at 5 (“each factor that in Raines counseled against the existence of standing is absent here”); id. at 6-13; id. at 14 (“Raines does not support, much less dictate, that the Committee lacks standing here.”). As she points out, the committee’s standing is supported not only by the D.C. Circuit’s pre-Raines precedent, but every court to consider the issue since. See Rogers op. at 19 (“McGahn can point to no federal court that has accepted the argument that Congress lacks standing to file a subpoena-enforcement action in federal court against an Executive Branch official; to the contrary, every court to have taken up the question has determined that the is standing in such a case.”). Moreover, she argues, contrary to Judge Griffith, that rejecting the committee’s standing will reduce rather than increase the chances that the political branches will be able to work out information disputes through negotiation and accommodation. Id. at 24-25 (“Future Presidents may direct widescale noncompliance with lawful Congressional inquiries, secure in the knowledge that Congress can do little to enforce a subpoena short of directing a Sergeant at Arms to physically arrest an Executive Branch officer.”). Continue reading “You Can Take this to the (En) Banc”

Can McGahn be Prosecuted for Contempt of Congress?

In a fractured decision, a D.C. Circuit panel has held that the House lacks standing to civilly enforce a testimonial subpoena to former White House counsel Don McGahn. The lead opinion by Judge Griffith concludes, with some caveats, that “Article III of the Constitution forbids federal courts from resolving this kind of inter branch information dispute.” Griffith op. at 2. The problem, he explains, is not that the underlying legal issue (whether McGahn is absolutely immune from congressional subpoenas) is nonjusticiable; a court could resolve that issue in a proper proceeding, such as a prosecution for contempt of Congress or a habeas proceeding arising out of Congress’s exercise of the inherent contempt power. Id. at 22. This type of proceeding, however, does not present a case or controversy that may be adjudicated by a federal court. Id. at 8-9.

Judge Griffith denies that this holding would render Congress “powerless” in its disputes with the executive branch because Congress retains “a series of political tools to bring the Executive Branch to heel.” Griffith op. at 13. He explains that “Congress (or one of its chambers) may hold officers in contempt, withhold appropriations, refuse to confirm the President’s nominees, harness public opinion, delay or derail the President’s legislative agenda, or impeach recalcitrant officers.” Id.

The conflation of purely political remedies, such as withholding appropriations or harnessing public opinion, with those founded on legal right is some confounding. True, Congress is often able to use such political leverage to obtain information needed to conduct routine oversight of executive agencies. But such tools are hardly adequate when the president is personally motivated to withhold information from Congress. One might as well argue that members of Congress suspected of criminal wrongdoing can be persuaded to turn over potentially incriminating evidence by the president’s threat to veto their pet projects.

Impeachment is also an inadequate remedy, particularly where the president is withholding evidence of impeachable offenses. Threats of impeaching the president for withholding information are unlikely to convince him to turn over incriminating evidence he believes will lead to his impeachment anyway. Moreover, as recent experience demonstrates, the Senate is unlikely to convict the president for withholding evidence, at least as long as his lawyers can advance any legal theory, no matter how tenuous, to support his action.

As Judge Griffith notes, Congress may hold executive officers in contempt if they fail to comply with subpoenas. This, however, constitutes a remedy only if some consequences flow (or at least potentially flow) from the finding of contempt. Otherwise Congress might as well send a strongly worded letter. Continue reading “Can McGahn be Prosecuted for Contempt of Congress?”