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?”