More Standing Confusion in Mazars/Deutsche Bank

Since my last post on standing in Mazars/Deustche Bank, the Supreme Court ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs on the question whether the political question doctrine or “related justiciability principles” bear on the Court’s consideration of these cases. These letter briefs have now been filed and, not surprisingly, none of the parties have changed their position that the case is justiciable and the Court should decide it on the merits.

It is important to note that the Court’s order was specifically focused on political question-type issues, which presumably means the Court wants to know whether there is a problem in deciding what is in substance, if not form, a dispute between the legislative and executive branches. In my interpretation, the Court was asking the Solicitor General in particular how to explain the Justice Department’s position that Article III does not permit the Court to adjudicate subpoena disputes between the branches, yet somehow allows the Court to decide exactly the same type of separation of powers issue raised by President Trump’s attack on the congressional subpoenas to third parties here.

That is a good question and the Solicitor General’s answer, IMHO, amounted to gobbledygook. Hopefully this question will be pursued in oral argument and we may discuss it further in due course. For today, however, I want to focus on the logically antecedent question of what gives Trump standing to complain about the congressional subpoenas in the first place. Although this was not the focus of the Court’s order, Trump’s lawyers spent the first page and a half of their letter brief attempting to explain why such standing exists. Their argument, however, did nothing to assuage my skepticism.

They begin by asserting that the disclosure of Trump’s “private records” or “private papers” is a “tangible” and “concrete” injury. The nature of the injury is not further explained. Is it based upon the premise that Trump owns the records or information in question? As discussed in my prior post, it is not apparent that the records in question necessarily belong to Trump personally. Indeed, the letter brief refers to “Petitioners’ private records,” but “petitioners” include corporate entities which are legally distinct from Trump. Similarly, to the extent that standing is premised on an alleged legal right to prohibit the third party accountant and banks from disclosing the information in question, such right may belong to various business entities, only some of which are even parties to the lawsuit.

The brief cites no authority for the proposition that an individual generally has standing to object to a subpoena for his private papers or financial information in the hands of a third party. It does cite Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), which holds that Congress’s effort to curb the dissemination of false personal information in the Fair Credit Reporting Act does not establish that such dissemination results in a concrete harm to an individual whose information was so disclosed. How this case supports Trump’s standing is left to the imagination.

The brief also quotes United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 696 (1974), for the proposition that “‘resistance to [a] subpoena present[s] an obvious controversy in the ordinary sense.'” Hopefully, however, an enterprising Supreme Court clerk will look up the full quote, which goes like this:

The demands of and the resistance to the subpoena present an obvious controversy in the ordinary sense, but that alone is not sufficient to meet constitutional standards. In the constitutional sense, controversy means more than disagreement and conflict; rather it means the kind of controversy courts traditionally resolve. Here [the matter is justiciable because] at issue is the production or nonproduction of specified evidence deemed by the Special Prosecutor to be relevant and admissible in a pending criminal case. It is sought by one official of the Executive Branch within the scope of his express authority; it is resisted by the Chief Executive on the ground of his duty to preserve the confidentiality of the communications of the President.

Id. at 696-97. In Trump’s case, of course, he is not “resisting” a subpoena at all; instead, he is attempting to enlist the assistance of the courts to prohibit third parties from complying with subpoenas. Moreover, he is not claiming that those subpoenas violate either an official privilege (as President Nixon did) or a personal privilege. Instead, he argues that the subpoenas exceed the authority of the committees that issued them because those committees lack a legitimate legislative need for the information sought. True, he bases this argument in part on the idea that Congress lacks the power to enact certain legislation relating to the presidency, but he does not claim that the production of the information itself violates some legal right or privilege belonging to him.

To see the difference, consider the congressional hearing at which Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified about various legal and ethical improprieties in the conduct of Trump’s personal and financial affairs. Trump undoubtedly would have had standing to sue Cohen to prevent him from testifying as to information protected by the attorney-client privilege (why he chose not to do so is something of a mystery). But I don’t see why he would have standing to object to Cohen’s testimony on the ground that the committee’s investigation lacked a legislative purpose, any more than he could complain that the subject of the investigation fell within the jurisdiction of a different committee under the House rules. These are objections that Cohen himself could have raised, but third parties would not, at least ordinarily, be permitted to do so.

Finally, Trump’s brief cites Eastland v. U.S. Servicemen’s Fund, 421 U.S. 491 (1975), which suggests that a third party may be able challenge a congressional subpoena for lack of a legitimate legislative purpose. As we have discussed before, however, the language in Eastland was dicta in the context of a claim that the subpoena violated the third party’s constitutional rights. As explained by another case cited in Trump’s brief, “[t]he plaintiffs have standing to challenge the legality of [congressional] subpoenas on the ground that the forced disclosure of the materials requested would allegedly violate their federal constitutional rights . . .” Bergman v. Senate Special Comm. on Aging, 389 F. Supp. 1127, 1130 (S.D.N.Y. 1975).

There are undoubtedly many cases in which an individual would be injured by a subpoena to a third party seeking private or personal information about that individual. The fact that Trump cannot identify any authority for applying the Eastland dicta outside the context of a claimed violation of constitutional right or privilege is reason to be skeptical that it applies to mere attacks on the validity of a subpoena to a third party.