Will the D.C. Circuit’s “Unusual Moves” Allow it to Evade Supreme Court Review in the McGahn and Mnuchin Cases?

On Friday the D.C. Circuit, sitting en banc, held that the House Judiciary committee has standing to enforce its testimonial subpoena to former White House counsel Don McGahn. See Comm. on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, v. McGahn, No. 19-5331 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 7, 2020) (en banc). In so doing, the court rejected both the administration’s broad argument that Congress lacks Article III standing to sue anybody for anything and its narrower position that Congress lacks standing to bring an interbranch dispute to court. This is an important decision that, if it stands, will form the legal backdrop of executive-legislative disputes for years to come.

The court’s reasoning and that of the dissenters is not my focus today. (Professor Adler has a good summary of the various opinions here). Rather I want to focus on what happens next in these cases, and whether the majority has successfully insulated its decision from Supreme Court review.

The vote in McGahn was 7-2. The two dissenters were Judges Henderson and Griffith, who were the majority on the original panel to hear the McGahn case. They were also the only Republican appointees to participate in the en banc court because the two other Republicans on the court (Judges Katsas and Rao) were recused.

Although the McGahn en banc decision resolved the standing issue, it did not deal with other issues that had been raised on appeal. Instead, the full court ordered that the remaining appellate issues be “remanded to the panel to address in the first instance.” the issues remanded are (1) whether there is subject matter jurisdiction with respect to this lawsuit; (2) whether there is a cause of action for failure to comply with a congressional subpoena; and (3) assuming the Judiciary committee prevails on the first two issues, the merits of McGahn’s “absolute immunity” defense.

In addition to rejecting the majority’s standing analysis, Judge Griffith (but not Judge Henderson) protested the majority’s failure to decide all the issues in the case, noting that “the full court hurdles over Article III barriers only to decline to resolve the case.” In Griffith’s view, the court should have addressed the remaining issues and concluded, as he does, that there is no subject matter jurisdiction and no cause of action for the committee’s grievance against McGahn.

The original McGahn panel consisted of Judges Rogers, Henderson and Griffith. I assume the case will be remanded to the same panel. Judge Griffith, however, is retiring effective September 1 and therefore (I assume) will have to be replaced. Presumably this is why Griffith felt compelled/able to give his views on the issues the panel will now have to consider.

Separately, the en banc court remanded to a different panel the case of U.S. House of Representatives v. Mnuchin, No. 19-5176, in which the House is suing the Trump administration for violating the Appropriations Clause by constructing a border wall without congressional authorization. Although the en banc court initially agreed to consider the standing issue in Mnuchin (even before the original three-judge panel had ruled on it), it has now decided to send that issue back to the panel to consider the House’s standing under the principles set forth in its McGahn decision.

Judges Henderson and Griffith also dissented from the decision to remand Mnuchin, arguing that it makes no sense to have sua sponte agreed to hear the Mnuchin case en banc, requested and received supplemental briefing and argument, and then simply punted the issue back to the three-judge panel.  As Judge Henderson puts it, “[t]he majority points to no case– nor am I aware of any– in which we sua sponte consolidated two appeals for en banc rehearing and then addressed only one of them in the resulting opinion.” Mnuchin, slip op. at 2 (Henderson, J., dissenting).

Judge Griffith had some even more pointed remarks for his soon to be former colleagues. He accuses the full court of repeatedly departing from regular order by first determining that the standing question in Mnuchin was not only of such “exceptional importance” to justify rehearing en banc, but making this determination sua sponte before the three-judge panel had even issued an opinion, and then “sending the case back to the panel without answering the ‘question of exceptional importance’ that triggered rehearing in the first place.” Mnuchin, slip op. at 3 (Griffith, J., dissenting). He then asks: “What accounts for this extraordinary departure? The court offers no explanation for this unusual move, and I can think of none.” Id.

Well, I can think of an explanation (and I suspect Griffith can too). By failing to issue a final decision in either McGahn or Mnuchin, the D.C. Circuit has made it much less likely that the Supreme Court will have an opportunity to grant certiorari prior to the election. And if these cases drag on past the election, there is a good chance the Court will never hear them at all.

Let’s begin with McGahn. As everyone concedes, it is highly unlikely now that McGahn will be testifying in this congress (and certainly not before the election). Thus, there will be little urgency for the reconstituted panel to issue a final decision (and consider how slowly things moved when there was urgency). Possibly a final decision might issue before the election, but the longer it takes, the less reason the Supreme Court will have to grant review. In the first place, the expiration of the congress terminates the subpoena and therefore arguably moots the case. Furthermore, if the election changes the occupant of the White House, it is entirely possible the incoming Justice Department will not be interested in pursuing Supreme Court review.

Now consider Mnuchin. As in the case of McGahn, if the full D.C. Circuit had found in favor of the House now, the Justice Department would have undoubtedly sought Supreme Court review on an expedited basis. Even if the court found against the House (which frankly I think is more likely), the House might have felt politically that it needed to seek further review. However, if the Democrats win the White House, the House will probably lose interest in the case regardless of which way the panel decision goes, and the case will go away without Supreme Court review. Only if the House wins the panel decision and Trump retains the White House does it seem likely that the parties would pursue further review.

Note, however, that if there is a new administration, its interests will not necessarily align with those of the House. While it may not wish to take a case on congressional standing to the Supreme Court, it probably would prefer not to have the D.C. Circuit’s standing decision in McGahn as the controlling law either. Just as the Obama administration reportedly tried (unsuccessfully) to get the House to agree to dismissal of the Miers case on grounds of mootness, the issue in an incoming Biden administration may not be Supreme Court review, but whether the D.C. Circuit’s en banc decision in McGahn is rendered moot by the expiration of the congress or otherwise.

In short, the big issue in McGahn and Mnuchin is no longer whether the House will get the relief it initially sought, but whether the D. C. Circuit’s standing decision will be preserved as the law of the circuit. Interested parties should plan accordingly.

 

 

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