Justice Thomas’s Dissent in Trump v. Mazars

Today I will discuss Justice Thomas’s dissent in Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP. Specifically, I will consider how Thomas uses historical practice and precedent to support his claim that “[a]t the time of the founding, the power to subpoena private, nonofficial documents was not included by necessary implication in any of Congress’s legislative powers.” Mazars, slip op. at 3 (Thomas, J., dissenting) (hereinafter “Dissent”).

The starting point for Justice Thomas is that the House has no express power to issue legislative subpoenas and thus it may only be found to have such power if it can “be necessarily implied from an enumerated power.” Dissent at 3. This in itself is fairly noncontroversial, leaving aside the longstanding debate whether “necessary” means absolutely necessary, merely convenient, or somewhere in between. See Randy E. Barnett, The Original Meaning of the Necessary and Proper Clause, 6 U. Pa. J. Const. L. 183, 188-208 (2003).

The challenges for Justice Thomas’s position are two-fold. First, as he acknowledges, the Supreme Court long ago decided this issue against him when it declared the “power of inquiry—with process to enforce it—is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function.” McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135, 174 (1927). Although Thomas points out that McGraindid not involve document subpoenas, he does not contest that its language and reasoning are broad enough to cover such subpoenas, and he acknowledges that subsequent cases have applied it to uphold legislative subpoenas for private documents. Dissent at 14. Nonetheless, he contends that McGrain and its progeny should be disregarded because “this line of cases misunderstands both the original meaning of Article I and the historical practice underlying it.” Id.

This brings us to the second challenge. Even if we assume away the McGrain line of cases, Congress has been issuing legislative subpoenas for private documents for nearly two centuries, even by Thomas’s own reckoning. So in what sense might historical practice demonstrate that the original meaning of Article I does not encompass a congressional power to issue such subpoenas? According to the dissent, the key precedent occurred in 1827, when the Committee on Manufactures (COM) sought the power to subpoena documents and the House rejected the request as “unprecedented.” Dissent at 8. But even if this were true (and we will see that it is not), this would establish only that the issue was unsettled at that point in time. If a majority of the House had determined in 1827 that it lacked the constitutional authority to issue subpoenas for private documents, this would tell us little or nothing about the intent of the founders on this issue. Nor could it have constituted a “constitutional liquidation”  of the issue because, as Thomas acknowledges, the House reversed its (alleged) decision within the next ten years and has followed the practice of issuing such subpoenas ever since. See Dissent at 9-11; see generally William Baude, Constitutional Liquidation, 71 Stan. L. Rev. 1 (2019).

Perhaps one could make the argument that the absence of any history of issuing legislative document subpoenas prior to 1827 demonstrates that this power was not truly “necessary” in the sense required to make it incidental to the legislative power. If this is Thomas’s argument, however, he does not make it explicitly. To the contrary, he criticizes the McGrain Court for adopting “a test that rested heavily on functional considerations.” Dissent at 16. Although he offers his view that “the failure to respond to a subpoena does not pose a fundamental threat to Congress’ ability to exercise its powers,” this “functional” assertion appears in a footnote and is not central to the dissent’s analysis. See Dissent at 17 n.6.

The “key moves” in the dissent’s argument serve to define the universe of relevant practice and precedent so narrowly that none exists prior to the Committee on Manufactures’ request in 1827. First, Thomas insists that only precedent involving the production of private papers, rather than official papers or witness testimony, is relevant. See Dissent at 6. Second, he assumes that the actual exercise of the subpoena or compulsory power, as opposed to the mere authorization of such power by the legislative body, is required to establish a persuasive precedent. Third, he discounts precedents from Parliament and (to a lesser degree) the colonial and early state legislatures on the ground that these bodies are not “exact precursor[s]” to Congress, which has more limited powers. See Dissent at 3-7. Finally, he contends that precedents established in the exercise of nonlegislative functions (such as impeachment, discipline of members, and other quasi-judicial functions) are unpersuasive to establish the existence of a like legislative power. Dissent at 6-7.

This approach allows the dissent to ignore the fact that the practice of investing legislative committees with the power to send for “persons and papers” dates back to the early 17thcentury. Telford Taylor, Grand Inquest: The Story of Congressional Investigations 7 (1955). It was commonly used by Parliament, the colonial assemblies, and the early state legislatures to empower committees to conduct a wide variety of investigations, including those related to election contests, breaches of privilege, government misconduct or maladministration, and proposed legislation. See Taylor, Grand Inquest at 7-12; Ernest Eberling, Congressional Investigations: A Study of the Origin and Development of the Power of Congress to Investigate and Punish for Contempt 14-30 (1928); James M. Landis, Constitutional Limitations on the Power of Investigation, 40 Harv. L. Rev. 153, 161-68 (1926); C.S. Potts, Power of Legislative Bodies to Punish for Contempt, 74 U. Pa. L. Rev. 691, 708-15 (1926). While this power was usually provided in connection with a specific investigation, in 1781 the Virginia House of Delegates provided four standing committees (on religion, privileges and elections, courts of justice, and trade) with general power to “send for persons, papers, and records for their information.” Potts, 74 U. Pa. L. Rev. at 716.

The dissent apparently would view this ample historical precedent to be of little weight in the absence of evidence that any of these committees actually subpoenaed private papers or that any witness was punished for withholding them. But given the large number of these investigations and the wide variety of subjects they covered, it is not credible to suggest the term “papers” was understood to be limited to “official papers.” The dissent cites no evidence to suggest that anyone at the time understood these authorizations to be so limited, nor do any of the scholars who have studied these investigations advance such an interpretation.

The dissent’s narrow reading of precedent extends to early congressional practice. Take, for example, the House’s 1792 investigation into General St. Clair’s failed military expedition, which the McGrain Court viewed as significant evidence that the founders understood the power to compel the production of information as an inherent attribute of the legislative power. See McGrain, 273 U.S. at 161, 174. The House empowered the investigating committee “to call for such persons, papers and records as may be necessary to assist their inquiries.” As the McGrain Court understood (and Justice Thomas does not dispute), this language authorized the committee to demand the production of evidence with the implicit backing of the House’s compulsory powers.

According to the dissent, the St. Clair committee “never subpoenaed private, nonofficial documents, which is telling.” Dissent at 7. However, there is nothing in the language of the House’s resolution or in the contemporaneous congressional debates to suggest that the committee’s compulsory authority did not extent to private persons or papers. To the contrary, a significant part of the committee’s investigation involved evaluating the performance of private contractors and the quality of goods they supplied to General St. Clair’s army. See, e.g., I Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. & Roger Bruns, eds., Congress Investigates: A Documented History 1792-1974 39 (1983) (committee report of May 8, 1792 noting complaints “as to tents, knapsacks, camp kettles, cartridge boxes, packsaddles, &c. all of which were deficient in quantity and bad in quality”). If the committee were precluded from obtaining information from the contractors or compelling the production of their records, this seems like a significant limitation that would have attracted attention, particularly since the House debated at length whether the inquiry should be conducted by a congressional committee or a military tribunal. See id. at 9-10.

While it may be true that the St. Clair committee never subpoenaed “private, nonofficial documents” (a conclusion that cannot be reached with confidence given that many of the relevant records were not preserved, see id. at 17, 101), there is nothing “telling” about this fact. There is no indication that the committee lacked access to private documents it believed relevant; to the contrary, it reviewed St. Clair’s personal papers as well as information from the private contractors. See id. at 10, 95. There is simply nothing to suggest that the committee doubted its authority to subpoena private papers if necessary.

The overall effect of Justice Thomas’s approach is to narrow the scope of relevant precedent to a very small subset. In order to qualify, a precedent must involve an actual subpoena or document demand (not merely an authorization) by Congress (not by Parliament or a colonial/state legislature) for clearly private papers (not official or arguably official records) in connection with a legislative investigation (not the exercise of a judicial power such as impeachment or discipline of members). Using these restrictive criteria, Thomas contends that when in 1827 COM sought the power to subpoena documents in connection with a proposed bill to raise tariffs, its request was “unprecedented.” Dissent at 8.

Even so, Justice Thomas is wrong. About a year before the committee’s request, another House committee investigating John Calhoun’s prior administration of the War Department subpoenaed documents from an unsuccessful bidder on a government contract. See 3 Reg. of Debates in Cong. 1124 (Feb. 13, 1827). Moreover, the House’s 1810 investigation of General James Wilkinson also obtained testimony and documents from a number of private individuals, at least some of which was obtained from a number of private individuals, at least some of which was obtained by compulsory process. I Schlesinger & Bruns, Congress Investigates at 119 & 170. Thus, even by Thomas’s own standards, COM’s request was not “unprecedented.”

That being said, in my next post we will take a closer look at the 1827 debate precipitated by COM’s request for compulsory powers.