The Department of Justice, at the invitation of presiding judge Carl Nichols, has filed a statement of its views regarding whether former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows is entitled to assert testimonial immunity in response to a subpoena from the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Because the DOJ brief ultimately concludes that Meadows must provide testimony in this instance, its reasoning may escape serious scrutiny in most quarters. But not on this blog.
So let us count the ways DOJ is full of crap.
- DOJ’s fundamental position on testimonial immunity has not changed, and it is still supported by nothing more than ipse dixit. DOJ reiterates “the Executive Branch’s longstanding position” that “a sitting President’s immediate advisers—current and former—cannot be compelled to testify before Congress about their official duties.” DOJ Br. at 7. As it routinely does, DOJ stresses that its position has been consistent over many years and through administrations of both parties, thus proving self-interestedness is a bipartisan phenomenon and little else.
To support this (longstanding- did I mention that?) position, DOJ offers a cursory regurgitation of arguments/assertions it has made many times before: (1) immunity is needed to protect the president’s independence and autonomy; (2) the president’s advisers should not have to appear because their testimony would largely be protected by executive privilege anyway; and (3) without immunity the president’s advisers would be subject to congressional harassment and distraction from their important duties. DOJ Br. at 5-7.
To be sure, DOJ acknowledges that “some judges” have disagreed with its view, citing in a footnote four opinions, two by judges of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and two by judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. See DOJ Br. at 7 & n. 4. Left unmentioned is the fact that exactly zero judges have agreed with DOJ’s position or even expressed the slightest interest in adopting it.
More importantly, DOJ makes no effort whatsoever to respond to the judicial criticisms of its position, which were first voiced by Judge Bates in 2008 litigation involving Harriet Miers. See Comm. on the Judiciary v. Miers, 558 F.Supp.2d 53, 100-06 (D.D.C. 2008). Instead, it simply says that it will adhere to its position unless the D.C. Circuit and/or the Supreme Court definitively reject it. DOJ Br. at 7.
This stance is particularly remarkable because another judge called out DOJ for precisely the same obstinacy in 2019:
DOJ . . . assert[s] that Miers was wrongly decided . . . [and] has emphasized that Miers’s sphere of influence is exceedingly limited. The thrust of the latter contention is that Miers is only one opinion . . . and implicitly, that the law is not established by the word of a single district court judge. On the other hand, says DOJ, scores of OLC attorneys have considered this issue over the past five decades, and in a series of opinions, OLC has carefully concluded that senior-level presidential aides do enjoy absolute testimonial immunity. . . . DOJ suggests that, in the absence of a groundswell of judges rejecting the concept, this Court should not readily find that the law is what Miers concluded.
Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn, 415 F.Supp.3d 148, 203 (D.D.C. 2019). Instead of confronting the analysis in Miers directly or giving the court “any principled reason to interpret the law in a different fashion than Judge Bates did,” the judge noted, DOJ simply dismissed his ruling “before proceeding to draw solely from OLC opinions to support the argument that senior-level presidential aides have absolute testimonial immunity.” Id.
The judge in question, of course, was none other than Ketanji Brown Jackson, who recently became the first (and so far only) Supreme Court appointment of the current occupant of the White House. Given that the McGahn opinion was Jackson’s most important and well-known opinion prior to her Supreme Court nomination, one might have expected DOJ to at least acknowledge her harsh criticism of its testimonial immunity theory. One would be wrong.
Judge Jackson went far beyond merely disagreeing with DOJ on the issue of testimonial immunity. She agreed with Judge Bates that DOJ’s legal position “is all but foreclosed by the binding case law Miers cites,” and she dissected at length “the logical flaws in DOJ’s legal analysis.” McGahn, 415 F.Supp.3d at 202. The judge found that “absolute testimonial immunity for senior-level White House aides seems to be a fiction that has been fastidiously maintained over the course of time through the force of sheer repetition in OLC opinions, and through accommodations that have permitted its proponents to avoid having the proposition tested in the crucible of litigation.” Id. at 214. DOJ’s contention “simply has no basis in law,” its argument “truly makes no sense,” and its position is ultimately based on nothing more than “ipse dixit.” Id. at 206-07, 212 & 214.
In short, Jackson makes clear that she does not view this as a close legal question about which reasonable minds can disagree. Either her McGahn opinion was overwrought and hyperbolic, or DOJ’s testimonial immunity theory is utterly without merit. There is no middle ground.
Maybe someone should ask President Biden which it is. Continue reading “Who Loves Testimonial Immunity? Just Us.”