Some Legal Questions About the Second Trump Impeachment Trial

The second impeachment of Donald Trump raises some significant legal issues, which I sketch out below. All I can say is that we could have avoided a lot of trouble if anyone ever listened to me.

Can the Senate Try a Former President? This is, of course, the most fundamental question. While Trump was president when the House impeached him (and still is for a few more hours), his term will have ended by the time the Senate trial begins. Trump and his supporters (as well as some legal scholars) argue that this precludes further proceedings because impeachment applies only to “[t]he President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States,” and Trump will no longer be any of these on January 20. Other legal scholars, such as Professors Keith Whittington and Steve Vladeck,  argue that the constitutional text does not expressly limit impeachment to current officeholders and the constitutional purpose, structure, history and precedent support “late impeachments,” that is, impeachments and/or trials of former officeholders for high crimes and misdemeanors relating to their time in office.

In the heat of the current moment it may be difficult to reach an objective answer to this question, which has long been debated in Congress and the legal academy. So it is helpful to review the past scholarship on this issue, which was written at a time when there were no immediate political stakes involved. CRS has a good summary of the arguments on both sides and notes that “[a]lthough the text is open to debate, it appears that most scholars who have closely examined the question have concluded that Congress has authority to extend the impeachment process to officials who are no longer in office.” Similarly, Professor Gerhardt has noted a “surprising consensus” among legal experts “that resignation does not necessarily preclude impeachment and disqualification.” Michael J. Gerhardt, The Federal Impeachment Process: A Constitutional and Historical Analysis 79 (1996). Professor Kalt’s 2001 article, likely the most comprehensive treatment of this subject, finds that while “late impeachability is a close and unsettled question,” the better view is that “Congress can pursue late impeachments, based on analysis of the text, structure, historical underpinnings, and precedents of the Constitution’s impeachment provisions.” Brian C. Kalt, The Constitutional Case for the Impeachability of Former Federal Officials: An Analysis of the Law, History, and Practice of Late Impeachment, at 3 (Oct. 24, 2001). And for what it’s worth I tend to agree. See Could Congress Impeach Judge Bybee?Point of Order (Apr. 20, 2009) (“Although it is seldom worth Congress’s while to conduct an impeachment trial for a former official, this is a matter of prudence, not constitutional power.”).

It should be noted here that the facts of the current situation seem like they were dreamed up as a hypothetical to support late impeachments. Trump did not commit (or at least complete) the alleged impeachable offense until January 6, when there were barely two weeks remaining in his term. It would have been virtually impossible to impeach and convict within this time frame. Even if the trial had commenced while Trump was still president, it would be extremely difficult to complete before noon on January 20. Attempting to compress the trial within the available time would mean short changing the House managers and/or the defense in terms of presenting their cases, and would give the defense an incentive to delay as much as possible in order to run out the clock. It seems borderline absurd to read the Constitution as imposing such artificial limitations on a trial of the gravity and consequence described by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 65, which can subject the offender “to a perpetual ostracism from the esteem and confidence, and honours and emoluments of his country.”

Furthermore, if there were ever presidential conduct which warranted the imposition of the constitutional penalty of disqualification from future office, it is that with which Trump is charged. Professor Chafetz has argued that the paradigmatic case of impeachable conduct is an effort to illegally use presidential power to entrench oneself in office. See Josh Chafetz, Impeachment and Assassination, 95 Minn. L. Rev. 347, 422 (2010). Trump’s (alleged) effort to overturn the election results by falsely claiming fraud, pressuring state election officials to change the results, and inciting a violent mob to disrupt the electoral vote count in Congress goes far beyond anything any president has been accused of in this regard. Yet under the anti-late impeachment theory, there would be no way of disqualifying a president who engaged in such behavior as a last-ditch effort to hold on to power. Trump would be free to seek the presidency in the future and use exactly the same tactics again. To interpret the Constitution to require this result makes very little sense.

Who Presides at the Impeachment Trial of a Former President?  The Constitution provides that “[w]hen the President is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside.” Does this requirement apply to the trial of a former president?

Professor Baude has a good analysis of this issue here. He points out that the last time there was an impeachment trial of a former official (ex-Secretary of War William Belknap in 1876) two arguments were made in favor of late impeachments. One is what we just discussed, namely that impeachable officials remain subject to impeachment and disqualification even after they leave office so long as the offense “relates back” to the office they held. The other is that anyone could be impeached, and that the Constitution’s reference to impeachable officials is only for the purpose of prescribing a particular punishment (removal) that must be imposed in such cases.

If the latter were correct, then presumably Trump could be impeached in his capacity as a private citizen and there would be no need for the chief justice to preside. However, the “relating back” theory is a far stronger argument and the basis of all of the scholarship discussed above. This does not necessarily mean that the chief justice must preside, but it tends to support that conclusion. The issue is murky, but in my view the appropriate course would be to ask the chief justice to preside.

From the standpoint of the House managers, this raises something of a tactical dilemma. If the chief justice does not preside, it creates the risk that Trump could later attack the verdict as improper or use the chief justice’s absence as evidence that the “relating back” theory is wrong. On the other hand, if the chief justice is asked to preside, there is some risk that he would decline (see below), which would undermine the House’s position. It might therefore be in the interest of the House managers not to request that the chief justice preside but also not object if the defense makes this request. That way if Trump does not object to a different presiding officer (whether it be the vice president or the president pro team), it will be difficult for him to attack the process at a later date.

Who Decides Who Presides? If the Senate decides, either on its own or at the request of one of the parties, to request the chief justice’s presence, is the chief justice obligated to preside? It seems to me that the answer is no. If the Constitution does not (in his view) require him to preside at the trial of a former president, it seems to me that Chief Justice Roberts would be within his rights to decline. He might believe that it is improper or unconstitutional for the chief justice to preside over an impeachment trial except in the specific instance (the trial of a sitting president) specified by the Constitution.

It is certainly possible that Roberts would not raise this issue sua sponte, but would only address it if one of the parties objected. It is also possible that he would defer to the Senate’s judgment on the matter even if one of the parties did object. It is not obvious to me, however, why the Senate’s judgment should control on an issue of what the chief justice’s responsibilities are.

It is unlikely, but not impossible, that Roberts could address the issue of whether a former official can be tried at all. In other words, he could decline to preside on the ground that a former official is not subject to impeachment, and therefore there is no trial at which he could constitutionally preside. It seems far more likely, however, that he would assume, without deciding, that a former official could be tried.

(In theory, Roberts could also decide to preside and then rule on a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. Based on how deferential to the Senate he was while presiding over Trump’s first impeachment trial, however, this seems even less likely.)

Can Trump Challenge the Trial in Court? It is extremely unlikely that Trump could convince any court to interfere with the Senate’s conduct of the trial while it is ongoing. Among other reasons, any attempt to sue or enjoin the Senate would be barred by the Speech or Debate Clause.

A different situation would be presented once Trump was convicted by the Senate. If Trump loses benefits (e.g., his pension), he could sue the United States or whatever official(s) are responsible for providing these benefits to former presidents. This was how former United States District Judge Walter Nixon challenged his impeachment (hat tip: Ira Goldman). Such a suit would not be barred by the Speech or Debate Clause.

Professor Vladeck argues, however, that judicial review of the Senate’s verdict would be precluded by the Supreme Court’s decision in Judge Nixon’s lawsuit, in which it held that his challenge to the procedures followed by the Senate in his impeachment trial constituted a nonjusticiable political question. Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion in that case emphasizes that the judiciary was intended to have no role in impeachments. See Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993).

It is not at all clear, however, that the Nixon case governs the question whether former officeholders may be impeached or convicted. That is a straightforward legal question of the kind found to be justiciable in Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486 (1969), which held that the question of what “qualifications” were subject to the House’s power to judge the qualifications of its members was justiciable. Unlike the question of what constitutes a proper impeachment trial, which involves discretionary judgments lacking judicially discoverable and manageable standards, the issue of late impeachability presents a yes or no question susceptible of judicial resolution.

Would Trump’s Disqualification be Judicially Reviewable? Assuming that for some reason Trump did not or could not challenge the Senate’s verdict based on loss of pension or benefits, he could also seek to challenge his disqualification (assuming the Senate imposes disqualification) in court. Presumably such an issue would not be ripe for judicial review unless and until Trump sought to attain an office from which the disqualification purported to bar him.

Most likely, this would arise in the context of a 2024 presidential bid. If, for example, state officials refused to put Trump’s name on the ballot, either for the primary or general election, he could sue to obtain ballot access, arguing that his disqualification was invalid because the Senate lacked jurisdiction over him as a former president. This would present the same justiciability issue discussed above and, for the reasons indicated, I think the courts probably would review Trump’s claim on the merits.

In addition, Trump could argue that the Senate’s judgment of disqualification, even if valid, does not prevent him from holding the office of president because that office is not an “Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States” within the meaning of the Disqualification Clause. This, of course, is the Tillman/Blackman theory we have discussed many times (see, e.g., my last post) and it seems to me that proposition would be clearly justiciable since it merely involves interpreting the meaning of the constitutional disqualification that the Senate imposed.

It is, however, still very, very wrong.




Does Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment Apply to the Presidency?

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that Professors Tillman and Blackman have written a controversial piece about the current troubles in which, among other things, they reiterate their view that the Constitution’s Disqualification Clause does not bar an impeached, removed and disqualified official from the presidency because that office does not constitute an “Office of honor, Trust or Profit” within the meaning of Article I, § 3, cl. 7. See Blackman & Tillman, Can President Trump be Impeached and Removed on Grounds of Incitement (Jan. 8, 2021) (“The Senate has no power to disqualify a defendant from holding elected federal positions, such as the presidency.”) (emphasis in original).

I will not bore you by restating the reasons why I think this view is very, very wrong. You can read them ad nauseam by following the links in my most recent post on the subject.

The same issue arises, however, in regard to another constitutional provision which, as far as I recall, I have not addressed before. Specifically, section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment (an obscure provision which is enjoying its moment in the sun) provides:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial office of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

(emphasis added).

I should state at the outset that I am extremely skeptical that President Trump’s behavior, as atrocious and impeachable as it may be, constitutes “insurrection or rebellion” or other conduct covered by this provision. Assuming for the sake of argument that it is, however, the italicized language raises two questions. First, is the president “an officer of the United States” subject to the bar of section 3 if he engages in the proscribed conduct? Second, is the presidency an “office, civil or military, under the United States” which a covered officer is barred from holding?

I assume that Tillman and Blackman would say no to both questions, although I am not entirely sure. Their argument is that the meaning of “officer of the United States” and office “under the United States” as used in the original Constitution applies only to appointed, not elected, offices and therefore excludes the presidency (and vice presidency). Whether they would say that this meaning was understood by anyone as of the time the Fourteenth Amendment was drafted is less clear. As I have pointed out, the view they ascribe (based on highly ambiguous historical practice) to a few members of the founding generation seems to have vanished without a trace by 1834 at the very latest.

It is interesting nonetheless that the only example I have found anyone actually expressing the Tillman/Blackman view (prior to Professor Tillman himself) comes in the debate over section 3 in the Senate on June 13, 1866. During the debate over the draft constitutional language, the following colloquy occurred:

Mr. Johnson. But this amendment does not go far enough. I suppose the framers of the amendment thought it was necessary to provide for such an exigency. I do not see but that any one of these gentlemen may be elected President or Vice President of the United States, and why did you omit to exclude them? I do not understand them to be excluded from the privilege of holding the two highest offices in the gift of the nation. No man is to be a Senator or Representative or an elector for President or Vice President–

39 Cong. Globe 2899 (1866) (emphasis added).

Here we have a U.S. senator suggesting that the disability imposed by section 3 would not exclude anyone from the “privilege of holding the two highest offices” in the land, even though it on its face applies to “any office, civil or military, under the United States.” Admittedly, its just one man’s opinion, but to my knowledge it is closer than anyone else (pre-Tillman) has ever come to expressly endorsing the Tillman/Blackman view of “office under the United States.”

Naturally a fierce debate ensued:

Mr. Morrill. Let me call the Senator’s attention to the words “or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States.”

Mr. Johnson. Perhaps I am wrong as to the exclusion from the Presidency; no doubt I am; but I was misled by noticing the specific exclusion in the case of Senators and Representatives.

39 Cong. Globe 2899 (1866).

Ok, “oops, I was wrong” might not qualify as a fierce debate, but it is as much of a debate as you will find anywhere on this issue between 1787 and 2008 or so. No doubt if the 39th Congress had any doubt that the language flagged by Senator Johnson was ambiguous, it would have been clarified. After all, there is no chance that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment intended to prevent former rebels from serving as presidential electors but not as the president. Of course, the same can be said of the framers of the Constitution. Clearly it could not have been intended that a president be impeached, removed from office, and disqualified from serving in any federal office other than the presidency. Similarly, it could not have been intended that presidents be able to receive foreign emoluments or titles of nobility.

The question of whether the president or vice-president is an “officer of the United States” within the meaning of section 3 is somewhat closer. As was pointed out during the same Senate debate, section 3’s language regarding the individuals whose violation of oath triggers the disability tracks the Constitution’s Oath Clause in Article VI, which requires that “all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution.”

There is a plausible structural argument that the term “officer of the United States” as used in Article II refers to individuals appointed and commissioned by the president, which would exclude the vice president and the president himself. Whether or not this is correct, it does not follow that the phrase used elsewhere in the Constitution is necessarily so limited. For example, while it is true that the president’s oath is separately provided for in Article II, the vice president’s is not; therefore, interpreting Article VI’s reference to “executive . . . Officers . . . of the United States” as excluding the president and vice president would mean the nowhere in the Constitution is the vice president’s oath provided for, a result that Tillman finds a good deal more plausible that do I. And while Tillman’s view of the Oath Clause has some support from a 1974 OLC memorandum written (or at least signed) by Assistant Attorney General Antonin Scalia, as I explain here that memo’s reasoning leaves much to be desired.

It also seems unlikely that the framers of section 3 would have deliberately omitted the president and vice president from the list of officials prohibited from engaging in insurrection and rebellion, although this conclusion seems more reasonable if one assumes their focus was entirely on the immediate past rebellion rather than potential future ones. In short, the argument that the president is not an “officer of the United States” within the meaning of section 3 seems to me to be quite weak, but not as weak as the claim that he holds no “office under the United States” under section 3 or the Disqualification Clause.


I will take the occasion of a tweet by Representative Ted Lieu to make a point so obvious it may have been overlooked. Representative Lieu was responding to a question about why House Democrats have not subpoenaed the administrator of GSA (Emily Murphy, who goes by the adorable twitter handle of @GSAEmily) to ask her why she has not yet ascertained “the apparent successful candidates for the office of President and Vice President” in accordance with the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 (3 U.S.C. § 102 note). Lieu explained:


(You can tell he is serious by the all-caps). Lieu goes on to say that GSA would simply ignore a subpoena, and that the House should change its rules to authorize inherent contempt, which would allow the sergeant-at-arms to arrest Murphy or other recalcitrant witnesses and bring them before a committee to testify (and, if they refuse, to try them for contempt before the bar of the House).

Now no one is more concerned than I about the impotence of congressional compulsory process with respect to the executive branch. All options for addressing that problem, including the revival of inherent contempt, should be on table for discussion.

However, the most important thing that the House could do right now to restore respect for its process would be to use the criminal contempt procedure set forth in 2 U.S.C. § 194. Under that provision, when a witness fails to appear, answer questions or produce documents in a congressional investigation, the House or Senate may refer the matter “to the appropriate United States attorney, whose duty it shall be to bring the matter before the grand jury for its action.”

As we have frequently discussed, this provision is normally of little value with regard to executive branch witnesses because the Justice Department, despite the apparently mandatory language of the law, takes the position that it does not require it to take action when a witness asserts an official privilege at the president’s direction. Of course, ordinarily the Justice Department that makes the decision on prosecution is the same as the one that advised the president with regard to assertion of the privilege in the first place. That circumstance does not obtain today. There will be (at least if my twitter feed is to be believed)  a new administration come January 20, 2021, which may be willing to move forward with congressional contempt prosecutions of executive officials (or former executive officials), at least under certain conditions.

In the case of Murphy, for example, there are no grounds that I am aware of, even under the views previously articulated by OLC, for her to refuse to even appear before a congressional committee to discuss her statutory duties with regard to the transition. If she were to simply ignore a subpoena to appear, as Lieu suggests she would, she would be taking a very big risk that a new U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia (the “appropriate” U.S. attorney in this and almost all contempt cases) would decide to prosecute her. I suspect that she would in fact appear pursuant to a subpoena, but if she doesn’t, the House should certainly refer her for prosecution. (If she shows up but refuses to answer particular questions, we can cross that bridge when we come to it.)

Apart from Murphy, the House should be looking at strong contempt cases which could be referred now to the U.S. attorney. Presumably the current (acting) U.S. attorney will take no action on them, but as far as I know there is no way for him to prevent his successor from doing so. If the incoming Biden Justice Department is willing to prosecute one or more of the most egregious cases of executive contempt, that may go some way to restoring effective deterrence. And if it is not willing to do so, that will tell us something as well.

Things to Do in Dirksen When You’re Dead (Reprise)

In case you don’t get the reference, see here. Anyway, I have been meaning to write something about the 25thamendment for a while. This might seem like an odd time to do so, but there are distinct issues that may arise during the period between November 3, 2020 and January 20, 2121. So here goes.

The world’s leading expert (possibly the only expert) on the 25thamendment is Professor Brian Kalt of the Michigan State University College of Law. He has written a book called “Unable: The Law, Politics, and Limits of Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment,” which you can and should buy on Amazon or wherever. (The numerical references in this post are to my kindle version of the book, which may or may not correspond to the hard copy). Even though almost everything I know about the 25thamendment I learned from Professor Kalt, I am not entirely in agreement with his take on it.

The key issue, for our purposes, relates to the meaning of the phrase “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” which is used in both sections 3 and 4 of the amendment. Under section 4, which governs the involuntary transfer of power from the president to the vice president, the vice president immediately assumes the powers and duties of the presidency as “Acting President” whenever he and a majority of the “principal officers of the executive departments . . . transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

Professor Kalt stresses that section 4 “was meant neither to cover policy disagreements, however intense, nor to rectify misuses of power by a foolish or ineffective leader.” (55) The legislative history of the 25thamendment shows that Congress “focused on past Presidents who had been incapacitated, and ignored Presidents who had been feckless or inept even in the most damaging ways.” (54) The garden variety case for an invocation of section 4 was a president in a coma or otherwise completely incapacitated or incommunicado.

On the other hand, the text of section 4 is clear that it is not limited to such situations. The provision expressly contemplates the possibility that the president and the vice president/acting president will disagree about whether the former was or remains “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” In such eventuality, section 4 provides a process for resolving the disagreement. The framers of the 25thamendment therefore anticipated that a president who is both conscious and able to communicate in a coherent fashion will nonetheless be ultimately determined to be unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. As one key member of Congress remarked during the debate on proposing the amendment, section 4 covers “the case when the President, by reason of mental debility, is unable or unwilling to make any rational decision, including particularly the decision to stand down.” (54)

Parsed closely, that quote raises more questions than it answers. It suggests that a president could be declared “unable” because he is “unwilling” to make a “rational decision” about whether to stand down, which seems rather circular. The larger point, though, is that the 25thamendment does not attempt to define with any precision the line between inability, on the one hand, and ordinary errors, abuses, ineptness or incompetence in the execution of the president’s office, on the other. Instead, the framers left it to the process they designed to discern where that line is. Continue reading “Things to Do in Dirksen When You’re Dead (Reprise)”

Could Trump be held Liable for Infecting Others?

What seems like a lifetime ago (i.e., sometime in September) there was controversy about the Justice Department’s decision to intervene in a state court defamation suit against President Trump brought by E. Jean Carroll, a woman who has accused Trump of sexually assaulting her in the 1990s, for statements Trump made publicly about Carroll during his time in office. According to Carroll’s lawsuit, Trump defamed her by (among other things) falsely asserting that she had invented her accusation for political reasons or in order to sell books. The Justice Department filed a certification under the Westfall Act that these defamation claims fell within the scope of Trump’s employment as president, which resulted in the case automatically being removed to federal court. Unless Carroll is able to successfully challenge the certification before the federal court, her case becomes one against the United States, rather than Trump personally, and will ultimately be dismissed because under the Federal Tort Claims Act the United States retains sovereign immunity for intentional torts.

Although it was widely claimed that DOJ was acting improperly by intervening to protect Trump’s personal interests, even many of the president’s sharpest critics grudgingly acknowledged that this was not the case. As I pointed out on Twitter and in the press, DOJ’s action was most likely correct and certainly reasonable under existing case law. The fact that a woman who was (allegedly) defamed by her (alleged) rapist could be without any remedy for defamation because the rapist was a federal official when he made the defamatory statements is counterintuitive and morally appalling, but (for reasons we have previously discussed) it is the law. The key legal question is whether Trump’s statements are considered to have been made within the scope of his employment, a determination that is made under the governing state law and will most likely be made in Trump’s favor.

Now we may face a different tort question arising from Trump’s positive test for Covid-19 and allegations that he held or attended various events knowing that he and/or others had tested positive or likely were positive and that he failed to take appropriate precautions to protect guests and workers at these events from possible infection. As suggested by @jedshug on Twitter,  individuals infected by Trump or at events he sponsored could seek to sue him for recklessly endangering their health. I have no idea whether there would be a viable cause of action in any state where such infections might have occurred, but for arguments sake let’s assume there is.

The analysis of such claims would then differ depending on the nature of the “super spreading” event in question. If it was an official event, such as the White House ceremony announcing the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, it seems likely that Trump’s actions would be considered to be within the scope of his employment and therefore the United States would be substituted as a defendant in any suit brought against him. Unlike the defamation claim brought by Carroll, though, the plaintiffs in such cases would not necessarily be out of luck. They could still recover damages against the United States because torts involving negligence or recklessness are not barred by the FTCA. (There are, however, other potential obstacles to recovery, including whether the claims were grounded in official acts for which the president enjoys absolute immunity).

On the other hand, Trump’s attendance at political fundraisers would most likely not be considered to be within his scope of employment because these are by definition nonofficial and personal in nature. One can imagine the argument being made that some aspect of Trump’s attendance should be considered within the scope of his employment and therefore the Westfall Act and FTCA applied. While it would be difficult to fully appraise such an argument without knowing the precise claims made and the state law that governs, my sense is that this would be pressing the outer bounds of scope of employment even under the existing case law.

As an example, back in the day there was a congressman from South Dakota named Bill Janklow who tragically killed a motorcyclist while driving to his home from an event elsewhere in the state. Not only did Janklow violate the speed limit and disregard a stop sign, but he had a long history of prior driving citations. He was convicted of reckless driving and manslaughter for his actions. Nonetheless, when the motorcyclist’s family brought suit against him, the court upheld DOJ’s certification that he was acting within the scope of employment. The fact that Janklow was acting in a reckless and even criminal manner, the court found, was not relevant; what mattered was that the event Janklow had attended (a ceremony honoring Korean war veterans) constituted congressional business and “[i]is readily foreseeable that a Congressman serving a district as vast and rural as South Dakota would drive an automobile when commuting between his office and meetings with his constituents.”

Had Janklow been returning from a political fundraiser or campaign event, however, the result would likely have been different. As the former head of the federal torts claims branch at DOJ, Jeffrey Axelrad, told Roll Call at the time, the department would not certify that a lawmaker was acting within the scope of his employment if he was in a traffic accident on the way back from such a political event.


Me and the Committee on Privileges

The Committee on Privileges of the House of Commons, which is reviewing the authority of select committees to compel the production of information and punish for contempt, has published my submission, which provides a general overview of similar dilemmas facing Congress in this area. If you would like to read it (and why wouldn’t you?), click here.

Justice Thomas, the Committee on Manufactures, and the Precedent of 1827

Continuing from my last post, let’s take a closer look at the precedent Justice Thomas considers “particularly significant” for purposes of determining whether Congress may subpoena private documents in a legislative investigation. In 1827, the House Committee on Manufactures (COM), which had been charged with developing a legislative proposal to raise tariffs, asked the House to pass the following resolution: “Resolved, That the Committee on Manufactures be vested with the power to send for persons and papers.” 4 Cong. Deb. 862 (Dec. 31, 1827). Members of the committee believed that it needed to hear from witnesses, particularly representatives of manufacturing interests that would benefit from tariffs, to determine both what goods should be protected and what the optimal tariff amount would be. See id. at 871-73 (Rep. Livingston); 875-76 (Rep. Buchanan).

Here is how Justice Thomas characterizes the ensuing debate over COM’s request:

This debate is particularly significant because of the arguments made by both sides. Proponents made essentially the same arguments the Committees raise here– that the power to send for persons and papers was necessary to inform Congress as it legislated. [4 Cong. Deb.] at 871 (Rep. Livingston). Opponents argued that this power was not part of any legislative function. Id. at 865-866 (Rep. Strong). They also argued that the House of Commons provided no precedent because Congress was a body of limited and enumerated powers. Id. at 882 (Rep. Wood). And in the end, the opponents prevailed. Thus, through 1827, the idea that Congress had the implied power to issue subpoenas for private documents was considered “novel,” “extraordinary,” and “unnecessary.” Id. at 874.

Dissent at 9.

Thus, Thomas argues that the record shows two things: (1) opponents of the resolution argued that Congress lacked the power to issue subpoenas for private documents as part of a legislative investigation; and (2) the opponents prevailed in the debate, thereby establishing a precedent that Congress lacked such power. As I will show below, Thomas badly misreads what happened in this debate.

The first thing to understand is that the debate was not primarily about the legal principle underlying COM’s request. Rather opponents had a practical and political objection to the request, namely that they feared it was a delaying tactic that would prevent a bill from being passed before the end of the session. See 4 Cong. Deb. 869 (Rep. Mallary) (“It certainly looked very much as if the object of the gentlemen, in introducing such a resolution as this, was merely to produce delay.”); id. at 865 (Rep. Strong) (“If the [requested] power be exercised, there will not be time to report and pass the bill during this session.”); see also id. at 866-67 (Rep. Stewart); 866-67 (Rep. Storrs); James M. Landis, Constitutional Limitations on the Congressional Power of Investigation, 40 Harv. L. Rev. 153, 177 (1926) (“Northern protection against southern free-trade appeared as the dominant issue and found violent partisans within and without Congress.”).

To be sure opponents also objected to COM’s request on the grounds that it was “novel” and “extraordinary.” See 4 Cong. Deb. 862 (Rep. Strong); id. (Rep. Wright of New York); id. at 874 (Rep. Stewart). Some doubted whether the House had the power to grant the request, although only one clearly took the position it did not. See id. at 877 (Rep. Wood).

In this regard opponents of the resolution focused on the unprecedented nature of giving a committee the power to send for “persons and papers” merely in order “to adjust the details of an ordinary bill.” 4 Cong. Deb. 866 (Rep. Strong). COM’s task, they suggested, was to exercise judgment based on a broad assessment of economic and social conditions (what might be termed “legislative facts” in modern parlance), rather than to investigate specific factual situations. See id. at 869-71 (Rep. Mallary). Thus, while Representative Wood expressed the strict view that “the only cases in which the House has a right to send for persons and papers, are those of impeachment, and of contested elections,” id. at 882, other opponents suggested a more nuanced distinction between gathering information to draft an “ordinary bill” and what today we might call “investigative oversight.” The latter position was more consistent with existing House precedent as a number of committees had been authorized to exercise compulsory powers for nonimpeachment investigations (including the St. Clair, Wilkinson, and Calhoun investigations). See Landis, supra, at 170-77; Ernest Eberling, Congressional Investigations: A Study of the Origin and Development of the Power of Congress to Investigate and Punish for Contempt 36-37, 53-54, 64-66, 86-93 (1928).

What is most important, however, is that no one argued that there was something special, either constitutionally or as a matter of House precedent, about giving COM the power to demand the production of private documents (or any documents). The issue was whether COM should have any compulsory powers, not whether it should have the power to call for papers in particular. Indeed, the debate makes clear that COM’s interest was in hearing from witnesses; there is no indication it wished to obtain documents.

It is simply not accurate to suggest, as the dissent does, that opponents “prevailed” on removing COM’s power to call for documents. What actually happened was that Representative Oakley proposed an amendment to the resolution adding the words “with a view to ascertain and report to this House such facts as may be useful to guide the judgment of this House in relation to a revision of the tariff duties on imported goods.” 4 Cong. Deb. 868. The purpose of the proposed amendment (which did not affect the power to call for documents) was to address the objection that COM’s proposed resolution, unlike prior resolutions of this nature, did not specify the purpose for which the power was granted.

Oakley’s amendment mollified no one. Representative Stevenson, a supporter of the original resolution, noted that requiring the committee to submit a detailed report would create the kind of delay opponents feared. 4 Cong. Deb. 869. Representative Mallary, an opponent, remarked “that he could not perceive that the amendment varied in the least the principle of the resolution.” Id. at 869.

Nonetheless, Oakley persisted. He offered a new version of his amendment which he suggested would address the concern expressed by Stevenson. The new amendment was in the nature of a substitute for the original resolution, and it provided in full: “That the Committee on Manufactures be empowered to send for, and to examine persons on oath, concerning the present condition of our manufactures, and to report the minutes of such examination to this House.” 4 Cong. Deb. 873.

This revised amendment appears to have done nothing to soften the opposition of the pro-tariff side. See 4 Cong. Deb. 873 (Rep. Stewart) (noting that he “thought his amendment was substantially the same as the other”). Supporters of the resolution, on the other hand, found it acceptable. See id. at 875 (Rep. Buchanan) (“I am in favor of the amendment proposed by [Oakley]; not because it varies in principle from the resolution reported by the Committee on Manufactures, but because it expresses more fully and distinctly the objects which that committee had in view.”). Though Oakley’s revised amendment did not appear to change any minds, the House accepted it and ultimately approved the resolution as amended. Id. at 888, 890.

Oakley’s revised amendment did eliminate the authorization for COM to call for papers. This, however, was not the expressed purpose of the amendment, and it is unclear whether the omission was even intentional. Oakley himself never mentioned it, and it attracted little attention from anyone else. Representative Wright of New York noted the omission and suggested that Oakley might want to modify the amendment to authorize COM to require witnesses to bring the books of their establishments when they appeared to testify. 4 Cong. Deb. 879. Although no one else followed up on this suggestion, one of the opponents of the resolution (confusingly also named Wright, but from Ohio) attacked Wright of New York for making it. See id. at 885 (“Are gentlemen prepared, sir, to establish an inquisition in this country, that shall pry into the business concerns of individuals, upon common subjects of general legislation?”). Other than this rhetorical jab, no one appeared to care about the issue at all.

There is, in short, nothing to suggest that anyone, including Oakley himself, voted for the revised amendment because it eliminated COM’s power to call for papers. If there were “swing voters” who supported the resolution because of this modification, there is nothing in the record to so indicate. Not a single member argued that the power to call for papers raised a separate constitutional issue or that the elimination of this power affected the constitutionality or propriety of the resolution.

The House’s ultimate adoption of the resolution has been uniformly understood as establishing a precedent in favor of the House’s authority to use compulsory powers for purposes of aiding the drafting of legislation. See Landis, supra, at 177-78; Eberling, supra, at 94-98; Telford Taylor, Grand Inquest: The Story of Congressional Investigations 34 (1955). No commentator has suggested “the opponents prevailed” or interpreted the result as a precedent against the House’s authority to compel the production of documents. Cf. Carl Beck, Contempt of Congress: A Study of the Prosecutions Initiated by the Committee on Un-American Activities, 1945-1957 17 (1959) (“Throughout its history Congress has been aware that this power [to compel the production of documents and papers] is necessary to gather facts in aid of a legislative purpose and to serve as a watchdog upon the executive branch of the government.”).

As Justice Thomas notes, controversy over the extent of congressional compulsory powers did not end in 1827. Dissent at 9-11. However, his discussion of these subsequent controversies overlooks that: (1) like the 1827 debate, they involved whether compulsory powers generally, not the power to compel the production of documents in particular, could be employed in certain types of investigations; (2) those who opposed the use of compulsory powers did not assert the 1827 vote as a precedent in their favor; and (3) these later controversies also invariably were resolved in favor of the compulsory power. Thus, to the extent that Justice Thomas believes that Congress lacks any compulsory power in legislative investigations, he is not asserting a novel position, but one that has been repeatedly rejected by both houses of Congress over two centuries. On the other hand, the idea that Congress specifically lacks the power to compel the production of documents has not only been (impliedly) rejected, it does not appear to have been even asserted.

Thomas’s dissent also alludes to the possibility that congressional subpoenas for documents might violate the Fourth Amendment. See Dissent at 7. This is a different legal argument than the claim Congress lacks the power to subpoena documents in the first place. This argument was raised on at least one occasion of which I am aware, although interestingly the dissent does not cite it. When the original contempt of Congress statute was introduced in 1857, Representative Israel Washburn questioned whether making it a crime to withhold papers from Congress would be consistent with the Fourth Amendment. See David P. Currie, The Constitution in Congress: Democrats and Whigs 1829-1861 222 (2005). Washburn asked “Are you not by this bill dispensing with the conditions and requirements of the Constitution and endeavoring to obtain the possession of private papers without warrant issued upon probable cause, and supported by oath or affirmation?” Id.

It was perhaps an interesting question, though Professor Currie reports that “no one condescended to answer Washburn’s objection.” Of course, if taken seriously, the objection would call into question all congressional as well as judicial document subpoenas and, as Currie notes, has long since been settled by the Supreme Court against Washburn. See id. at 222-23 & nn. 98, 100. It is unclear how throwing the Fourth Amendment into the mix advances Justice Thomas’s argument.


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.




Applicability of Federal Criminal Laws to OCE Investigations

In one of his last opinions on the D.C. Circuit, Judge Griffith resolved another congressional case, United States v. Bowser, No. 18-3055 (D.C. Cir. June 30, 2020), albeit one less consequential than McGahn. David Bowser, a former chief of staff to Representative Paul Broun (R-Ga), was convicted of obstructing an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) into whether Broun had improperly used funds from his “Members Representational Allowance” (MRA) to pay for campaign related expenses.  Specifically, OCE in 2014 launched an inquiry into whether a “messaging consultant” hired by Broun’s office had been paid out of the MRA for time spent on Broun’s congressional and senate campaigns.

In response to OCE’s preliminary review of these allegations, Bowser coached witnesses to provide false or misleading information to OCE, encouraged them to withhold responsive and relevant documents, and did the same himself. As a consequence, he was indicted and convicted of obstructing Congress, concealing material facts from OCE, and making false statements.

On appeal, there were two principal legal issues presented. First, the court addressed whether the obstruction of Congress statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1505, applies to OCE investigations. The statute applies to any investigation or inquiry by “either House, or any committee of either House or any joint committee of the Congress.” As the court noted (and the government conceded), this language on its face does not encompass OCE. It stressed that Congress knows how to draft statutes to cover offices such as OCE when it wishes to do so, contrasting the limited scope of § 1505 with the False Statements Act, which “applies to ‘any investigation or review, conducted pursuant to the authority of any committee, subcommittee, commission or office of the Congress.'” Bowser, slip op. at 8 (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 1001(c)(2)) (emphasis added by court).

The government argued, however, that OCE conducts investigations as an agent for the House and/or the House ethics committee. The court was not persuaded. It pointed out that the statute defines which “agents” it covers, i.e., committees and joint committees, and therefore other entities could not be covered simply because they act in some general sense as agents for one house or Congress as a whole. It also found that OCE’s functions under the House rules undercut the government’s argument because OCE merely has the limited power of conducting reviews and issuing recommendations to the ethics committee, which then determines whether to undertake the actual “investigation.”

Accordingly, the D.C. Circuit found the obstruction statute inapplicable to OCE’s inquiry and affirmed the district court’s grant of Bowser’s post-trial motion for acquittal on the obstruction charge.

The second major issue was Bowser’s claim that the district court should have also granted his motion for acquittal on the charge of concealment under the False Statements Act. While he did not dispute that OCE was an “office of the Congress” within the meaning of that statute, he argued there could be no concealment because OCE’s preliminary reviews are voluntary and therefore impose no duty on witnesses to disclose information. The court, however, held that a voluntary ethics investigation or review may impose a duty to disclose as long as witnesses are given fair notice of this fact. Under the circumstances of this case, Bowser was under such a duty because he had certified in writing that he had fully complied with OCE’s request for information and had been advised that his disclosure was subject to the False Statements Act.

Bowser is a fairly straightforward statutory interpretation case which is probably not all that interesting to anyone except lawyers who represent clients in House ethics matters. Its most immediate impact, I suspect, will be to give such lawyers cover for advising their clients not to cooperate voluntarily with OCE.

Presidential Electors and the Article V Convention: An Update

A few years ago I wrote a post explaining why the failure of the “Hamilton electors” in the 2016 presidential election demonstrated that it would be equally impossible for an Article V convention to “run away,” i.e., to propose amendments beyond the scope of the convention applied for by the state legislatures. Among other things, I argued that the constitutional case for allowing state legislatures to control their delegates to an Article V convention was stronger than that for exercising such control over their presidential electors. Accordingly, the deterrent and coercive effect of “delegate limitation laws” (DLAs) enacted by various states to control delegates to a potential Article V convention should be as least as great as that of faithless elector laws upon which they were in part modeled.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the constitutionality of faithless elector laws shows that it will be difficult to challenge DLAs and may encourage additional states to enact such laws. In Chiafolo v. Washington, 591 U.S. __ (2020), the Court unanimously held that states may not only require presidential electors to pledge to support a particular candidate but they may penalize electors who violate this pledge. Writing for seven justices, Justice Kagan acknowledged that the framers may have expected that the electors would exercise their own judgment and discretion in voting for president, but the “barebones” constitutional text regarding the electoral college failed to constitutionalize that requirement. Chiafolo, slip op. at 12-13. In contrast, the Constitution expressly gives state legislatures power over the appointment of presidential electors, and “the power to appoint an elector (in any manner) includes the power to condition his appointment– that is, to say what the elector must do for the appointment to take effect.” Id. at 9. The constitutional text and the longstanding practice of treating electors as mere instruments of the voters’ will persuaded the Court to uphold faithless elector laws.

Justice Thomas, writing for himself and Justice Gorsuch, concurred on different grounds. While he found “highly questionable” the majority’s conclusion that the Constitution affirmatively grants states the power to limit the discretion of presidential electors, he concluded that faithless elector laws were valid under the Tenth Amendment’s reservation of powers to the states and the people.

The Chiafolo ruling provides strong support for the constitutionality of DLAs. The Constitution is even more “barebones” about an Article V convention than about the electoral college. It does not expressly address how an Article V convention is constituted, who selects the delegates, or how they vote. (These omissions did not escape James Madison’s attention. See Michael Stern, Reopening the Constitutional Road to Reform: Toward a Safeguarded Article V Convention, 78 Tenn. L. Rev. 765, 768 n.27 (2011)). Nonetheless, assuming that convention delegates are to be appointed by or in a manner directed by the state legislatures (as virtually everyone agrees would be the case), Chiafolo strongly suggests that these legislatures would have the power to condition the appointment by limiting the discretion of delegates and to impose legal consequences for violations of such condition. Continue reading “Presidential Electors and the Article V Convention: An Update”