The House Does Not Have to Allow Agency Counsel to Attend Depositions

In Lawfare I have a piece explaining why the House has the power to enforce subpoenas for depositions against executive officials and is not required to allow agency counsel to attend.

While the investigations prompting these subpoenas are controversial, the legal issue in the lawsuits is unrelated to the merits of the committee’s inquiries. In the case of all three subpoenas, the Justice Department directed the witnesses not to appear because, under the terms of the House rules governing deposition testimony, only the personal counsel for a witness is allowed to attend. The Justice Department maintains that it is constitutionally entitled to have agency counsel in attendance, which is prohibited by the House rules. The committee offered to allow agency counsel to be present in an adjoining room, where the witness and his personal counsel could consult them if need be, but the department rejected this accommodation.

While this may appear on the surface to be a modest procedural dispute, it has broader ramifications. The Justice Department’s claim is that agency counsel must be in the room, not to protect the rights of witnesses, but to guard the president’s purported authority to control the dissemination of all executive branch information. It is thus part of a larger and increasingly aggressive executive branch doctrine, which threatens to make Congress virtually impotent to obtain the information it needs for legislative and other purposes. (Law professor and Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) veteran Jonathan Shaub thoroughly detailed this doctrine in a 2020 law review article.) Moreover, as I wrote in 2019, the Justice Department’s position on congressional depositions is “wholly without legal support and in considerable tension with federal whistleblower laws.”

Congressman Ken Buck’s Testimony About the January 6 Committee

Yesterday, November 17, 2023, Colorado state court judge Sarah B. Wallace issued an opinion in Anderson v. Griswold, No. 2023cv32577 (filed Sept. 6, 2023), a case in which the petitioners are seeking to have Donald Trump removed from the Colorado ballot on the ground that he is disqualified from the presidency under section 3 of the 14th amendment. Judge Wallace found that “Trump engaged in an insurrection on January 6, 2021 through incitement,” conduct that apparently would have disqualified him under section 3 if that provision applied to him. Order at 95, ¶ 298. However, she concluded that Trump was not covered by section 3 because the presidency is neither a disqualification-triggering nor a banned office within the meaning of that provision. Order at 101, ¶ 315.

I will have more comments on Judge Wallace’s opinion in the days to come. For the moment I just want to highlight this bit of information that came out of the hearing: “Congressman Buck testified that he had asked to be placed on the January 6th Committee after then-Speaker Pelosi rejected two of the five Republican nominees, but his request was turned down by Republican Party leadership.” Order at 13, ¶ 30. The court credited this statement in its findings, noting that “Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy actively prevented the January 6th Committee from being bipartisan including when he rejected Congressman Buck’s request to be on the Committee.” Order at 24, ¶ 52.

I have not seen this information reported previously, though I may have missed it. In any event, it is of some historical interest, as well as being of possible legal relevance to the validity of the January 6 committee’s composition and the credibility of its findings.

Levin Center Program on “How Courts Are Shaping Congress’ Power to Investigate”

On Wednesday, February 8, 2023, from noon to 1:30pm, Elise Bean of the Levin Center will be moderating a virtual program on “How Courts are Shaping Congress’ Power to Investigate.” The participants include former House Counsel Doug Letter, as well as law professors Emily Berman, Andy Grewal and William Ortman. (Grewal’s title should also include “tweeter extraordinaire”).

A large number of recent court decisions, including most importantly the Supreme Court’s decision in Trump v. Mazars, have major implications for congressional oversight. (I am in fact working on an article with the tentative title of “How Mazars Will Shape the Congressional-Executive Informational Battlefield.”) So I am very much looking forward to hearing what these scholars and practitioners have to say.

You can register for the program here.

The Attorney-Client Privilege in Congressional Investigations after Mazars

I have been meaning to blog about a new article by Dave Rapallo entitled House Rules: Congress and the Attorney-Client Privilege, 100 Wash. U. L. Rev. 455 (2022), which analyzes the Supreme Court’s dicta in Trump v. Mazars that recipients of congressional subpoenas “have long been understood” to retain common law privileges such as the attorney-client privilege. I commend Professor Rapallo’s article for its thorough analysis and defense of Congress’s historic position that it is not obligated to respect the attorney-client privilege or other privileges that stem from the common law, not the Constitution. Just this week his article was named the winner of the 2022 Levin Center Award for Excellence in Oversight Research (which also served as a reminder to me to post on this subject).

When the Mazars decision was announced, I pointed out that to the extent Chief Justice Roberts was commenting on what had “long been understood” by Congress, his observation was clearly wrong and not supported by the sole authority cited for the proposition, a 2003 CRS report by Louis Fisher. Contrary to the chief justice’s assertion, Congress has long asserted that it has discretion to decide whether to accept claims of common law privileges such as the attorney-client privilege. I therefore concluded (somewhat undiplomatically) that “the Supreme Court’s poorly researched dicta on this point should not be given any weight.” Continue reading “The Attorney-Client Privilege in Congressional Investigations after Mazars”

How Should the January 6 Committee Respond to Trump’s Lawsuit?

On Friday, November 11, former President Trump filed suit against the January 6 committee to prevent enforcement of the subpoena for documents and testimony the committee issued to him on October 21. The complaint asserts that as a former president Trump is absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony (at least outside the realm of impeachment). In addition, it alleges that the subpoena is invalid for a number of reasons, including that it was not issued for a valid legislative purpose, that it fails the heightened standard of scrutiny established by the Supreme Court for subpoenas of presidential information, and that the January 6 committee lacked authority to issue subpoenas because it was improperly constituted.

All of these claims, in my view, should lose, and I think they all probably would if the litigation ever resulted in a final judgment on the merits. However, as Trump’s lawyers well understand, there is very little chance of that happening before the January 6 committee expires at the end of this Congress, which will most likely moot the case. For Trump’s legal team, the advantage of this lawsuit is that it will buy time and possibly forestall a contempt vote in the House. Continue reading “How Should the January 6 Committee Respond to Trump’s Lawsuit?”

Some Thoughts on the January 6 Committee Subpoena to Former President Trump

As you may have heard, the January 6 select committee has adopted a resolution authorizing its chair to issue a subpoena for documents and testimony under oath to former President Donald Trump. This action raises some legal, political and practical issues, which are considered below.

Is a former president immune from a congressional subpoena? The answer to this question is pretty clearly no. It has been well-established since Watergate that even sitting presidents are subject to judicial subpoena and, as the D.C. Circuit recently observed, its own precedent from that era “strongly implies that [sitting] Presidents enjoy no blanket immunity from congressional subpoenas.” Trump v. Mazars U.S., LLP, 940 F.3d 710, 722 (D.C. Cir. 2019), rev’d and remanded on other grounds, 140 S.Ct. 2019 (2020). It is therefore very unlikely that former presidents would be found to enjoy such blanket immunity.

Is a former president absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony about his official activities? For reasons I have discussed before, the answer to this question should be no, although I acknowledge there are good reasons why Congress should be (and historically has been) reluctant to compel the appearance of former presidents except in extraordinary circumstances. Continue reading “Some Thoughts on the January 6 Committee Subpoena to Former President Trump”

Two Lees, One Jackson, and Some Stonewalling

During the confirmation hearings for Judge (soon to be Justice) Ketanji Brown Jackson, she answered written questions for the record from a number of senators, including Senator Mike Lee. One of Senator Lee’s questions (hat tip: Ira Goldman) struck me as odd:

In Committee on the Judiciary v. McGahn, you took an extremely broad view of standing that all but ignored the previous elements of standing that you clung to in Federal Forest Resource Coalition (individualized injury). Setting aside the merits of the underlying controversy, your opinion never once mentions the phrase “political question.” Isn’t a case where the legislative branch is suing the executive branch a quintessential political question?

One problem with this question is that it was based on a false premise—as she pointed out in her answer, Jackson’s opinion in McGahn did in fact (more than once) use the phrase “political question” and it did so in the context of explaining why the political question doctrine was inapplicable to the case before her.  See, e.g., Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn, 415 F. Supp.3d 148, 178 (D.D.C. 2019) (“[T]he Supreme Court has specifically confirmed that not all legal claims that impact the political branches are properly deemed non-justiciable political questions.”).

To be sure, Jackson’s discussion of this issue was somewhat in passing. Her primary point was that the Justice Department’s legal arguments on standing and separation of powers sounded like attempts to evoke the political question doctrine without grappling with well-established limits on that doctrine. See id. at 177-78. But because the Justice Department (representing McGahn) did not actually assert that the political question doctrine applied, the judge presumably thought it unnecessary to discuss the doctrine in depth. Perhaps Lee should ask the Justice Department why it did not think McGahn presented a “quintessential political question.”

I think I can save him the trouble, though. There was a time when legal scholars (to the extent they thought about the issue) very likely would have agreed with the sentiment expressed in Lee’s question. As one noted constitutional expert wrote long ago: “In 1958, when the reach of the political question doctrine was far broader than it is today, no lesser an authority than Judge Learned Hand expressed the view that such a dispute [over a congressional subpoena] between two branches of government was a clear example of a nonjusticiable constitutional question.” Rex E. Lee, Executive Privilege, Congressional Subpoena Power, and Judicial Review: Three Branches, Three Powers, and Some Relationships, 1978 B.Y.U. L. Rev. 231, 266 (1978). For the last 60 years, though, the law has rejected such a broad view of political questions. Continue reading “Two Lees, One Jackson, and Some Stonewalling”

What Exactly is a Congressional Criminal Referral?

As discussed in my last post, the January 6 select committee has argued in federal court that there is sufficient evidence of misconduct by former President Trump to potentially warrant application of the crime/fraud exception to attorney-client privilege with respect to otherwise privileged communications he may have had with John Eastman. This in turn has sparked renewed speculation as to whether the committee will or should make a “criminal referral” to the Justice Department regarding the former president. According to this Politico article, while “Washington has viewed the decision on a criminal referral against Trump as a major pivot point in the Jan. 6 probe,” some think that the committee’s filing in the Eastman case makes such a referral less important or entirely unnecessary.

But what exactly is a congressional “criminal referral” and what is its significance, if any?

Continue reading “What Exactly is a Congressional Criminal Referral?”

Is the January 6 Committee Improperly Constituted?

Now that the Supreme Court has poured cold water on the executive privilege arguments being made by certain witnesses who have declined to cooperate with the January 6 select committee, a different objection by many of these witnesses takes on added importance. According to the lawyers for Mark Meadows, Jeffrey Clark, and others, the committee lacks the power to issue subpoenas or take other actions because it was constituted in violation of Section 2(a) of its authorizing resolution, H. Res. 503, which provides: “Appointment of Members—The Speaker shall appoint 13 Members to the Select Committee, 5 of whom shall be appointed after consultation with the minority leader.”

Acting pursuant to the resolution, Speaker Pelosi appointed eight members to fill the “majority slots” on the committee, seven of whom were Democrats and one (Liz Cheney) a Republican. She consulted with Majority Leader McCarthy regarding the remaining “minority slots,” but she rejected two of McCarthy’s five recommendations, declaring that Jim Banks and Jim Jordan had made statements regarding the proposed investigation that she claimed “make it impossible for them to exercise judgment.” Pelosi was willing to appoint the other recommended members, but they declined. Pelosi then appointed Adam Kinzinger (the only Republican other than Cheney who was willing to participate under these circumstances) to one of the minority slots, leaving the other four vacant.

It is contended that these actions violated Section 2(a) of the authorizing resolution in two respects. First, Pelosi appointed only nine members of the select committee, rather than the 13 specified by the resolution. Second, although she consulted with McCarthy, she did not appoint any of the five members he recommended.

Let’s start with the second point. A strong version of this claim would be that the authorizing resolution required Pelosi to appoint whatever members McCarthy recommended and left her with no discretion in the matter. This interpretation is hard to square with the language of the resolution, which requires merely “consultation” with the minority leader. If the House had wanted to constrain Pelosi’s discretion in this manner, it could have easily said so. Indeed, as the House points out in a recently filed brief, prior select committee resolutions have used stronger language (i.e., requiring that minority slots be filled “on the recommendation of the Minority Leader”), which could more plausibly be interpreted to require that the speaker appoint only members recommended by the minority. Here there is no indication that the House intended to make Pelosi’s power to appoint a mere ministerial act.

Continue reading “Is the January 6 Committee Improperly Constituted?”

Lawfare Podcast on January 6 Committee and Potential Subpoenas of Members

In today’s Lawfare podcast, Quinta Jurecic hosts Molly Reynolds and me to talk about the January 6 committee’s efforts to question House members about matters pertinent to its investigation.

The more I think about it, the more I lean toward the view that if the committee decides to subpoena members, it will pursue enforcement by means of a civil lawsuit, rather than a criminal contempt referral or some sort of internal disciplinary proceeding. This will allow the committee to keep attention focused on the fact that these members are refusing to provide information (as well as require them to explain their reasons for doing so in court), while minimizing their ability to claim political martyrdom. It also will allow the committee to avoid bringing the matter to the floor; a civil action can be authorized by the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group without forcing rank and file members to vote on a politically charged matter. The committee can also point to some precedent for such an action; the Senate Ethics Committee brought suit against Senator Packwood to enforce its subpoena for his diary.

The downside is that the case will probably take too long for the committee to get any useful information this year. That’s why the committee has refrained from using this method of enforcement for other witnesses. But here the committee is more concerned with the potential political consequences and the internal precedent regarding subpoena of members; recognizing that they may soon be in the minority, Democrats do not want it to be too easy for House committees to subpoena members in the future.