Some Preliminary Thoughts on the House Judiciary Document Requests

Yesterday the House Judiciary Committee issued document requests to 81 individuals, government agencies and other organizations. The cover letter from Chairman Nadler explains that the committee “is investigating a number of actions that threaten our nation’s longstanding commitment to the rule of law, including allegations of obstruction of justice, public corruption, and other abuses of power.” As Spencer Ackerman put it more colorfully, the committee wants the files of “anyone who might know anything about any allegation about wrongdoing by President Trump, encompassing everything from obstruction of justice to collusion with Russia to paying off potential ex-mistresses.”

At the outset it should be noted that these are document requests, not subpoenas, and therefore do not impose any legal obligation on the recipients, with two caveats. First, the requests put the recipients on notice that the documents are relevant to and being sought in a congressional proceeding, thus establishing or helping to establish one or more elements of obstruction of Congress should any of this evidence later be altered or destroyed.

Second, although there is no legal enforcement mechanism, by practice and policy it is expected that government agencies will respond in good faith to congressional requests for information. See Letter Opinion for the Counsel to the President from Curtis E. Gannon, Acting Asst Atty Gen. for the Off. of Legal Counsel, at 3 (May 1, 2017) (“Upon receipt of a properly authorized oversight request, the Executive Branch’s longstanding policy has been to engage in the accommodation process by supplying the requested information ‘to the fullest extent consistent with the constitutional and statutory obligations of the Executive Branch.'”) (quoting the Reagan memorandum of 1982); see also Letter from Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley to President Donald Trump at 6 (June 7, 2017) (“the Executive Branch should work to cooperate in good faith with all congressional requests to the fullest extent possible”). It is therefore likely the government recipients (the White House, Department of Justice, FBI, and General Services Administration) will provide some sort of timely response to the committee’s requests.

We can also anticipate, however, that these agencies will contend that the requests are inconsistent with their “constitutional and statutory obligations” in several respects. A number of the requests implicate matters (national security and foreign policy, exercise of the pardon power, discussions between high level advisors and the president personally) that traditionally lie at the heart of the doctrine of executive privilege. See generally Mark J. Rozell, Executive Privilege 49-61 (1994). It seems doubtful that the Trump administration will produce these materials without a fight.

The Judiciary committee has tried to forestall this objection by limiting the initial production to documents already produced to other investigative bodies, such as the Special Counsel’s office and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The administration, however, can be expected to argue that sharing information within the executive branch does not waive the privilege with regard to congressional requests.

The administration will also probably contend that the committee’s requests impinge upon open criminal investigations and violate grand jury secrecy rules. In particular, the document requests to the Justice Department and FBI would seem to encompass materials that these organizations or their components have gathered in their investigative capacities. If so, the administration may argue that the committee is essentially trying to obtain the work product of the Special Counsel and the SDNY.

Another category of recipient to keep an eye on consists of former Trump administration officials, including former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, White House Counsel Don McGahn and many others. These individuals are in a tricky situation. They may have varying degrees of interest in cooperating with the committee, but they are unlikely to want to produce information over the administration’s objections. On the other hand, they probably do not want risk contempt (a possibility if and when the committee issues subpoenas) or incur enormous legal fees by fighting with the committee either.

I suggested on Twitter, half jokingly, that Tom Bossert (the former homeland security advisor and one of the lucky recipients) should interplead the committee and the administration. In all seriousness, though, the former officials might want to consider bringing an action to ask a court to declare whether they should abide by the instructions of the White House or those of the committee. Such an action would certainly be more meritorious (which is not to say necessarily successful) than Jim Comey’s lawsuit against the committee last December.

The remaining 60 or so recipients are individuals and organizations with a variety of interests and legal postures vis a vis the committee’s requests. One (as far as I know) is the president’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, who will presumably assert attorney-client privilege in response to most if not of all of the committee’s requests. Others are foreigners (e.g., Julian Assange, Wikileaks) who will probably ignore the committee’s requests unless it can figure out how to subject them to legal compulsion. Each recipient will have to make a decision about whether and how much to cooperate with the committee based on his/her/its individual situation and interests.

The only thing we can say for sure is there will be no shortage of congressional legal issues to discuss.

Congressional Subpoenas, Contempt, and Executive Privilege: Molly Reynolds and Stan Brand Discuss

There will undoubtedly be a lot of content appearing in the next few months about congressional subpoenas and how to enforce them, along with the related topics of contempt of Congress and executive privilege. Most of this will be review for the regular readers of this blog (you can click on the “congressional investigations,” “contempt of Congress” or “executive privilege” categories to see Point of Order’s prior posts on these topics), but you still might want to check out this podcast featuring Molly Reynolds of Brookings and former House General Counsel Stan Brand, which provides a good overview of the subject as well as some history of the House Counsel’s office (you can find out, for example, why Neil Gorsuch might not be the biggest fan of the congressional subpoena power).

As Stan explains, the biggest problem with congressional subpoenas is that there is no clearly established mechanism to enforce them against the executive branch. Civil contempt is the only currently usable method, but it faces a number of obstacles, the greatest of which is that it is somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible to get a resolution within the time frame of a two-year congress. This gives the Justice Department and its clients a strong incentive to delay as much as possible, knowing that by the time a court gets around to deciding the dispute, it is likely that the whole matter will be moot.

As it happens, I have proposed a reform to House rules designed to address this problem (you can read about it here). Thus far the House in its wisdom has not seen fit to adopt this proposal, but perhaps someone will bring it to the attention of the new House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

Of Special Counsels and Congressional Investigations: Questions for Judge Kavanaugh

Note: click here to access full piece.

As you may have heard, President Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. There has been a good deal of discussion about how a Justice Kavanaugh might approach issues of executive power, and in particular how he might rule on certain (at this point hypothetical) questions arising from the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

I would like to propose a different line of questioning for Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, one that is not designed to score points for the pro-confirmation or anti-confirmation teams, but instead to illuminate the legal/constitutional framework within which allegations of presidential misconduct must be addressed. The jumping-off point for this discussion is Kavanaugh’s repeatedly expressed preference for congressional, rather than criminal, investigation of presidential misconduct. As we will see, this preference is not (or at least should not be) controversial, but it is in some tension with Kavanaugh’s efforts to hinder congressional oversight during his time as associate White House counsel.

Some background on Kavanaugh’s career: after graduating from Yale Law School in 1990, he spent several years clerking, culminating in a clerkship for Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose seat he has been nominated to fill. Kavanaugh went on to work for Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel appointed to investigate the Whitewater and Lewinsky matters. After a brief stint at Kirkland & Ellis, he joined the new George W. Bush administration, spending the first couple of years in the White House counsel’s office and then becoming the president’s staff secretary. President Bush appointed Kavanaugh to the D.C. Circuit in 2006.

Along the way, Kavanaugh authored three works relevant to our discussion today (there may be more, but I haven’t read them). Two are law review articles that have garnered a lot of attention. The third is Kavanaugh’s 2013 opinion in In re Aiken County, which I have mentioned previously but which has escaped widespread notice until recently.

The full piece is too long for a blog post but it may be accessed here. To sum up briefly, these are the three most important points I would aim to establish during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing:

1.  According to Kavanaugh, Congress is or should be the sole entity to determine whether the conduct of a sitting president warrants a sanction. The special counsel should not (or perhaps constitutionally may not) indict or prosecute a sitting president. (I think Kavanaugh is right about this, but it is important that Congress and the general public understand this view).

2.  Congress must have investigatory powers as strong as (or stronger than) those of the special counsel, at least when it is investigating presidential misconduct. Kavanaugh has recognized that a special counsel has a right of broad access to executive branch information, and he should do the same for Congress. Whether or not Kavanaugh accepts this proposition (or will speak to it at all), it seems to me a logical corollary of the first point. Otherwise we would be in a “catch 22” situation where only Congress can judge the conduct of a president but only the special counsel has access to the information needed to make that judgment.

3.  During his time at the White House counsel’s office, Kavanaugh was a key architect/defender of legal positions allowing the Bush administration to withhold information from Congress, including with respect to several congressional investigations involving serious and credible allegations of executive branch wrongdoing (the campaign finance, Boston FBI and Clinton pardon investigations). Kavanaugh should be pressed to explain the apparent inconsistency between those positions and points 1 and 2 above by, for example, acknowledging that the Bush administration positions were ill-considered and/or distinguishing them on the grounds that they are inapplicable to an investigation of a sitting president.

Wright on Executive Privilege with Some Additional Thoughts Hazarded by Stern

Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist in the Trump White House, has refused to answer questions from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) regarding his time in the White House and on the presidential transition team. Bannon claims these subjects may implicate executive privilege and is deferring to the White House counsel’s office as to whether the privilege will be invoked.

I was going to post some comments on this issue, but almost everything I was going to say is admirably covered by Professor Andy Wright here. Wright’s key points are (1) Bannon’s status as a former government official is irrelevant to the legal merits of the privilege claim, though it could impact how the matter is resolved procedurally (more on that in a minute); (2) the privilege belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official; (3) it is thus appropriate to provide the president, with the advice of White House counsel and other executive branch lawyers, an opportunity to decide whether to invoke the privilege formally; (4) if negotiations do not resolve the issue, HPSCI must move forward with a formal contempt process; (5) while it may ultimately be decided that executive privilege does not attach to presidential transitions, the question at this point is an open one; and (6) even if the privilege does apply, HPSCI will still have strong arguments in favor of requiring Bannon to answer some or all of its questions.

One point of qualification. While I agree with Wright that issues of executive privilege have to be decided on a question-by-question basis, the burden is not on Bannon to make sure that specific questions get asked. In other words, if Bannon issued a “blanket refusal [to answer] about all swaths of time during his transition and White House roles,” as Wright indicates, it is still incumbent on HPSCI to make a record of the specific questions it wants answered. Failure to do so could undermine its legal position or delay resolution of the merits should the dispute reach the courts.

This brings us to the procedure HPSCI should employ to resolve this matter. As Wright notes, there are three avenues available (criminal contempt, civil litigation and inherent contempt). Each has its drawbacks and none is guaranteed to work (or work in a timely fashion) even if one assumes HPSCI would win the executive privilege issue on the merits.

As we discussed in connection with the Comey matter, however, the procedure followed with regard to a former official might differ from the norm. If Bannon takes the position that he will abide by HPSCI’s rulings on executive privilege unless otherwise directed by a federal court, the burden would be on the executive branch to bring a civil action and obtain a speedy order (presumably a TRO) directing Bannon not to testify.

On the other hand, Bannon might say that he will abide by the president’s instructions even if it means being held in contempt by HPSCI and the House. If so, the House could consider employing the rarest form of testimonial compulsion, inherent contempt. In this procedure, Bannon would be arrested by the Sergeant at Arms and brought before the bar of the House. If he continues to refuse to testify, the House could remand him into the custody of the Sergeant at Arms until he changes his mind (or convinces a court to release him on a habeas petition). This is a drastic remedy, which has not been employed by the House in about a century. But if the House is serious about reasserting its institutional prerogatives, there could hardly be a more inviting target than Mr. Bannon.

Anyway, there is something about incarcerating Bannon in the basement of the Capitol that seems like where 2018 is going, don’t you think?

P.S. RIP Geoffrey Hazard.

 

 

Comey’s Choice: Congress or the Press

Former FBI Director Jim Comey’s decision to “leak” (a word which itself has generated controversy in this connection) the contents of his memos of conversations with President Donald Trump to the New York Times has led to much pontificating, but indulge me while I engage in a little more. My interest focuses on the question of why Comey chose to make his revelations first to the media, rather than to Congress.

Much of the commentary seems designed to attack Comey’s credibility by demonstrating that the disclosure to the Times was illegal or improper or, conversely, to bolster his credibility and undermine his critics by arguing the opposite. But the legal and ethical questions surrounding the “leak” (last time in quotes, I promise) are sufficiently murky that their relevance to the believability of Comey’s underlying testimony (particularly if that testimony is supported by contemporaneous memoranda) seems somewhat tangential. Frankly, under the circumstances I can understand how Comey would have been sorely tempted to bend the rules regarding disclosure if that were the only way to get his side of the story out.

Put yourself in Comey’s shoes. It is May 9, 2017, and you have just received a letter from President Trump, along with two enclosures, a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a memorandum from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The Rosenstein memo explains that you made “serious mistakes” in your handling of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails, as a result of which “the FBI’s reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage” and “the entire Department of Justice” has been affected. The memo, while not quite explicitly recommending you be fired, concludes by saying “the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.”

The one paragraph letter from Attorney General Sessions to President Trump recommends that Trump remove you as FBI director. Sessions explains that “[b]ased on my evaluation, and for the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum, I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.”

Last but not least, Trump’s own letter informs you that he is accepting the “recommendation” of the attorney general and deputy attorney general, and “you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.” The president goes on to elaborate (graciously, he no doubt thinks): “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”

For purposes of discussion, we will assume you are well aware that many, many people have criticized your handling of the Clinton email investigation, and not a few of those have urged you be removed as FBI director. But you believe that this is not at all why Trump decided to fire you. And you have the evidence to prove it, in the form of contemporaneous memoranda recording a series of meetings and telephone discussions with the president over the past 5 months. These documents show (at least in your view) that Trump fired you because of your handling of the Russia investigation, including the failure to show adequate personal loyalty to Trump in the conduct of that investigation, the failure to “let go” of an inquiry into certain activities of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and your unwillingness or inability to “lift the cloud” which the Russian investigation had cast over the Trump administration.

I think you can understand that anyone in this situation would feel impelled to come forward and bring these memos to the attention of the public and the proper authorities. What I find more difficult to explain is why Comey thought it necessary to have a friend anonymously leak the story to the New York Times, when he could have simply informed the relevant congressional committees, including the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, that he was in possession of the memos and prepared to testify about their contents.

There are situations where press coverage is needed to attract public and congressional attention to a particular issue, but this was certainly not one of those. Even Michael Schmidt, the New York Times reporter who first wrote about the Comey memos, acknowledged as much on the day Comey was to testify before SSCI:

Q. Has Comey been called to testify in front of the Senate today because of your reporting?

Schmidt. It was certainly a catalyst, but Comey was going to have to go up there at some point and they were going to want to hear from him.

N.Y. Times Podcast, The Daily, 6-8-17 at 9:08.

With this background, let’s look at the legal and ethical issues raised by Comey’s leak to the Times.

Continue reading “Comey’s Choice: Congress or the Press”

Comey and Executive Privilege (with Update)

[See Update below]

Former FBI Director Jim Comey is scheduled to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) next week. He is expected to be asked questions about certain subjects, including his personal conversations with the president, that might be the subject of executive privilege claims. However, because Comey is testifying voluntarily and presumably would like to share this information with the committee, the question arises whether there is any effective method for the administration to stop him from answering questions it believes to be invasive of executive privilege.

In a Twitter thread, Eric Columbus, a former lawyer in the Obama administration, argues that the answer is no. He contends that the privilege only protects a witness from being compelled to provide information. It does not apply, he suggests, to the voluntary testimony of a former government official, just as it does not prevent former officials from writing books or giving interviews in which they discuss conversations with the president or other communications that might fall within the scope of executive privilege. As Columbus puts it, “I know of no precedent for blocking a FORMER official who WANTS to testify.” (all caps in original; its Twitter after all).

To the extent Columbus is suggesting that the applicability of executive privilege turns on whether the former official wants to testify, this seems wrong. The privilege belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official, and it is hard to see why the availability of the privilege should turn on the subordinate’s preferences.

Columbus makes an interesting point about the fact that former officials often write books or make other public disclosures about matters that could be covered by executive privilege. It could be that executive privilege, having developed as an evidentiary doctrine in formal proceedings, simply does not apply to such situations or, alternatively, that it does apply but there is no method of enforcing it. Broad gag orders against former executive branch officials (e.g, requiring them to get preclearance before speaking about their time in office, or threatening sanctions if they make public disclosures that in the judgment of the president or his lawyers violate executive privilege) would raise some tricky First Amendment issues, which we have discussed in the context of analogous prohibitions on congressional staffers. But these issues do not have much bearing on Comey’s testimony in a formal congressional proceeding.

The real problem here is procedural. Assuming for the sake of argument that the president has a valid or at least plausible executive privilege objection, how can that objection be raised in this situation?

The most straightforward answer would be for the executive branch to communicate to Comey (presumably through a lawyer who would attend the hearing) which questions it believes intrude upon executive privilege. Comey would then inform the committee of this objection, and it would then be up to the chairman to decide how to proceed. Comey might refuse to play this role, but I doubt he would do so. It is in his interest to remain above the fray to the extent possible, and to let the real parties in interest (the committee and the executive branch) battle it out.

Even if Comey declines to cooperate, the committee would probably allow the executive branch to raise its objections directly (presumably by having its lawyer stand up and object on a question by question basis). This would be a highly unusual procedure, and it might be contended that the committee’s rules do not permit it. SSCI Rule 8.6 provides that “[a]ny objection raised by a witness or counsel shall be ruled upon by the Chairman or other presiding member, and such ruling shall be the ruling of the Committee unless a majority of the Committee present overrules the ruling of the chair.” The “counsel” referred to here is counsel for the witness, and in this case the government counsel would not be appearing in that capacity. I suspect, though, that SSCI would make an allowance for this unusual situation.

Assuming the executive branch has the opportunity to raise the objection, it is up to the chairman to rule on the objection in the first instance. I imagine there could be some dispute as to whether Rule 8.6 requires the chair to rule immediately or permits him to take the matter under advisement, but let’s assume eventually there is a final ruling from the chair/committee. At that point I expect that Comey would comply with the ruling, as he is under no obligation to risk being held in contempt. This procedure would therefore leave the resolution of the issue ultimately in the control of the committee.

The administration’s only alternative would seem to be to bring an action in federal court against Comey (the Speech or Debate Clause prohibits it from suing the committee). The suit would ask for declaratory and injunctive relief prohibiting Comey from testifying on certain subjects or providing certain information to Congress. The executive branch used this method in the 1970s in an attempt to prevent AT&T from complying with a congressional subpoena. See United States v. AT&T, 567 F.2d 121 (D.C. Cir. 1977). Although that case involved national security information, there is no reason in principle why the same method could not be used to resolve a different type of executive privilege issue. Whether the Trump administration wants to take the political heat from bringing such a suit, or whether it is confident that its legal position would ultimately be vindicated in court, are different questions.

UPDATE:

In a follow up exchange on Twitter, Columbus expresses doubt that a court could grant a remedy to the executive branch under the circumstances here. His argument is that the court could not enjoin Comey from discussing the same matters outside of Congress (e.g., it couldn’t stop him from going on the Sunday talk shows to discuss his conversations with the president) so logically it could not enjoin him from talking to Congress either. Essentially he is arguing that because the court cannot grant effective relief, it should dismiss the executive branch’s (hypothetical) lawsuit against Comey for lack of standing.

I agree that a court might accept this argument, but I don’t think it is a slam dunk. To begin with, it assumes that a court would take as a given that a former executive official cannot be enjoined from publicly disclosing confidential (but non-classified) presidential communications contrary to POTUS’s instructions. As far as I know, no such case has been brought, much less decided. While I tend to agree with Columbus that there would be serious problems with such a suit (including First Amendment prior restraint issues), the matter is not so clear that a court would necessarily want to predicate its decision in our hypothetical suit on a prediction about the outcome of this different and more novel case.

Moreover, even if we assume Comey could not be enjoined from disclosing presidential communications outside Congress, it does not follow that such disclosures would be legal or proper. Nor is it guaranteed they would be without consequence. For example, a former official might find his security clearance in jeopardy or face a bar complaint (if, like Comey, he is a lawyer). These potential consequences make it less likely a court can simply assume that Comey (or any former official) would be free to divulge presidential communications in a public setting.

Finally, a court’s view of this issue may very well depend on the position Comey himself takes in our (hypothetical) litigation. As a long time executive branch lawyer, Comey would probably be reluctant to suggest it is generally appropriate for former officials to divulge confidential presidential communications. Such a stance would be at least in tension with the executive branch’s approach to executive privilege, and it might have ramifications for the ability of future presidents to have candid discussions with their FBI directors. I am also not sure Comey would want to open himself up to questioning generally about his discussions with Presidents Trump, Obama or Bush. So I would guess he would be cautious about asserting any general right (much less intent) to make public disclosures about these matters.

I would note that in the course of my exchange with Columbus, a number of tweeters chirped in with comments along the lines of: “If Comey can’t testify before Congress, why wouldn’t he just go on Rachel Maddow or some other cable show and spill the beans there? That’s what I would do!”

The short answer to this is: “Because he’s Comey, not you.” The somewhat longer answer is that I don’t know what Comey might do, but I think he has a number of personal and institutional incentives, alluded to above, not to do that.

In any event, I agree with Columbus that there is a risk that the hypothetical lawsuit against Comey could be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, but I don’t assess this risk as being as high as he does. If I were advising the president, I would be more concerned with the political cost of bringing such a lawsuit in the first place, as well as the distinct possibility that the executive branch could lose on the merits.

Based on the latest news, though, it sounds like the administration is backing away from asserting executive privilege at all with respect to Comey’s testimony before SSCI.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Senate’s Options in the Flynn Matter

Just got back from a trip abroad. Did I miss anything? I thought my law school classmate Jim Comey could fill me in on the latest, but for some reason my emails to him keep bouncing back . . .

I know, I’m hilarious. Ok, let’s take a look at the controversy du jour, namely former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s decision to invoke the Fifth Amendment in response to a document subpoena from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). This has led to a flurry of speculation as to what SSCI or the Senate might do next.

For regular readers of Point of Order, the issues here should be pretty familiar. There is no Fifth Amendment right to refuse to produce documents based on their potentially incriminating content, but under certain circumstances a subpoena recipient can refuse to comply on the ground that the act of producing the documents would itself be testimonial in nature. This “act of production” doctrine applies when the subpoena implicitly compels the recipient to communicate that the responsive documents exist, are authentic and are in the recipient’s possession or control.

The committee’s subpoena requires General Flynn to produce, among other things, “all communications records, including electronic communications records such as e-mail or text messages, written correspondence, and phone records, of communications that took place between June 16, 2015, and 12pm on January 20 2017, to which you and any Russian official or representative of Russian business interests was a party.” Flynn’s lawyers contend that the broad sweep of this request shows that the committee lacks prior knowledge of “whether responsive exist, who may possess them, or where they are located.” Thus, by producing documents Flynn would be testifying regarding the existence and authenticity of these records. Moreover, Flynn’s production of responsive documents would require him to testify implicitly regarding his knowledge of who is a “Russian official or representative of Russian business interests.”

Without having studied the matter in any detail, it strikes me that Flynn seems to have at least a plausible act of production objection here. This does not necessarily mean, however, that he would ultimately prevail in litigation. The act of production doctrine is technical and fact specific, and its contours have yet to be clearly spelled out in the case law. Furthermore, to the extent that Flynn has responsive documents that belong to a collective entity and are not simply his own individual documents, the privilege would be inapplicable. Thus, SSCI might reasonably conclude that Flynn’s objection should be rejected on the merits, in whole or in part, or at least that its validity should be tested in court.

What, then, would the committee’s options be? One possibility would be for the committee and the Senate to hold Flynn in criminal contempt, and refer the contempt citation to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia for presentation to the grand jury pursuant to 2 U.S.C. § 194. This law on its face requires the U.S. Attorney to present the contempt matter to a grand jury, but the executive branch has long taken the position that it may disregard this mandatory language, at least in cases where Congress seeks to obtain information which the president has determined to be protected by executive privilege. An unfortunate precedent set in the last administration extends this position to cases where the U.S. Attorney simply believes Congress’s legal position is wrong, even if no question of executive privilege is presented. As I explained in that case (involving the contempt charge against Lois Lerner): “Essentially the U.S. Attorney’s office is reserving the right to make its own independent judgment about the legitimacy of a congressional contempt citation, even if that means resolving a close legal question in a way that protects a witness in an investigation that could embarrass the administration he serves.” Based on that precedent, the executive could refuse to present the Flynn contempt to a grand jury.

The matter is further complicated by the appointment of a special counsel (it turns out that quite a bit happened while I was gone) to investigate the Russia matter. One would think that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, would exercise jurisdiction over any Flynn contempt referral or, at the least, would have to sign off on how the case was handled. This makes it less likely that the Flynn prosecution would simply be dropped like the Lerner case. On the other hand, it may not make it more likely that SSCI will get the documents it is seeking, particularly in a timely fashion. Mueller’s incentive would be to use the possibility of a Flynn indictment for congressional contempt as leverage to advance the priorities of his own criminal investigation. He may have little interest in helping the committee with its investigation (or may actually prefer that the committee’s investigation be halted so as not to interfere with his own).

SSCI may prefer, therefore, to look to an alternative method of enforcing its subpoena. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1365, a Senate committee can bring a civil enforcement action to enforce a subpoena. Under this mechanism, if a subpoena recipient fails to comply with a subpoena from a Senate committee or subcommittee, the committee reports a contempt resolution to the Senate, which may then adopt a resolution directing the Senate Legal Counsel to bring the enforcement action in federal court. See 2 U.S.C. §§ 288b, 288d.

The Senate rarely uses this civil enforcement method, in part because there is an exemption for subpoenas directed to executive branch officials who assert a governmental privilege or objection. That exemption, however, is inapplicable to Flynn’s case, and thus the Senate is free to use it to obtain a federal court ruling on the validity of his Fifth Amendment objection. One downside to this method of enforcement is that it will take some time (e.g., it almost certainly could not be resolved before 2018). A civil enforcement action the Senate brought last year, however, was resolved relatively quickly, within about 6 months of the action being filed by Senate Legal Counsel. (Here is a good summary, ironically written by Flynn’s counsel, of the court’s decision in that case). There is no way to guarantee that a case against Flynn would proceed that quickly (in fact, it probably wouldn’t), but there is no also reason to believe that a criminal contempt proceeding would move any faster. And civil contempt is generally a better method of resolving good faith legal disputes than is criminal contempt. Thus, all in all, it seems to me that a civil enforcement action would be the better method of enforcement here.

In a saner world, there would be another option that the Senate should seriously consider. Any Senate committee can grant immunity by a two-thirds vote of its members (or the Senate as a whole can grant immunity by a simple majority). Although there is a procedure that must be followed to complete the grant of immunity (see 18 U.S.C. §§ 6002, 6005), ultimately SSCI has the power to overcome Flynn’s Fifth Amendment privilege if a bipartisan supermajority of the committee wishes to do so. Although the committee could grant immunity just for the act of production, under current law the consequences would probably be little different than granting Flynn full testimonial immunity (in either case it would be nearly impossible to prosecute him for crimes related to the subject of the committee’s investigation, though he could still be prosecuted for perjury or contempt were he to fail to fully and truthfully respond to the committee’s inquiries). If one believes that obtaining the full truth regarding the Russia investigation is a matter of the highest national priority, it is worth considering whether getting General Flynn’s documents and testimony is more important than preserving the option of prosecuting him.

As a practical matter, however, the Senate almost certainly will not give this serious consideration. The special counsel, whose mission is focused solely on criminal enforcement, would vigorously object to the Senate granting immunity to Flynn. Senators would not want to be seen as responsible for letting Flynn escape criminal punishment, even if this means that SSCI’s investigation is substantially slowed or halted. One of the unfortunate consequences of appointing a special counsel in these circumstances (not the only one, to be sure) is that the public’s interest in a full and expeditious investigation of the Russia matter will take a back seat to the needs and inclinations of the special counsel and the criminal justice system.

So with regard to General Flynn’s refusal to comply with SSCI’s document subpoena, it is likely to be a civil enforcement action or nothing.

(Not So) Desperately Seeking Trump’s Tax Returns

Despite the great deal of chatter (marches even) about the need for President Trump to release his tax returns, there has been relatively little discussion of Congress’s statutory authority to obtain these materials. Two exceptions are these comments by Professors Andy Grewal and George Yin. Grewal and Yin agree that Congress has the authority to request and obtain Trump’s tax returns for a legitimate legislative purpose, and they also agree that the executive branch could disregard a congressional request for these returns on certain grounds (e.g., Congress does not in fact have a legitimate legislative need for the information or, in Grewal’s words, “the request is supported only by personal animus and not a proper legislative purpose”).

Though the matter is not free from doubt, I take a somewhat different view of the law here. I argue below that the Secretary of the Treasury (to whom Congress directs requests for tax return information) and the executive branch in general do not have the legal right to refuse congressional requests for tax return information based on an assessment of the legislative need or motive that underlies such requests. I also suggest that Congress can minimize the likelihood that the executive branch will assert a right to refuse its request by adopting a careful and disciplined approach to making the request in the first place.

Continue reading “(Not So) Desperately Seeking Trump’s Tax Returns”

Going Rogatory: How a Congressional Committee Might Subpoena Julian Assange

Back in 2013, we discussed the possibility that a congressional committee could subpoena Edward Snowden, a U.S. citizen who had fled the country with a lot of defense and intelligence secrets and was living (and still lives) as Mr. Putin’s guest in Russia. As I noted then, congressional committees can attempt to obtain documents or testimony overseas through the use of letters rogatory or requests for legal assistance under applicable treaties, though these are far from guaranteed methods of success. As far as I know, no congressional committee even attempted to subpoena Snowden.

With calls for congressional investigation of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, one or more committees may now face the issue of attempting to subpoena Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks and a key witness in any such investigation. Attempting to secure Assange’s testimony may be even more challenging than trying to get Snowden’s because Assange is not a U.S. citizen and he resides in the sovereign territory of one country (Ecuador) located in another (the UK). Specifically, Assange lives in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Before getting into how a committee might attempt to procure Assange’s testimony, it should be noted that the committee would be wise to get authorization from its chamber to seek information abroad. As Mort Rosenberg explains in his forthcoming book, such authorization has traditionally been the first step in requesting international assistance to obtain information:

Since 1974 ten special congressional investigating committees have been vested with authority to request the judicial assistance of U.S. courts to take depositions or access information in foreign jurisdictions through the vehicle of letters rogatory and to seek other means of international assistance in gathering information in foreign countries.

Morton Rosenberg, When Congress Comes Calling: A Study of the Principles, Practices, and Pragmatics of Legislative Inquiry (anticipated January 2017 publication). Such authorization, to be sure, is not a magic wand that entitles the committee to all (or any) foreign discovery it desires. It may not even be legally necessary, but it does give the committee an “imprimatur of authority to utilize formal judicial and international treaty processes,” as well as serve “to give legitimacy to less formal ventures to obtain necessary information.” Id.

Thus, whether the investigation is conducted by a special committee or a permanent committee, it makes sense for the House or Senate to adopt a resolution specifically authorizing the committee in question to use means of international assistance to obtain information overseas. The committee also needs deposition authority (if it doesn’t have it already) since Assange and other foreign witnesses almost certainly cannot be compelled to travel to the United States to participate in a hearing. Finally, for reasons explained below, the committee should be authorized to effectuate service by means other than traditional personal service.

Continue reading “Going Rogatory: How a Congressional Committee Might Subpoena Julian Assange”

Things to do in Dirksen when You’re Dead

If nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of being hanged, there should be quite a few members of Congress, particularly but not exclusively Democrats, who are having a moment of clarity about the lamentable state of the legislative branch in our constitutional system. These are not new concerns. As I pointed out two years ago, following an otherwise partisan and contentious hearing before the House Rules Committee, “every witness and member who spoke to the issue seemed to agree that there has been a serious erosion of congressional power in recent decades and that Congress has failed to act in self defense when faced with presidents who seek to aggrandize their power at the expense of the legislative branch.”

There are, of course, institutional and structural reasons why it is hard for Congress to push back against executive overreach. Congressional Democrats may have agreed in theory about the dangers of an “uber presidency” (as Professor Jonathan Turley puts it), but for the last 8 years they have had little or no interest in doing anything about it. Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, have advanced various proposals for restoring legislative authority, but they have lacked either the ability or the will to put them into effect.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not the result simply of moral failings on the part of our elected representatives. Since at least the end of the Second World War, Congress has been at a substantial disadvantage in advancing its institutional prerogatives vis a vis the executive. Modern presidents “sit atop a vast executive branch and are able to take a wide variety of actions unilaterally.” Bradley & Morrison, Historical Gloss and the Separation of Powers, 126 Harv. L. Rev. 411, 440 (2012). Congress, on the other hand, as a plural body has a serious collective action problem in attempting to respond: “each individual member has relatively little incentive to expend resources trying to increase or defend congressional power, since he or she will not be able to capture most of the gains.” Id. Moreover, the “modern party system further reduces the incentives of individual members of Congress to act systematically in constraining executive power or resisting executive aggrandizement.” Id. at 443. Because “individual members of Congress tend overwhelmingly to act in accord with the preferences of their party,” the president’s co-partisans rarely will cooperate in any effort to constrain his power. Id.

These problems are exacerbated by an imbalance of resources between the two branches. One example, near and dear to the heart of this blog, relates to executive branch’s advantage in the sheer number of lawyers dedicated to advancing its institutional interests. This is perhaps both a cause and a symptom of the legislature’s disadvantage: “The fact that Congress lacks an institutional counterpart to the Office of Legal Counsel (which, among other things, monitors congressional inroads on executive authority) is an illustration of the executive’s greater institutional focus.” Bradley & Morrison, 126 Harv. L. Rev. at 443.

A noted OLC veteran once summarized Congress’s problem thusly:

In any controversy between the political branches over a separation-of-powers question, staking out a position and defending it over time is far easier for the Executive Branch than for the Legislative Branch. All Presidents have a high interest in expanding the powers of their office, since the more power the President can wield, the more effectively he can implement his political agenda; whereas individual Senators may have little interest in opposing Presidential encroachment on legislative prerogatives, especially when the encroacher is a President who is the leader of their own party.

NLRB v. Noel Canning, 134 S.Ct. 2550, 2606 (2014) (Scalia, J., concurring) (citing Bradley & Morrison).

These observations suggest that expectations for renewed assertions of congressional authority should be low. Congressional Democrats may find a new urgency in aggressive assertion of such authority, but congressional Republicans are just as likely to go in the opposite direction, seeing it to be in their political interest to cooperate with the incoming administration. They may continue in theory to support many of the ideas that have been put forward (establishing and enforcing limits on agency authority, strengthening its exercise of the power of the purse, conducting more robust oversight of the executive branch, and enforcing congressional subpoenas and demands for information), but in practice these goals will be secondary to the political expediency of supporting the new president.

Yet, as Bradley and Morrison note, the weakness and passivity of Congress is historically contingent.  126 Harv. L. Rev. at 446. The “obstacles to effective congressional checks on executive power—including members’ tendency to think more in terms of party than branch, and the President’s greater ability to appeal to the national electorate—are not fixed features of our constitutional order.” Id. at 447. Perhaps the unique qualities of the president-elect, including but not limited to his historically unprecedented disapproval ratings, will change congressional behavior.

Some observers suggest reasons for optimism. George Will writes: “For constitutional conservatives, the challenge is exactly what it would have been had Clinton won: to strengthen the rule of law by restoring institutional equilibrium. This requires a Republican Congress to claw back from a Republican executive the legislative powers that Congress has ceded to the administrative state, and to overreaching executives like Obama, whose executive unilateralism the president-elect admires.” Ben Domenech says of the president-elect, “his attitude and character are so abrasive to the sentiments of the American elites that it almost has to result in a reassertion of the powers of the other branches of government, particularly the Congress.”

We will see. If Congress is going to act, it must do so quickly. After all, the president-elect (probably) doesn’t even know what the OLC is yet.

In the meantime, they will soon be erecting the scaffolding on Capitol Hill. For the inauguration, of course.