A Congressional Clerkship Program (Or How Larry Kramer Went Back In Time And Stole My Idea)

A few years ago I came up with what I thought was a brilliant and original idea. Well, at least an original idea. Establish a congressional clerkship program, in which recent law school graduates could work for a year providing legal research and advice to Congress. It would be something of a cross between a judicial clerkship and the DOJ Honors Program, and the basic idea would be to give the clerks the same type of experience from a congressional perspective. Congress would get the benefit of top quality legal talent and, equally importantly, would have the opportunity to educate these new lawyers on congressional legal issues that are often overlooked in law schools.

It turns out that a lot of people were way ahead of me. In 2005, 145 Law School Deans, led by Stanford Dean Larry Kramer, had sent a letter to Congress urging the creation of a congressional clerkship program (the letter may be read at the Congressional Clerkship Initiative website). The Deans wrote: “Following the judicial clerkship model, we would propose that a Congressional Clerk serve for one or two years, either for an individual legislator or for a legislative committee, and be comparably compensated.” They predict that “legislative clerks could and would rapidly learn the ropes and become invaluable assistants on tasks ranging from research to crafting positions and writing speeches to the actual drafting of legislation and legislative reports.”

The Deans point out that judicial clerks are top law school graduates and “go on disproportionately to assume leadership positions in the bar and in the profession.” The fact that many such leaders have had judicial clerkship experience, but no comparable degree of congressional experience, explains “in part why the legal profession in this country tends to emphasize litigation and the judiciary over legislation and the lawmaking process.” A robust congressional clerkship program “would do much to improve understanding and appreciation of the legislative process within the legal profession and, through the profession, in the country as a whole.”

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More Implications of DC Bar Ethics Opinion No. 358

As mentioned in my last post, D.C. Bar Legal Ethics Opinion No. 358 amplifies the 1977 opinion in a couple ways that are of interest.  First, the Legal Ethics Committee (LEC) states that a prosecutor holds “a position akin to counsel for an investigative congressional committee” for purposes of the legal ethics rules. Although the 1977 opinion partly relied on decisions that prohibited prosecutors from requiring witnesses to assert the Fifth before a grand jury, it did not generally equate the positions of prosector and committee counsel.

One can only imagine how lawyers for clients investigated by congressional committees might use this language.  For example, Rule 3.8(a) of the DC Bar Rules of Professional Conduct states that a prosecutor shall not “in exercising discretion to investigate or to prosecute, improperly favor or invidiously discriminate against any person.”  Could this provision be used to file a complaint against a committee counsel who investigates wrongdoing solely when it is associated with the other political party (or, conversely, opposes investigations against persons associated with his own political party)?

Rule 3.8(f) also sharply limits the prosecutor’s ability to make extrajudicial statements prejudicial to the accused.  The LEC specifically cites Comment 2 to Rule 3.8, which states that “a prosecutor should use special care to avoid publicity, such as through televised press conferences, which would unnecessarily heighten condemnation of the accused.”  The logic of this position would not seem to be limited to requiring witnesses to take the Fifth in an open hearing, but could apply to any negative or prejudicial comments regarding persons who are subject to congressional investigation.

Opinion No. 358 also provides some guidance on the types of conduct that might cause a lawyer to violate the ethical rules.  Committee lawyers, of course, do not have the power to issue subpoenas or to decide whether hearings should be closed.  These powers belong to the committee (or, in some cases, to the chairman).  The LEC suggests, however, that a staff lawyer might be guilty of “assisting another in violating the rules.”  It is not clear exactly what that means, but one could infer that committee lawyers have some sort of duty to refuse to assist the committee in activities that would violate the rules.

The LEC also notes that “[i]n addition to participation in the hearing itself, such related activities as preparing subpoenas also could subject a lawyer to sanctions, although we note that Rule 5.2 protects a subordinate lawyer who acts as the direction of a supervising attorney so long as there a reasonable argument that calling the witness is permitted by the Rules.”

How would this work in the congressional context?  Suppose, for example, a committee chair directs counsel to prepare a subpoena for a witness.  Can the counsel rely on this instruction as a defense? Probably not, if the chair is not a lawyer (or a member of the DC bar).  What about the House General Counsel’s office, which reviews all subpoenas under House practice?  Can the committee counsel rely on the General Counsel’s determination as to whether the subpoena is permitted under the DC Bar ethics rules?  Perhaps, but the House Counsel is not a “supervising attorney” of the committee lawyer.  The House Counsel, however, may need to ensure that the subpoena complies with the legal ethics rules, to avoid a potential charge that he or she has “assisted” the committee in violating those rules.

Opinion No. 358 may open up an interesting can of worms on the Hill.

DC Bar Opinion on the Ethics of Congressional Lawyers

In 1977, the Legal Ethics Committee (LEC) of the D.C. Bar, interpreting the Code of Professional Responsibility (the predecessor to the Rules of Professional Conduct), opined that an attorney serving as counsel to a congressional committee was prohibited by the disciplinary rules from requiring a witness to appear at televised hearings when the committee had been notified in advance that the witness would refuse to answer questions based on the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.  See Michael Stern, Ethical Obligations of Congressional Lawyers, 63 N.Y.U. Annual Survey of American Law 191, 192, 207-08 (2007).

This opinion has long caused consternation among congressional committees and their lawyers.  Among the objections to it: (1) there are legitimate reasons why a committee may wish to call a witness to testify notwithstanding an indication that he or she will assert the privilege against self-incrimination; (2) the D.C. Bar has no authority to regulate the proceedings of congressional committees; and (3) the decision of whether or not to subpoena a witness, or to close a hearing, belongs to the committee, not to staff lawyers.

The LEC has now issued Opinion No. 358 (Jan. 2011), which responds to a request to vacate the 1977 opinion.  (Although the source of the request is not identified, I believe it was former House Counsel Irv Nathan).  The LEC analyzes the issue under the current rules and concludes that there is no basis to vacate the prior opinion.  In doing so, however, it both qualifies and perhaps extends the reach of the opinion in notable ways.

Opinion No. 358 acknowledges, as did the 1977 opinion, that the LEC’s “jurisdiction is confined to rendering opinions on the applicability of the ethics rules to the conduct of staff attorneys acting in their capacities as attorneys.”  Thus, the opinion presumably does not apply to Members of Congress, even though many are lawyers and some may be members of the D.C. Bar.

Nevertheless, the LEC reiterates that a committee staff lawyer may violate the ethical rules if he or she participates in calling a witness who has asserted an intention to plead the Fifth.  According to Opinion No. 358, such conduct potentially violates Rule 4.4(a), which states that “a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden a third person,” and Rule 8.4(d), which prohibits a lawyer from “engag[ing] in conduct that seriously interferes with the administration of justice.”

According to Opinion No. 358, the rules are not violated simply by the fact that a witness who intends to assert the Fifth is subpoenaed to do so in an open hearing.  Instead, a violation occurs only if the sole purpose of calling the witness is to degrade or harass.  The opinion implicitly acknowledges that there are circumstances in which this is not the sole purpose of calling the witness to appear in public, although it does not provide much guidance on what those circumstances may be.

This is a significant qualification to the 1977 opinion, which has generally been understood to hold that it is per se improper to require a witness to appear in a public hearing if he or she has stated an intention to plead the Fifth.  Thus, while Opinion No. 358 purports to reaffirm the 1977 opinion, it arguably makes it more difficult for a witness to use it as a basis for refusing to appear (the LEC expressly declines to opine on whether it is ever appropriate for a witness to invoke the opinion as a basis for refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena).

On the other hand, there are aspects of Opinion No. 358 which could raise new problems for congressional lawyers.  I will discuss those in my next post.