As litigation regarding the subpoena and investigatory authority of the January 6 select committee proliferates, it is worth stepping back and asking a question that apparently is not being asked in any of these cases: do federal courts have the authority to adjudicate the merits of these disputes?
When a congressional committee first sought the assistance of a federal court to enforce a subpoena for executive branch information, the defense explained that “entry into the federal court is like opening a safe deposit box, where two separate keys are required.” Brief of Richard M. Nixon in Opposition to Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment at 9, Senate Select Comm. on Presidential Campaign Activities v. Nixon, 366 F. Supp. 51 (D.D.C. 1973) (No. 1593-73), reprinted in Appendix to the Hearings of the Senate Select Comm. on Presidential Campaign Activities, Legal Documents Relating to the Select Comm. Hearings, Part I, 93d Cong., 1st sess. 813 (Comm. Print June 28, 1974). The first key was constitutional justiciability; the second was statutory authority. Nixon argued that the Senate Watergate Committee lacked both keys.
For the moment, the question of constitutional justiciability has been settled, at least in the D.C. Circuit, by the ruling in Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn, 968 F.3d 755 (D.C. Cir. 2020) (en banc), where the court held that congressional committees have Article III standing to seek judicial enforcement of their subpoenas. While one might argue that this decision does not resolve all potential justiciability issues, the court’s reasoning seems likely to foreclose any successful challenge to the constitutional justiciability of controversies arising from the enforcement of congressional subpoenas, including those that involve attempts to obtain executive branch information.
The question of statutory authorization is murkier and messier. Whether there needs to be explicit statutory authorization to bring a suit to enforce a congressional subpoena remains open. Nearly a century ago, when a congressional committee first sought judicial assistance to enforce a subpoena, the Supreme Court rejected the suit on the ground that the committee lacked authorization to sue, though it left open whether such authorization required statutory enactment or could be accomplished by resolution of a single house. See Reed v. Cty Commissioners, 277 U.S. 376, 388 (1928). When a congressional committee next attempted to enforce a subpoena (the aforementioned Watergate case), Judge Sirica initially dismissed the case because there was no specific jurisdictional statute authorizing such suits. See Senate Select Comm. on Presidential Campaign Activities v. Nixon, 366 F. Supp. 51, 61 (D.D.C. 1973) (“The Court has here been requested to invoke a jurisdiction which only Congress can grant but which Congress has heretofore withheld.”). This problem was solved when Congress passed (and Nixon reluctantly signed) a bill specifically providing for federal court jurisdiction over subpoena enforcement suits by the Senate Watergate Committee (a broader bill that would have applied to suits by all congressional committees passed the Senate but not the House).
Since then there have been many developments, but on balance they are inconclusive. On the one hand, the statute governing general federal question jurisdiction (28 U.S.C. § 1331) was amended to eliminate the amount in controversy requirement, thereby obviating Sirica’s objection to the Senate committee’s attempt to rely on this statute. In the 1980s the Justice Department took the position that this statutory change enabled congressional committees to sue for enforcement of their subpoenas. See Response to Congressional Requests for Information Regarding Decisions made Under the Independent Counsel Act, 10 Op. OLC 68, 87-88 (1986). When the House Judiciary Committee sued to enforce subpoenas to George W. Bush administration officials, the Justice Department conceded that § 1331 provided jurisdiction over the matter, but it contended that the committee lacked a required statutory cause of action. Judge Bates agreed with it on the first point but not on the second. Comm. on the Judiciary v. Miers, 558 F. Supp.2d 53, 64, 78-94 (D.D.C. 2008). In subsequent cases DOJ withdrew its concession on jurisdiction, but several other district courts have agreed with Judge Bates on both points. See, e.g., Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn, 415 F.3d 148, 174-76, 193-95 (D.D.C. 2019) (Ketanji Brown Jackson, J.).
On the other hand, Congress has arguably acted as if express authorization for subpoena enforcement actions is required by repeatedly debating (but not passing) broad statutory authorizations and by passing narrower authorizations (such as the statute providing for enforcement suits by Senate Legal Counsel) that apply only to a subset of subpoena enforcement matters. Moreover, a D.C. Circuit panel recently issued an opinion, since vacated, holding that congressional subpoenas are judicially unenforceable in the absence of specific statutory authorization. See Comm. on the Judiciary v. McGahn, No. 19-5331 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 31, 2020) (holding that the committee lacked a cause of action to enforce its subpoena).
In contrast to the past controversy over congressional subpoena enforcement suits, however, the January 6 cases have proceeded without apparent objections regarding the absence of express statutory authorization, either with regard to subject matter jurisdiction or cause of action. The plaintiffs in these cases rely on §1331 for subject matter jurisdiction, and they presumably would (if challenged) make more or less the same cause of action arguments that congressional committees have advanced in subpoena enforcement cases.
The January 6 cases are different only in that the plaintiffs are the subpoena recipients, rather than the subpoena issuer. It is possible that this is a relevant distinction, but it is not obvious why. As a textual matter, it is difficult to explain how an action brought by a subpoena recipient to enjoin enforcement is one “arising under the Constitution” within the meaning of §1331, but an action by a committee to enforce the very same subpoena would not be.
From a policy standpoint, a regime in which the recipients of congressional subpoenas could avail themselves of judicial remedies, but the committees cannot, is not one that Congress would have chosen. But from Congress’s perspective the most important thing is to obtain clarity on what the state of the law is. To that end it is desirable that the courts address these issues in the January 6 litigation, however they may be resolved.