Does the President Enjoy Absolute Testimonial Immunity?

As we saw in my last post, for presidential advisers to have testimonial immunity it is necessary but not sufficient that the president himself have such immunity. Assistant Attorney General Rehnquist noted in 1971 that “[e]veryone associated with the Executive Branch from [the Aaron Burr treason trial] until now, so far as I know, has taken the position that the President himself is absolutely immune from subpoena by anyone . . .” Rehnquist Memorandum at 3. Of course, taking a position is not the same thing as establishing that the position is correct.

OLC’s current justification for the president’s immunity consists of little more than the bare assertion that “Congress may no more summon the President to a congressional committee room than the President may command Members of Congress to appear at the White House.” 5-20-19 OLC Opinion at 1. I have three observations about this assertion. First, it should be noted that it is more modest than the position stated by Rehnquist in 1971. The latter was that the president was immune from “subpoena by anyone.” OLC today refers only to subpoena by Congress, although its reasoning, premised on the fact that the “President stands at the head of a co-equal branch of government,” would seem to apply equally to judicial subpoenas. See 5-20-19 OLC Opinion at 4. By confining its claim, OLC avoids the need to deal with the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), which suggests that “even the President may not be absolutely immune from compulsory process more generally.” Comm. on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives v. Miers, 558 F.Supp.2d 53, __ (2008).

Second, as others have noted, the attempt to equate congressional and presidential subpoena authority makes no sense because the president has no subpoena authority and thus lacks the power to command anyone (other than, I suppose, his subordinates) to appear at the White House. The president’s inability to compel the appearance of members of the Congress therefore says nothing about the subpoena authority of congressional committees.

Third, the comparison makes even less sense when one considers that members of Congress have no immunity from subpoenas themselves. Representatives and senators have been required to appear and testify in many types of proceedings despite the existence of an express constitutional privilege against arrest which was designed to allow them to carry out their legislative duties without interruption while Congress is in session. Though no less authorities than Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Story believed this provision gave members a (temporary) immunity from subpoenas ad testificandum, this position has never been accepted by the courts. See 2 Deschler’s Precedents of the U.S. House of Representatives 817 (“The rulings of the courts, both state and federal, have uniformly expressed the principle that a summons or subpena is not an arrest, and is not precluded by the Constitution.”). Similarly, although members have a privilege against being questioned about legislative activities under the Speech or Debate Clause, this does not equate to an absolute testimonial immunity or the right to refuse to appear when subpoenaed. See Miers, 558 F.Supp.2d at __ (“Members cannot simply assert, without more, that the Speech or Debate Clause shields their activities and thereby preclude all further inquiry.”) Thus, OLC’s comparison would seem to support, rather than refute, the president’s amenability to subpoena. Id.

Interestingly, while OLC relies on many of its prior memoranda in support of its contention that presidential advisers have absolute testimonial immunity, it fails to mention a 1973 memorandum which expresses doubt as to whether even the president himself has such immunity. After discussing the dispute between Chief Justice Marshall and President Jefferson over whether the latter could be required to give evidence in the Aaron Burr treason trial, the memorandum notes that “[m]odern legal discussion of the power of the courts to subpoena the President still adheres to Chief Justice Marshall’s view that the President is not exempt from judicial process, in particular the judicial power compel anyone to give testimony.” Memorandum from Robert G. Dixon, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, Re: Presidential Amenability to Judicial Subpoenas 5 (June 25, 1973) (available in OLC FOIA electronic reading room) (hereinafter “Dixon memorandum”). It goes on to note that it is “questionable whether there is adequate precedent for the proposition that the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers precludes vel non the issuance of judicial subpoenas to the President.” Dixon Memorandum at 7.

The same memorandum suggests that any presidential immunity or protection against subpoenas may be limited in cases of alleged official wrongdoing:

A special situation exists with respect to claims of privilege where charges of official wrongdoings are concerned. There appears to be no pertinent precedent as to whether a President can claim privilege in judicial proceedings in that situation. There have been, however, several statements made by Presidents and Attorneys General that privilege will not be invoked vis-a-vis Congress where charges of official wrongdoing are involved. Significantly those statements have usually been made [in the context of] the Congressional power of impeachment.

Dixon Memorandum at 12 (citations omitted) (emphasis added).

Dixon concludes that “the subpoenaing of a President involves a number of complex issues depending on the circumstances in which and the purposes for which the subpoena is issued.” Dixon Memorandum at 13. For example, “it could be argued that a President will not or cannot claim privilege where official misconduct is the subject matter of grand jury proceedings or of a criminal prosecution.” Id. Moreover, “it may well be that a President will not or even may not claim privilege where Congress performs its specific constitutional responsibilities in the field of impeachment.” Id. These observations, it should be noted, precede the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Nixon, which only bolsters Dixon’s skepticism regarding the president’s absolute immunity from subpoena.

While OLC’s position on presidential testimonial immunity has little support in judicial precedent or legal doctrine, historical practice is more favorable. As Andy Wright details here, presidents rarely have testified in judicial or congressional proceedings and when they have done so it is generally with an accommodation to indicate the voluntariness of their cooperation. Perhaps most strikingly, neither Andrew Johnson nor Bill Clinton testified in their impeachment trials, nor did Nixon testify in the House Judiciary Committee inquiry regarding his impeachment. I would summarize this history as reflecting a strong constitutional convention against forcing a president to testify in any but the most compelling circumstances.

All this being said, there is no direct judicial precedent on the question of whether a sitting president is entitled to absolute testimonial immunity.  I tend to agree with Steve Vladeck and Ben Wittes that it is more likely than not that the Supreme Court would reject a claim of such immunity, but I also agree with them that “it is not a sure thing, and the President has plausible arguments available to him that a court would have to work through before enforcing a subpoena for his testimony.” There is particular uncertainty as to how newer members of the Court may view the president’s claim of absolute testimonial immunity (and some reason to believe that Justice Kavanaugh, in particular, may be sympathetic to such a claim). Continue reading “Does the President Enjoy Absolute Testimonial Immunity?”

Update on BLAG’s Authority to Initiate Subpoena Enforcement Action

As I discussed in a prior post,  House Rule II(8)(B) currently provides with respect to the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group:

There is established a Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group composed of the Speaker and the majority and minority leaderships. Unless otherwise provided by the House, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group speaks for, and articulates the institutional position of, the House in all litigation matters.

As I noted in the prior post, it is possible to argue that this provision authorizes BLAG to initiate litigation on behalf of and in the name of the House. This raises the question whether BLAG could file a subpoena enforcement action on behalf and in the name of the House without a House vote on the particular subpoena in question. Such an interpretation would have to be squared with the language of House Rule XI that “[c]ompliance with a subpoena issued by a committee or subcommittee . . . may be enforced only as authorized or directed by the House.”

It turns out that I was not the first person to think of this. Unbeknownst to me (and, I suspect, most House members), Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern had inserted the following statement in the record on January 3, 2019:

I want to speak regarding House Rule II(8)(B). Pursuant to this provision, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) is delegated the authority to speak for the full House of Representatives with respect to all litigation matters. A vote of the BLAG to authorize litigation and to articulate the institutional position of the House in that litigation, is the equivalent of a vote of the full House of Representatives. For example, in the 115th Congress, the BLAG, pursuant to Rule II(8)(B), authorized House Committees to intervene in ongoing litigation. The BLAG has been delegated this authority for all litigation matters, and I want to be clear that this includes litigation related to the civil enforcement of a Committee subpoena. If a Committee determines that one or more of its duly issued subpoenas has not been complied with and that civil enforcement is necessary, the BLAG, pursuant to House Rule (II)(8)(B), may authorize the House Office of General Counsel to initiate civil litigation on behalf of this Committee to enforce the Committee’s subpoena(s) in federal district court.

Based on this “legislative history,” would a court conclude that BLAG’s authority to “speak[] for, and articulate[] the institutional position of, the House in all litigation matters” empowers it to authorize a committee to bring suit in federal court? I remain somewhat skeptical, but Chairman McGovern’s statement presumably would strengthen that argument. It appears, however, that the House is planning to adopt a much more explicit resolution on that issue, which is wise.

Why the Mazars and New York Bank Cases are Moving So Fast, and Why Others Will Not

On Monday, May 20, 2019, Judge Mehta dismissed Trump v. Committee on Oversight and Reform, No. 19-civ-01136 (D.D.C.). The judge’s ruling came just four weeks after President Trump (in his personal capacity) and several of his businesses filed suit to enjoin enforcement of a congressional subpoena to Mazars, an accounting firm that had worked for the Trump companies.  This quick resolution may have surprised some observers because legal experts have been predicting that legal fights between the administration and Congress are likely to drag on for many months if not years and could well be still in litigation when this congress expires in January 2021.

It is important to understand, however, that the Mazars case (and the case in New York which Trump seeks to block congressional subpoena to banks for his financial records) are in a very different procedural posture from other ongoing information disputes (such as those over the Mueller report and related documents, tax returns, or the testimony of current or former administration officials). Mazars and the New York banks are third parties that have indicated they will comply with the congressional subpoenas unless ordered to do otherwise by a court. Therefore, it is Trump’s legal team which needs judicial intervention to alter the status quo, whereas in the other disputes Congress will likely be in the position of asking for judicial assistance.

In the Mazar and New York bank cases, Trump’s legal team initially asked for emergency judicial relief (i.e., a TRO) in order to prevent the cases from becoming moot by virtue of the third parties complying with the subpoenas. In both cases, however, the House Counsel’s office agreed to postpone the return date for the subpoenas until 7 days after a district court ruling on the motion for a preliminary injunction, thereby rendering it unnecessary to have a TRO. As part of the same agreement, the parties agreed to an expedited schedule for briefing and oral argument (which both courts accepted and entered as orders).

As the result of that agreement, Trump’s team was now in the position of nominally seeking expedited relief (a preliminary injunction), but actually no longer needing it so long as the court did not rule on the preliminary injunction motion. This anomaly presented itself when Judge Mehta proposed consolidating the preliminary injunction hearing with a final trial on the merits. Trump’s lawyers objected, saying that they needed more time to prepare for such a trial, and suggesting that instead the preliminary injunction hearing could be pushed back so the record could be fully developed. The House oversight committee, in contrast, had no objection to the proposed consolidation, but emphasized that the preliminary injunction hearing should go on as scheduled regardless.

Judge Mehta did in fact consolidate the merits trial with the preliminary injunction, but it is not clear this mattered much. If the judge had simply denied the preliminary injunction, Mazars would have been expected to comply with the subpoena after 7 days regardless. Presumably Trump’s lawyers would have asked for the judge to stay his ruling until a final merits decision, but they would have been in no better posture (and arguably somewhat worse) than they were as a result of the consolidation. Following the court’s ruling against them on both the preliminary injunction and the merits, they asked the court for a stay, which was denied. Now the plaintiffs’ only option is to obtain a stay from the D.C. Circuit so as to prevent the case from becoming moot before the appellate court can hear it. Had the case not been consolidated, they probably could have sought such relief from the appellate court, but it might have been even harder to get the court to intervene on a matter that was still before the district court (admittedly I am just guessing about this).

In any event, unless the D.C. Circuit issues a stay of the district court’s ruling, Mazars will be required to comply with the subpoena as early as next week. If Judge Ramos, who is presiding over Trump v. Deutsche Bank, No. 1:19-cv-03826 (SDNY) and is hearing argument today,  similarly denies Trump’s preliminary injunction motion, that case could also end within a week of the ruling unless either the district court or the Second Circuit issue a stay.

None of the other information disputes currently percolating are likely to move anywhere nearly as quickly as this. If cases are brought directly against the administration (eg, for the Mueller report or Trump’s tax returns), the congressional plaintiff will not be able to seek expedited relief (a TRO or preliminary injunction) since it will be seeking to change, not preserve, the status quo. Moreover, the executive branch defendant will have little incentive to agree to an expedited briefing or argument.

Exactly how fast a case may move at the district court level will depend on a number of factors, including the complexity of the legal issues and whether any discovery or document review is necessary to resolve the matter (going through the 1.4 million pages of Mueller documents to determine the applicability of different executive privilege claims, for example, could take a very long time). But even a case that presents a relatively straightforward legal issue is likely to take a few months with a normal briefing and argument schedule. In the Miers case, for example, Judge Bates issued his ruling in favor of the House Judiciary Committee about 4 and a half months after the action was filed.

Of course, the district court has a great deal of discretion with regard to scheduling matters. Judge Mehta clearly believed that it was important to expedite the Mazars case (even going so far as to consolidate the merits trial on his own initiative). Even there, though, the court’s reasons for acting quickly were based in part on the fact that it was being asked to interfere with the functioning of a coordinate branch of government. A district court might be less inclined to act quickly when it is being asked by the legislative branch to order the executive branch to turn over information.

Furthermore, however quickly the district court decides the case, the executive branch still has the right to appeal that decision, to seek rehearing en banc of any appellate decision, and ultimately to petition the Supreme Court for review. Even assuming that neither the en banc court nor the Supreme Court decide to hear the case, it is difficult to imagine the full process being complete in much less than a year.

One category of case that might be resolved more quickly would be enforcement actions by Congress against former executive officials like Don McGahn. These individuals are in a situation somewhat analogous to third parties like Mazars, in that they do not have (or purport not to have) a position or interest in whether or not they comply with the subpoena. On the other hand, they do purport to have an obligation to follow the president’s instructions with regard to asserting executive privilege (though opinions differ on whether such an obligation exists).

At any rate, if a district court orders such a former official to comply with a congressional subpoena, the    former official may not wish to risk possible contempt of court by continuing to defy the subpoena. Even if the Justice Department is able to obtain a stay from the district court or the court of appeals, the former official could decide that the district court’s decision is sufficient to release him from any further obligation not to comply. Thus, these cases could be resolved more quickly than direct suits against the executive branch, though probably not as quickly as the Mazars and New York bank cases.