Will the Mazars Court Overrule McGrain? (Part Two)

As suggested in my last post, the May 12, 2020 oral argument in Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP did not go well for the House, to put it mildly. Most of the tough questions for the House Counsel clustered around a single idea: what is the limiting principle that prevents Congress from prying into whatever it wants, whenever it wants? Before getting to that, however, let’s consider an even more fundamental issue raised by Justice Thomas.

Justice Thomas began his questioning of House Counsel Doug Letter by essentially asking what the constitutional basis is for recognizing the power to issue legislative subpoenas at all. Tr. 54-55. Letter responded by pointing to the long line of Supreme Court cases (which began with McGrain) holding that the power to conduct investigations and issue compulsory process is an inherent and integral part of the legislative power conferred by the Constitution.

Justice Thomas did not appear entirely satisfied with this answer, and he followed up by asking “can you give me the earliest example you have of Congress issuing a legislative subpoena?” Tr. 56. Letter pointed to the House’s 1792 investigation of General St. Clair’s failed expedition. This investigation was viewed by the McGrain Court as significant historical evidence of the existence of a constitutional power to issue legislative subpoenas. As the Court explained:

This power was both asserted and exerted by the House of Representatives in 1792, when it appointed a select committee to inquire into the St. Clair expedition and authorized the committee to send for necessary persons, papers and records. Mr. Madison, who had taken an important part in framing the Constitution only five years before, and four of his associates in that work, were members of the House of Representatives at the time, and all voted for the inquiry.

*           *          *

We are of opinion that the power of inquiry– with process to enforce it– is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function. It was so regarded and employed in American legislatures before the Constitution was framed and ratified. Both houses of Congress took this view of it early in their history– the House of Representatives with the approving votes of Mr. Madison and other members whose service in the convention which framed the Constitution gives special significance to their action– and both houses have employed the power accordingly up to the present time.

McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135, 161, 174 (1927).

Still not satisfied, Thomas pressed further: “What’s the first example of Congress issuing a legislative subpoena to a private party for documents?” Tr. 56. Letter could not answer him directly, but referred him to the discussion of congressional investigatory history in Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178 (1957).

The referenced passage in Watkins, I think, is the following:

Most of the instances of use of compulsory process by the first Congresses concerned matters affecting the qualification or integrity of their members or came about in inquiries dealing with suspected corruption or mismanagement of government officials. [Note: here the Court cites to Landis’s article]. Unlike the English practice, from the very outset, the use of contempt power by the legislature was deemed subject to judicial review.

     There was very little use of the power of compulsory process in early years to enable the Congress to obtain facts pertinent to the enactment of new statutes or the administration of existing laws. The first occasion for such an investigation arose in 1827, when the House of Representatives was considering a revision of the tariff laws. In the Senate, there was no use of a factfinding investigation in aid of legislation until 1859.

Watkins, 354 U.S. at 192-93.

This passage does not specifically answer Justice Thomas’s question, but it suggests why it may not have been exactly the right question. While courts pass on the validity of specific subpoenas, the scope of Congress’s investigatory authority is determined by reference to the investigation that is being conducted, not by the nature of an individual subpoena (e.g., whether it is directed to a private party or seeks documents).

Thus, for example, the investigation of the St. Clair expedition would be one of the inquiries involving “suspected corruption or mismanagement of government officials” referred to in Watkins, but that does not  mean the investigation lacked the power to compel the production of documents or other information from private parties. Indeed, one of the issues in the St. Clair investigation was the quality of military supplies provided by private contractors, and the committee received affidavits and other evidence from these contractors. See I Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. & Roger Bruns, eds., Congress Investigates: A Documented History: 1792-1974 95 (1983). Whether or not the committee actually issued compulsory process to a private party, there seems little doubt it had the authority to do so.

When was the first occasion on which a congressional committee actually issued a legislative subpoena to a private party for documents? The earliest I can verify is that in 1827 a House committee investigating John Calhoun’s prior administration of the War Department subpoenaed documents from an unsuccessful bidder on a government contract. See 3 Reg. of Debates in Cong. 1124 (Feb. 13, 1827). However, the House’s 1810 investigation of General James Wilkinson also obtained testimony and documents from a number of private individuals, at least some of which was obtained by compulsory process. I Congress Investigates at 119 & 170.

The passage quoted from Watkins does not distinguish between subpoenas directed to private parties and government officials, but it does suggest a distinction between (1) investigations of suspected government corruption or mismanagement (what would often be referred to as congressional oversight) and (2) inquiries to obtain facts relevant to enacting or amending legislation. Although both are “legislative” in nature, the Court implies that the latter requires more vigorous scrutiny to ensure that the information sought is pertinent to the investigation, particularly when the information sought would implicate the constitutional rights of private citizens.

This interpretation is consistent with the holding of Watkins, where a labor organizer summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee testified freely about his own activities and associations, but refused to answer questions about individuals whom he believed may have once been but no longer were members of the Communist Party. The Court reversed his conviction for contempt of Congress, holding that the committee violated his rights under the contempt statute and the due process clause by failing to clearly explain to him the pertinency of the questions to its investigation. It did not dispute that political opinions and associations protected by the Bill of Rights could nonetheless be a proper subject of congressional investigation, but “[p]rotected freedoms should not be placed in danger in the absence of a clear determination by the House or the Senate that a particular inquiry is justified by a specific legislative need.” Watkins, 354 U.S. at 198, 205.

The Court emphasized that it was not dealing with congressional oversight, noting that “[t]he public is, of course, entitled to be informed concerning the workings of its government.” Id. at 198. It explained:

     We are not concerned with the power of Congress to inquire into and publicize corruption, maladministration or inefficiency in agencies of the Government. That was the only kind of activity described by Woodrow Wilson in Congressional Government when he wrote: “The informing function of Congress should be preferred even to its legislative function.” From the earliest times in its history, Congress has assiduously performed an “informing function” of this nature. See Landis, Constitutional Limitations on the Congressional Power of Investigation, 40 Harv. L. Rev. 153, 168-194.

Watkins, 354 U.S. at 200 n.33 (citation omitted). The Court thus distinguishes the inquiry in Watkins from the type of congressional oversight involved in McGrain.

This distinction may help point the way to an answer to the question asked by many of the justices at the May 12 argument in Mazars, i.e., what stops Congress from investigating virtually anything on the basis that it has some connection to a subject on which legislation could potentially be had. See, e.g., Tr. 52-54 (Chief Justice Roberts); 57 (Justice Ginsburg); 64 (Justice Alito); 74 (Justice Kavanaugh). Letter had some difficulty answering this question, perhaps because judicial doctrine since McGrain has in fact been extremely deferential to Congress on this score. As the district judge in Mazars pointed out, the governing legal standards are so deferential that they “do not substantially constrain Congress.”

However, the real constraint on Congress is that enforcing a subpoena is extremely cumbersome and therefore legal sanctions for contempt are virtually never imposed. This is in part because the Court in cases like Watkins has imposed technical and procedural requirements for criminal contempt to address the very issue raised in the Mazars argument. See Watkins,  354 U.S. at 204 (expressing concern that the committee “can radiate outward infinitely to any topic thought to be related in some way” to its mandate, that “[r]emoteness of subject can be aggravated by a probe for a depth of detail even farther removed from any basis of legislative action,” and further that “investigators [can] turn their attention to the past to collect minutiae on remote topics, on the hypothesis that the past may reflect upon the present”).

As a consequence, any witness who wishes to contest a congressional subpoena has far more leverage than the formal legal standards would imply. In addition, witnesses have the right to assert privileges, including the privilege against self-incrimination. Congress also has political incentives which further constrain its exercise of the subpoena power. Thus, the hypotheticals advanced by the justices are, for the most part, very unlikely to occur. See, e.g., Tr. 85-86 (Justice Alito) (suggesting the possibility that one house of Congress might subpoena personal records relating to a member of the other house).

Of course, some of these safeguards are inoperative in the Mazars case because it presents the fairly rare scenario of Congress seeking non-privileged records from third parties with no interest in contesting the subpoenas. Whether this  creates a significant potential of congressional abuse is debatable. After all, if Congress were to attempt to exercise this authority in an excessive or abusive manner, banks and other third party record keepers would have an incentive to contest subpoenas to protect the interests of their clients. (This is why the Court would have been wise to consider this blog’s suggestion that only the third parties themselves should have standing to contest the validity of the subpoenas).

Nonetheless, there are undoubtedly instances where Congress investigates particular factual questions which seem tenuously related to a legislative need. It is difficult to see, for example, why Congress would need to know whether a particular baseball player used steroids in order to legislate on the general subject. One could reasonably argue that if Congress is merely seeking information as a case study of a particular social, economic or national security problem, it ought to explain not only how the information is pertinent to potential legislation but why there is a legislative need to explore one specific example out of many. This should be more than adequate to protect against some of the other hypotheticals raised in the May 12 argument, such as the idea that Congress could subpoena an individual’s medical records on the ground it was considering healthcare legislation. See Tr. 65 (Justice Sotomayor).

On the other hand, there is no need for Congress to provide any additional justification for conducting oversight of government agencies and officials. As explained in McGrain and Watkins (and detailed in Professor Landis’s article, among other places), Congress has conducted searching probes into the conduct of government officials and operations since its earliest days. Such investigations are inherently justified by the need to inform itself and the public as to the working of the federal government and to uncover corruption, maladministration and inefficiency of every kind.

This distinction is reflected in Justice Kagan’s suggestion that there may be reasons for treating differently the three congressional subpoenas involved in the consolidated Mazars and Deustche Bank cases. See Tr. 88. Although all three seek similar types of information (financial records relating to President Trump’s private business interests), there are significant differences in the nature of the investigation to which each subpoena relates. The investigation by the Financial Services committee seeks the information simply to use it as a case study of a much more general problem (money laundering) in the financial sector. By contrast, the subpoena from the Intelligence committee is for the purpose of determining whether the president has financial ties to Russia or other foreign actors that might create a conflict of interest or give such actors leverage over his official decision making. The latter falls squarely within the province of congressional oversight while the former constitutes a pure case study investigation that may require additional justification.

The subpoena from the House Oversight committee falls somewhere in the middle. It is defended in part on the ground that it will assist the committee in determining whether to recommend changes to disclosure laws applying to federal officials generally. This is arguably closer to a case study approach, although it seems self-evident why the committee would focus on the highest-ranking federal official, particularly when it has gathered substantial evidence that he has been less than truthful in his private financial disclosures. In addition, the subpoena can be justified on the pure oversight grounds of determining whether the president has financial conflicts of interest or is in violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause.

The line suggested by Justice Kagan would allow the Court to uphold at least one and likely two of the congressional subpoenas, while sending the other(s) back for further proceedings. It seems to me this would be a reasonable compromise that would satisfy the concerns expressed by the justices (with the possible exception of Justice Thomas) without fundamentally disturbing the legal standards established by McGrain and applied in subsequent cases.

Unlike Kagan (and several of her colleagues), however, I would be loathe to establish a special protection applicable only to the president. Historically the Court’s concerns about over broad congressional investigations focus on protecting the affairs of private citizens from arbitrary scrutiny. Even Judge Cochran, who would have applied these principles to an inquiry into the conduct of (then former) Attorney General Daugherty, claimed only that these principles applied as much to federal officials as to private citizens, not that the former were entitled to additional protection. (To date only Judge Rao, in her Mazars dissent in the D.C. Circuit, has advanced the remarkable proposition that impeachable officials enjoy an immunity from legislative investigation that is unavailable to private citizens). If the Court believes that changes are needed to the doctrine governing congressional case study investigations to avoid arbitrary intrusions into private affairs, such should apply to all citizens, not just the one who happens to sit in the Oval Office.

Whatever the Court ends up deciding in Mazars, let us hope they emulate the McGrain Court in one way but not another: the first by achieving unanimity or something close to it; and the second by not taking more than two years to issue a decision.

Will the Mazars Court Overrule McGrain? (Part One)

Nearly a century ago the Supreme Court decided the landmark case of McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135, 174 (1927), in which the Court declared that “the power of inquiry– with process to enforce it– is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function.” In so holding, the Court dispelled doubts raised by Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168 (1880), where, as we discussed here, the Court had expressed skepticism whether Congress could issue compulsory process outside the context of its judicial functions (such as impeachment and disciplining its members). McGrain settled this issue in Congress’s favor and, along with subsequent cases, established such a deferential judicial stance toward the validity of congressional investigations  that no congressional investigation since has been held to exceed Congress’s legislative powers. After listening to the oral argument in Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, however, one has to wonder whether this will soon change.

The McGrain case arose from a Senate resolution calling for a broad investigation into the activities of Attorney General Harry Daugherty (our old friend) and his associates at the Department of Justice, including, but by no means limited to, Daugherty’s failure to pursue legal actions against individuals linked to the Teapot Dome scandal. Suspicions regarding Daugherty’s negligence or favoritism with regard to Teapot Dome, however, were the least of the attorney general’s troubles. Senate hearings in March 1924 featured blockbuster testimony from witnesses who claimed Daugherty and his associates had received large amounts of illicit cash which were deposited in a small Ohio bank run by Daugherty’s brother, Mally (“Mal”) Daugherty. The hearings led to Attorney General Daugherty’s forced resignation on March 28, 1924 and to a subsequent testimonial subpoena requiring Mal to appear before the Senate committee investigating his brother. When Mal refused to appear, the Senate ordered him taken into custody, and he immediately petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in the federal district court for the Southern District of Ohio. (Fun fact: the judge who initially received the habeas petition was Smith Hickenlooper grandfather of the former Colorado governor and presidential candidate).

At this point matters stood at something of a crossroads. With Daugherty’s resignation, the major figures in the scandals of the Harding administration were out of office, and the new Coolidge administration (President Harding having passed away in 1923) was eager to disassociate itself from them. On the other hand, many Republicans argued that the congressional investigations into these scandals were political and excessive, and members of the bar warned that such investigations threatened civil liberties. Chief Justice Taft and Senator George Pepper, a well regarded Republican lawyer, were among the luminaries expressing skepticism about the investigations. See J. Leonard Bates, The Teapot Dome Scandal and the Election of 1924, 60 Am. Hist. Rev. 303, 317 (Jan. 1955).

While Mal Daugherty’s case was pending in the district court, a Harvard law professor named Felix Frankfurter wrote an article in the New Republic entitled “Hands off the Investigations,” which was reprinted in the Congressional Record on the day it was published. See 65 Cong. Rec. 9080-82 (May 21, 1924) (introduced by Senator Ashurst). Professor Frankfurter “came out squarely for the unlimited power of congressional investigations.” Louis B. Boudin, Congressional and Agency Investigations: Their Uses and Abuses, 35 Va. L. Rev. 143, 146 (Feb. 1949).

Frankfurter proclaimed “[i]t is safe to say that never in the history of this country have congressional investigations had to contend with such powerful odds, never have they so quickly revealed wrongdoing, incompetence, and low public standards on such a wide scale, and never have such investigations resulted so effectively in compelling correction through the dismissal of derelict officials.” 65 Cong. Rec. 9081. He sniggered at the suggestion that the Daugherty hearings were unfair because the witnesses who  testified were disreputable (sound familiar?), noting “[i]t is the essence of the whole Daugherty affair that the Attorney General of the United States was involved in questionable association with disreputable characters.” He also rejected the notion that congressional investigations should be subject to rules of evidence or other technical limitations applicable in court, asserting that “[t]he procedure of congressional investigation should remain as it is.” 65 Cong. Rec. 9082.

Just ten days later (May 31, 1924), Mal Daugherty’s habeas petition was granted by US District Judge Cochran (to whom the case for some reason had been reassigned). The court found that the Senate investigation of the (now former) attorney general was beyond the Senate’s constitutional power. See Ex Parte Daugherty, 299 Fed. 620 (S.D. Ohio 1924). Following the reasoning of Kilbourn, Judge Cochran expressed “very serious doubt” whether the Senate had the power to issue compulsory process in any legislative investigation, but he found it unnecessary to rest his decision on that ground. Instead, he reasoned that the Senate was not conducting a proper legislative investigation, but rather it was making an improper attempt to put Harry Daugherty on trial. See id. at __ (“What the Senate is engaged in is not investigating the Attorney General’s office; it is investigating the former Attorney General.”). This was a judicial function that could only be performed by a court or by the House of Representatives pursuant to its impeachment power. The court explained:

[T]he Senate has no power to impeach any Federal officer at the bar of public opinion, no matter what possible good may come of it. It is not within its province to harass, annoy, put in fear, render unfit, or possibly drive from office any such officer, high or low, by instituting such impeachment proceedings against him. The power to impeach under the Federal Constitution resides solely in the House of Representatives, and it has power to impeach solely at the bar of the Senate.

Id. at __.

Judge Cochran’s analysis in many respects mirrors that of Judge Rao in her Mazars dissent in the D.C. Circuit. Indeed, Judge Rao makes a point of identifying her position with that of Judge Cochran. See Trump v. Mazars USA LLP, No. 19-5142, slip op. at 49-50 n. 16 (D.C. Cir. Oct. 11, 2019). She claims that the Supreme Court did not disagree with the district judge on legal principle, but “simply disagreed with the district court’s characterization of the proceedings, which were not about the wrongdoing of the Attorney General but the administration of the Department of Justice as a whole.” Id. This betrays a lack of familiarity with the McGrain case since Mal Daugherty had no connection to the Department of Justice other than his knowledge of his brother’s wrongdoing.

In any event, Judge Cochran’s decision was music to the ears of Harry Daugherty’s defenders and critics of the congressional investigations. One can easily imagine that the Coolidge administration was tempted to endorse the decision (which would have undermined future congressional oversight) or at least to decline to get involved on the Senate’s side. Instead, however, Harlan F. Stone, Daugherty’s successor as attorney general, undertook to represent the Senate on appeal to the Supreme Court, thereby putting both political branches squarely on the side of congressional investigatory authority. Conveniently, though, briefing and oral argument did not take place until after the presidential election of 1924. (Stone’s opening brief was filed six days after the election).

Meanwhile, Frankfurter’s camp was preparing legal scholarship to support the Senate. In December 1924, as the McGrain case was being argued, the Harvard Law Review published a student note critical of Judge Cochran’s decision. See Note, The Power of Congress to Subpoena Witnesses for Non-Judicial Investigations, 38 Harv. L. Rev. 234 (Dec. 1924). Among other things, the note took issue with Cochran’s conclusion that the impeachment power implicitly limited the Senate’s power to conduct legislative investigations of executive wrongdoing. See id. at 238 (“Impeachment is a ponderous method of rectifying gross misconduct and consequently has been seldom employed.  By limiting the exercise of this extraordinary remedy, the Constitution could not have intended to restrict more common powers of investigation shown by experience to be necessary to the practical exercise of a federal power.”).

Although the note is unsigned, there is little doubt it reflects Frankfurter’s influence. The articles editor was Thomas G. Corcoran, a Frankfurter protege who would go on to clerk for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes at Frankfurter’s recommendation during the 1926-27 term. (Another fun fact: Corcoran in later life became a lobbyist who notoriously once “lobbied” the Supreme Court on behalf of a client. See Bob Woodward & Scott Armstrong, The Brethren 79-86 (1979)).

A more significant piece of scholarship came from Professor Landis, Frankfurter’s Harvard colleague and frequent co-author. See James M. Landis, Constitutional Limitations on the Congressional Power of Investigations, 40 Harv. L. Rev. 153 (Dec. 1926). Landis argued that the meaning of the legislative power conveyed by the Constitution could only be understood in light of historical experience; he then marshaled British and colonial history to demonstrate that “[a] legislative committee of inquiry vested with power to summon witnesses and compel the production of records and papers is an institution rivaling most legislative institutions in the antiquity of its origin.” Id. at 159. When combined with the unbroken practice of legislative investigations since the adoption of the Constitution, he concluded that “[t]he Daugherty inquiry of 1924 is thus a direct descendant of a more ancient lineage, ancient enough, when constitutional history begins for the United States in 1789, to demand recognition as a convention entitled to constitutional standing.” Id. at 193-94.

Many years later, during the conference in Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178 (1957), then Justice Frankfurter remarked that “Landis’s article on investigations turned the trick in the Daugherty case in this Court and led it to uphold the powers of Congress.” The Supreme Court in Conference (1940-1985) 299 (Del Dickinson, ed. 2001). Whether this is exactly true or not (see below), Landis’s article seems to have had a powerful effect on legal thinking about the subject of congressional investigations by “completely demolish[ing]” the historical and logical foundations of Kilbourn‘s cramped reading of the legislative power of inquiry. Boudin, 35 Va. L. Rev. at 147; see also id. at 165-66.

Several factors thus converged to support the Senate’s position before the Supreme Court in McGrain. Politically, there was little motivation for anyone to defend the conduct of the Harding administration, particularly after President Coolidge won reelection in 1924. The fact that both the executive and legislative branches agreed on a common legal position likely weighed heavily in the Senate’s favor. The intellectual firepower of Harvard law school surely did not hurt either.

Nonetheless, it appears that the outcome in McGrain was, like Waterloo, a damn close run thing. Although it was argued in December 1924, it was not decided until January 1927. (Another strike against Professor Jonathan Turley’s theory that the courts will resolve such issues quickly). This in itself suggests more internal dissension than betrayed by the ultimate unanimous decision (Harlan Stone, who was appointed to the Court during the intervening period, did not for obvious reasons participate). Cf. McGrain, 273 U.S. at 154 (“We have given the case earnest and prolonged consideration because the principal questions involved are of unusual importance and delicacy.”).

According to this March 1927 letter to Frankfurter from John Gorham Palfrey, a longtime aide to Justice Holmes, in an earlier vote on the case Justices Holmes and Brandeis were “standing out against the whole bunch,” apparently meaning that the other justices would have affirmed the district court. Although Palfrey indicated that Holmes had read “Jim’s article” and that Brandeis had distributed it to other justices including Justice Van Devanter, who was assigned the opinion, he did not believe that was the real reason for the majority switch. Instead, “Van Devanter, who has been away behind on his opinions, go around to writing the opinion for the majority a couple months ago– and found he couldn’t do it to reach the majority result.”

Whatever the true reason, Van Devanter ultimately produced a strong and unanimous opinion in support of a broad congressional investigatory authority, one that has driven a largely deferential judicial attitude toward congressional investigations ever since.

Until now. We will turn to that in our next post.

More Standing Confusion in Mazars/Deutsche Bank

Since my last post on standing in Mazars/Deustche Bank, the Supreme Court ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs on the question whether the political question doctrine or “related justiciability principles” bear on the Court’s consideration of these cases. These letter briefs have now been filed and, not surprisingly, none of the parties have changed their position that the case is justiciable and the Court should decide it on the merits.

It is important to note that the Court’s order was specifically focused on political question-type issues, which presumably means the Court wants to know whether there is a problem in deciding what is in substance, if not form, a dispute between the legislative and executive branches. In my interpretation, the Court was asking the Solicitor General in particular how to explain the Justice Department’s position that Article III does not permit the Court to adjudicate subpoena disputes between the branches, yet somehow allows the Court to decide exactly the same type of separation of powers issue raised by President Trump’s attack on the congressional subpoenas to third parties here.

That is a good question and the Solicitor General’s answer, IMHO, amounted to gobbledygook. Hopefully this question will be pursued in oral argument and we may discuss it further in due course. For today, however, I want to focus on the logically antecedent question of what gives Trump standing to complain about the congressional subpoenas in the first place. Although this was not the focus of the Court’s order, Trump’s lawyers spent the first page and a half of their letter brief attempting to explain why such standing exists. Their argument, however, did nothing to assuage my skepticism.

They begin by asserting that the disclosure of Trump’s “private records” or “private papers” is a “tangible” and “concrete” injury. The nature of the injury is not further explained. Is it based upon the premise that Trump owns the records or information in question? As discussed in my prior post, it is not apparent that the records in question necessarily belong to Trump personally. Indeed, the letter brief refers to “Petitioners’ private records,” but “petitioners” include corporate entities which are legally distinct from Trump. Similarly, to the extent that standing is premised on an alleged legal right to prohibit the third party accountant and banks from disclosing the information in question, such right may belong to various business entities, only some of which are even parties to the lawsuit.

The brief cites no authority for the proposition that an individual generally has standing to object to a subpoena for his private papers or financial information in the hands of a third party. It does cite Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), which holds that Congress’s effort to curb the dissemination of false personal information in the Fair Credit Reporting Act does not establish that such dissemination results in a concrete harm to an individual whose information was so disclosed. How this case supports Trump’s standing is left to the imagination.

The brief also quotes United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 696 (1974), for the proposition that “‘resistance to [a] subpoena present[s] an obvious controversy in the ordinary sense.'” Hopefully, however, an enterprising Supreme Court clerk will look up the full quote, which goes like this:

The demands of and the resistance to the subpoena present an obvious controversy in the ordinary sense, but that alone is not sufficient to meet constitutional standards. In the constitutional sense, controversy means more than disagreement and conflict; rather it means the kind of controversy courts traditionally resolve. Here [the matter is justiciable because] at issue is the production or nonproduction of specified evidence deemed by the Special Prosecutor to be relevant and admissible in a pending criminal case. It is sought by one official of the Executive Branch within the scope of his express authority; it is resisted by the Chief Executive on the ground of his duty to preserve the confidentiality of the communications of the President.

Id. at 696-97. In Trump’s case, of course, he is not “resisting” a subpoena at all; instead, he is attempting to enlist the assistance of the courts to prohibit third parties from complying with subpoenas. Moreover, he is not claiming that those subpoenas violate either an official privilege (as President Nixon did) or a personal privilege. Instead, he argues that the subpoenas exceed the authority of the committees that issued them because those committees lack a legitimate legislative need for the information sought. True, he bases this argument in part on the idea that Congress lacks the power to enact certain legislation relating to the presidency, but he does not claim that the production of the information itself violates some legal right or privilege belonging to him.

To see the difference, consider the congressional hearing at which Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified about various legal and ethical improprieties in the conduct of Trump’s personal and financial affairs. Trump undoubtedly would have had standing to sue Cohen to prevent him from testifying as to information protected by the attorney-client privilege (why he chose not to do so is something of a mystery). But I don’t see why he would have standing to object to Cohen’s testimony on the ground that the committee’s investigation lacked a legislative purpose, any more than he could complain that the subject of the investigation fell within the jurisdiction of a different committee under the House rules. These are objections that Cohen himself could have raised, but third parties would not, at least ordinarily, be permitted to do so.

Finally, Trump’s brief cites Eastland v. U.S. Servicemen’s Fund, 421 U.S. 491 (1975), which suggests that a third party may be able challenge a congressional subpoena for lack of a legitimate legislative purpose. As we have discussed before, however, the language in Eastland was dicta in the context of a claim that the subpoena violated the third party’s constitutional rights. As explained by another case cited in Trump’s brief, “[t]he plaintiffs have standing to challenge the legality of [congressional] subpoenas on the ground that the forced disclosure of the materials requested would allegedly violate their federal constitutional rights . . .” Bergman v. Senate Special Comm. on Aging, 389 F. Supp. 1127, 1130 (S.D.N.Y. 1975).

There are undoubtedly many cases in which an individual would be injured by a subpoena to a third party seeking private or personal information about that individual. The fact that Trump cannot identify any authority for applying the Eastland dicta outside the context of a claimed violation of constitutional right or privilege is reason to be skeptical that it applies to mere attacks on the validity of a subpoena to a third party.

 

Could Standing Still be an Issue in Mazars/Deutsche Bank?

When we first discussed the Mazars case (almost one year ago), I suggested that one of the issues would be whether President Trump had standing to object to congressional document subpoenas directed to third parties when he was not claiming constitutional or other privilege in the subpoenaed documents. While Trump and his companies objected to the subpoenas on the grounds that the underlying investigation lacked a legitimate legislative purpose, it was not clear that anyone other than the subpoena recipients should be able to challenge them on that basis.

However, the House did not raise standing as an issue in either the Mazars (involving a subpoena to Trump’s accounting firm) or Deutsche Bank (involving subpoenas to two banks for records relating to Trump’s finances) cases. Nor did any of the judges in those cases question standing. In her Mazars dissent, Judge Rao asserts “[a] subpoena’s force extends beyond its recipient, which the majority has implicitly acknowledged by declining to question President Trump’s standing to challenge the subpoena’s validity.” In Deutsche Bank, the Second Circuit notes “there is no dispute that Plaintiffs had standing in the District Court to challenge the lawfulness of the Committees’ subpoenas by seeking injunctive relief against the Banks as custodians of the documents. See United States Servicemen’s Fund v. Eastland, 488 F.2d 1252, 1260 (D.C. Cir. 1973) (‘[T]he plaintiffs have no alternative means to vindicate their rights.’) (italics omitted), rev’d on other grounds without questioning plaintiffs’ standing, 421 U.S. 491 (1975).” In their Supreme Court brief, Trump’s counsel simply observe that neither the DC Circuit nor Second Circuit  questioned standing and cite a footnote in the Supreme Court’s Eastland decision for the proposition that third parties can challenge legislative purpose. Brief for Petitioners at 59 n.7 (filed Jan. 27, 2020); see Eastland v. United States Servicemen’s Fund, 421 U.S. 491, 501 n. 14 (1975).

Eastland, however, involved a claim that the subpoena to a bank for an organization’s financial records violated its First Amendment rights. Here there is no claim that the subpoena violates any constitutional privilege or right; Trump simply objects to the validity of the investigation in which the subpoena was issued. As I noted in my original post, I would not read the footnote in Eastland as allowing third parties to challenge the legislative purpose of a congressional subpoena when that purpose is not relevant to an asserted constitutional privilege. And the conclusory references to Eastland  suggest that there is no other caselaw supporting the argument for standing.

In any event, Trump’s standing is premised on the idea, suggested by the Second Circuit, that the subpoenaed records belong to him, and the banks (and the accounting firm) are merely “custodians.” But it is not at all clear that this is true for many of the documents in question. As the House points out       “[m]any of the subpoenaed documents are internal bank records that the President may never have seen or even known about.” Brief for Respondents at 65 (filed Feb. 26, 2020). 

Furthermore, an amicus brief filed by two Boston University law professors points out that most of the records at issue are not Trump’s personal financial records but records of various business entities that are legally separate from him. Indeed, in many cases these entities no longer exist, no longer are owned by Trump and/or are not parties to the litigation. They argue that Trump has no rights in these corporate records and cannot assert any of his legal objections with respect to them. See Brief of Boston University School of Law Professors Sean J. Kealy and James J. Wheaton as Amici Curiae in Support of Respondents at 23-26 (filed Mar. 3, 2020). They also argue that even those entities which are parties to the litigation cannot assert claims based on alleged lack of legitimate legislative purpose because those claims are founded in separation of powers concerns which have no possible application to these business organizations. Id. at 27-29; see also Brief for Respondents at 65 (“The fact that the President is the principal owner of the Trump Organization cannot provide it immunity from Congressional investigation.”).

All of which suggests to me it remains possible that the Court could dispose of this case for lack of standing (which, of course, is a non-waivable jurisdictional requirement). The chief justice will undoubtedly want the Court to speak with one voice if at all possible, and standing might be the way to achieve that result. I suspect, moreover, that the justices will have qualms about opening up the federal courts to litigants seeking to delay and disrupt congressional investigations, a point that was well argued by an amicus brief filed on behalf of former House general counsels and congressional staff. See Brief of Former House General Counsels and Former Congressional Staff as Amici Curiae Supporting Respondents (filed Mar. 4, 2020).

We will see if standing comes up in the (telephonic) oral argument now scheduled for May 12.

 

 

 

Can McGahn be Prosecuted for Contempt of Congress?

In a fractured decision, a D.C. Circuit panel has held that the House lacks standing to civilly enforce a testimonial subpoena to former White House counsel Don McGahn. The lead opinion by Judge Griffith concludes, with some caveats, that “Article III of the Constitution forbids federal courts from resolving this kind of inter branch information dispute.” Griffith op. at 2. The problem, he explains, is not that the underlying legal issue (whether McGahn is absolutely immune from congressional subpoenas) is nonjusticiable; a court could resolve that issue in a proper proceeding, such as a prosecution for contempt of Congress or a habeas proceeding arising out of Congress’s exercise of the inherent contempt power. Id. at 22. This type of proceeding, however, does not present a case or controversy that may be adjudicated by a federal court. Id. at 8-9.

Judge Griffith denies that this holding would render Congress “powerless” in its disputes with the executive branch because Congress retains “a series of political tools to bring the Executive Branch to heel.” Griffith op. at 13. He explains that “Congress (or one of its chambers) may hold officers in contempt, withhold appropriations, refuse to confirm the President’s nominees, harness public opinion, delay or derail the President’s legislative agenda, or impeach recalcitrant officers.” Id.

The conflation of purely political remedies, such as withholding appropriations or harnessing public opinion, with those founded on legal right is some confounding. True, Congress is often able to use such political leverage to obtain information needed to conduct routine oversight of executive agencies. But such tools are hardly adequate when the president is personally motivated to withhold information from Congress. One might as well argue that members of Congress suspected of criminal wrongdoing can be persuaded to turn over potentially incriminating evidence by the president’s threat to veto their pet projects.

Impeachment is also an inadequate remedy, particularly where the president is withholding evidence of impeachable offenses. Threats of impeaching the president for withholding information are unlikely to convince him to turn over incriminating evidence he believes will lead to his impeachment anyway. Moreover, as recent experience demonstrates, the Senate is unlikely to convict the president for withholding evidence, at least as long as his lawyers can advance any legal theory, no matter how tenuous, to support his action.

As Judge Griffith notes, Congress may hold executive officers in contempt if they fail to comply with subpoenas. This, however, constitutes a remedy only if some consequences flow (or at least potentially flow) from the finding of contempt. Otherwise Congress might as well send a strongly worded letter. Continue reading “Can McGahn be Prosecuted for Contempt of Congress?”

Questions about OLC’s Role in Responding to House Subpoenas in the Impeachment Inquiry

On Monday I am participating in a Transparency Caucus program entitled “Shedding Light on the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel Opinions.” (It will take place at 2pm in Longworth; email Hannah.Mansbach@mail.house.gov if you would like to attend). In that connection, I want to raise an issue regarding OLC’s role in the administration’s decision not to cooperate with the House’s Ukraine investigation and the president’s defense with regard to the second article of impeachment (obstruction of Congress) which resulted from that decision.

The president’s trial brief in the Senate impeachment trial attached an OLC memorandum on “House’s Committees’ Authority to Investigate for Impeachment.” This memorandum, dated January 19, 2020, purported to memorialize oral advice previously given to the White House counsel regarding whether House committees “could compel the production of documents in furtherance of an asserted impeachment inquiry.” OLC Memorandum of 1-19-20 at 2. OLC “advised that the committees lacked such authority because, at the time the subpoenas were issued, the House had not adopted any resolution authorizing the committees to conduct an impeachment inquiry.” Id.

The OLC memorandum is a little fuzzy, however, as to when this advice was given. It is clear that the request for advice came sometime after the issuance of a series of subpoenas issued by House committees in late September and early October 2019. See OLC Memorandum of 1-19-20 at 2 (“Upon the issuance of these subpoenas, you asked whether these committees could compel the production of documents and testimony in furtherance of an asserted impeachment inquiry”): id. at 8  (“Following service of these subpoenas, you and other officials within the Executive Branch requested our advice . . .). The earliest of the subpoenas specifically referenced was on September 27 (to the Secretary of State), the second was on October 4 (to the Acting White House Chief of Staff), and the latest was October 10 (to the Secretary of Energy). See OLC Memorandum of 1-19-20 at 1-2.

The most plausible reading of the OLC memorandum is that the request for advice was made on or after October 10 or, at the earliest, on or after October 4, when the second subpoena was issued. Of course, it is possible that the memorandum refers inaccurately to “subpoenas” when the request was actually made after the issuance of the first subpoena on September 27. This seems unlikely, however, because OLC was undoubtedly aware of the significance of this issue and had no reason to suggest that the request was made later than it actually was.

The OLC memorandum indicates that it provided its initial advice sometime on or before October 31, when the House adopted Resolution 660, formally authorizing an impeachment inquiry. See OLC Memorandum of 1-19-20 at 39. It does not, however, provide any greater specificity on when it first advised the White House counsel and/or other executive officials of its legal conclusion that the subpoenas were invalid.

Why does this matter? Because on October 8, the White House counsel sent a  letter to the House flatly refusing to cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry. This letter raises a number of objections, many of which are political rather than legal in nature, to the impeachment inquiry. One of those objections, stated in a single conclusory paragraph, is that the inquiry is “constitutionally invalid”  because of the lack of any formal House vote on the matter. See Letter of Oct. 8, 2019 at 2-3. There is nothing in the letter, however, to suggest that the administration would provide information to the House even if such a vote were to occur; to the contrary, it indicates that the only way the administration would even discuss the possibility of providing information is if the House dropped its impeachment inquiry  and agreed “to return to the regular order of oversight requests.” Id. at 8.

For at least three reasons it seems highly unlikely that OLC had provided even its initial advice to White House counsel as of October 8. First, as already noted OLC probably had not even received a request at that point. Second, even if OLC had received the request as early as September 27, it hardly seems possible that it could have formed a responsible legal opinion by October 8, given that it purported to rest that opinion on an exhaustive historical survey of judicial, executive and legislative statements and practice, including nearly 100 House impeachment inquiries. See OLC Memorandum of 1-19-20 at 13-39; id. at 21 (referring to the “weighty historical record, which involves nearly 100 authorized impeachment investigations”). Third, there is no reference in the October 8 letter to any OLC advice on this issue, though it refers to OLC opinions on other issues it raises.

If the October 8 letter was sent before OLC had advised on this issue, it certainly undercuts the White House’s argument that the president was acting in good faith to protect the legitimate confidentiality interests of the executive branch and that he was relying on legal advice from OLC in doing so. See Senate trial brief of Donald J. Trump at 36 (“the legal principles invoked by the President and other Administration officials are critical for preserving the separation of powers– and based on advice from the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel”). It also raises the question whether OLC could provide independent legal advice when the president had already formally asserted a position on the issue.

Even if OLC did weigh in before the October 8 letter, it would be important to know how long it spent formulating its opinion before providing that advice. It is also important to find out whether OLC reviewed and approved the October 8 letter. Did OLC advise the White House counsel that the House should be informed that its objection to the impeachment inquiry was curable through a properly worded resolution? Is it consistent with the executive branch’s obligation of negotiating in good faith over information requests to conceal or misrepresent objections that could otherwise have been easily satisfied by the House?

Ventilating these issues would be a great first step toward transparency for OLC.

Subpoenas, Recalcitrant Witnesses, and the Senate Impeachment Trial

Law Twitter is abuzz (I guess this is a mixed metaphor) about this TPM post by Josh Marshall, who makes the following points regarding an impeachment trial in the Senate: (1) the House will have the opportunity to request subpoenas for any witnesses it wishes, including those who refused to appear during the House proceedings (e.g., Giuliani, Mulvaney, Bolton); (2) the chief justice will likely make a ruling on these requests in the first instance (the Senate could  overrule him, but probably would not); and (3) the courts will not interfere with these subpoenas because the trial of impeachment is solely a matter for the Senate. See Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993). He therefore posits that the House will have a much better chance of forcing reluctant witnesses to testify in the trial than it has had in the course of its own impeachment inquiry.

I will assume that points 1 and 2 are correct, though it remains to be seen whether the Senate will restrict witnesses up front and whether the chief justice will choose to rule on motions in the first instance or simply refer them to the Senate. But what happens if the House requests that certain witnesses be subpoenaed and these requests are granted by the chief justice and/or the Senate?

As a practical matter, there will be tremendous pressure on the witnesses to comply. It is one thing to defy the authority of the House with the backing of executive branch lawyers who maintain, however implausibly, that the impeachment inquiry is illegitimate and unconstitutional.  It is quite another to defy a subpoena signed by the chief justice of the United States pursuant to the Senate’s unquestionable constitutional authority to conduct an impeachment trial of the president. It will be particularly difficult for a private citizen like Giuliani, who does not even have the veneer of “absolute immunity” or some other constitutionally based privilege, to justify a refusal to appear. But even a witness who asserts such a privilege would have to consider carefully the possibility of future prosecution for contempt of Congress or other potential consequences (Mulvaney, Bolton and Giuliani are all lawyers, for example, who could be subject to professional discipline).

If, however, a witness chooses to defy the subpoena, matters get more complicated. The fact that the Senate has exclusive jurisdiction over the conduct of an impeachment trial does not, in itself, answer the question of how to force a recalcitrant witness to obey its commands.

Here it is important to distinguish between two distinct powers that the Senate could exercise. The most frequently discussed is the contempt power, which we have been reviewing at some length. But the Senate also has the power to issue a warrant of attachment, which directs the Sergeant at Arms to arrest an individual and bring him before the bar of the Senate to be interrogated. See Barry v. United States ex rel. Cunningham, 279 U.S. 597, 616-20 (1929) (holding that the Senate could use an arrest warrant to bring before it a witness in an elections case); McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135, 158 (1927) (approving the same procedure in a legislative oversight investigation). The arrest warrant serves as an alternative for witnesses who cannot be relied upon to comply with a subpoena.

If the Senate is willing to employ such process, it seems to me extremely likely that it will be effective. I do not expect that the witnesses in question would  attempt to flee or physically resist the Sergeant at Arms. I certainly would not expect the executive branch to offer physical protection against execution of a warrant signed by the chief justice. Of course, if I am wrong about this, we would be in a true constitutional crisis.

More plausibly, the witnesses could attempt to challenge their arrest through a habeas proceeding. For example, Mulvaney, Bolton or other current or former senior White House advisors could argue that they are absolutely immune from congressional process, even in the context of an impeachment proceeding. I believe that this argument would have a near zero chance of success. In addition to the infirmities of the absolute immunity position which we have previously discussed, the Senate would have a strong argument that the courts lack jurisdiction even to consider the merits of the issue given its exclusive authority over impeachment. And leaving all that aside, it is difficult to imagine a federal district judge interfering with an arrest warrant signed by the chief justice.

The arrest warrant, however, only ensures that the witness’s physical appearance before the Senate. It does not address what happens if the witness still refuses to answer questions or produce documents. In that case, the Senate would have to employ the contempt power in order to force the witness to comply. This would impose substantially greater costs on the Senate. For one thing, it would have to interrupt the impeachment trial to conduct a collateral proceeding in which the witness would be asked to show cause why he should not be held in contempt. For another, if the witness is adjudged guilty of contempt, the Sergeant at Arms would have to keep him in custody until he agrees to testify (or the impeachment trial concludes). There would also be a greater risk of judicial interference if a witness is held for a substantial period of time.

In all likelihood, though, it will not be necessary for the Senate to take things that far. If the Senate subpoenas witnesses requested by the House and indicates that it is serious about enforcement (whether by way of criminal referral or otherwise), I expect those witnesses to appear and answer questions (though there may be some assertions of executive privilege).

Judge Leon’s Ruling in the Kupperman Case Could be Important Even if it Does not Reach the Merits

The lawsuit brought by former deputy national security advisor Charles Kupperman continues, for the moment, despite the House’s withdrawal of its subpoena. Most likely, Judge Leon will end up dismissing the case as nonjusticiable on one ground or another. However, it could matter a good deal which ground(s) the court relies upon.

If the case is dismissed as moot due to the withdrawal of the subpoena, it would be of little consequence. On the other hand, if the court were to base its dismissal on the president’s lack of authority to direct Kupperman not to appear in response to the subpoena, its ruling is potentially of much greater significance. As Jonathan Shaub has noted in connection with the House’s lawsuit against former White House counsel Don McGahn, a judicial ruling that the president lacks authority to direct former officials how to respond to congressional subpoenas might be more important than a ruling on the merits of the absolute immunity issue. While the latter would affect only the relatively small group of senior White House advisors who allegedly are protected by absolute immunity, the former “could be far-reaching, encompassing all disputes involving former officials whether they are grounded in immunity or executive privilege.”

Kupperman’s complaint alleges that he “has a duty to abide by a lawful constitutional assertion of immunity by the President and a lawful instruction by the President that he decline to testify before Congress concerning his official duties as a close advisor to the President.” Complaint ¶ 41. Note that this arguably constitutes two distinct assertions. At one level, it is an assertion that if the claimed immunity exists, it belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official, and therefore Kupperman cannot or should not waive it contrary to the president’s instruction. This makes sense to me. Since the immunity (if it exists) is designed to protect the presidency, it should be the president’s decision whether to assert or waive it.

Of course, as Eric Columbus has pointed out, former officials not infrequently choose to disclose confidential information regarding their government service in medial interviews or tell-all books. Indeed, former national security advisor John Bolton, who is currently declining to testify before Congress based on the president’s assertion of “absolute immunity,” has a book deal in which he will presumably discuss many of the matters allegedly covered by that immunity. (As one Twitter wag put it, absolute immunity is a monarchical doctrine so naturally it has a “royalty exception.” Ok, that wag was me.). While there is a tension between this fact and the non-waiver principle, in my view it simply illustrates that the executive branch has no means of punishing former officials who violate a duty not to disclose non-classified information (about which more below).

Kupperman also appears to be making a second and stronger assertion. He seems to be claiming that a former official has a duty to obey the president’s instruction, regardless of whether the former official agrees with the president’s legal position. As Shaub points out, though, it is not clear where the president gets the authority to direct a private citizen’s response to a congressional subpoena. OLC’s past pronouncements suggest it believes the president has this authority, but it fails to “offer any constitutional analysis to support that conclusion.” (Shaub, this might be a good place to note, is a former OLC lawyer).

If Judge Leon were to conclude the president lacks authority to direct Kupperman’s response to the subpoena, he could dismiss the case without reaching the merits. Kupperman claims to be facing “irreconcilable commands” from the executive and legislative branches, but if he is not bound to obey the president’s command, the alleged conflict disappears and can provide no basis for him to sue. He then would be in a posture no different than any other congressional witness who asserts a potentially valid privilege. He can choose to assert absolute immunity if he wishes and, when the committee (properly) rejects that assertion, he can decide whether to comply or risk the possibility of a contempt proceeding. There is no reason why he, any more than any other congressional witness in this situation, should be entitled to an advance court ruling to forestall contempt.

A somewhat narrower approach the court might take is to side step the question of legal duty entirely. Instead, the court might ask what injury Kupperman would suffer should he choose to ignore the president’s directive not to testify. Kupperman alleges that “an erroneous judgment to appear and testify in obedience to the House Defendants’ subpoena would unlawfully impair the President in the exercise of his core national security responsibilities,” Complaint ¶ 2, but it is hard to see how this constitutes an injury to Kupperman. As suggested earlier, there do not appear to be any practical repercussions to a former official who reveals confidential but non-classified information, whether before Congress or in a tell-all book. In the absence of any adverse consequence Kupperman will suffer as a result of disregarding the president’s order, it would seem he lacks standing to sue regardless of whether the president has the authority to issue the order.

Even if Kupperman has a legal duty to assert absolute immunity when instructed to do so by the president, it does not follow that he is obligated to go into contempt to protect the president’s privilege. For example, a lawyer who is subpoenaed by a congressional committee to provide privileged information of a current or former client is obligated to assert the privilege if her client so instructs, but she is not obligated to go into contempt in order to fulfill her professional obligations. See D.C. Bar Ethics Opinion 288 (Feb. 1999). There is no reason why a former government official should be required to do more when instructed by the president; after all, the president has ample other tools, including filing his own lawsuit, to protect whatever confidentiality interests are at issue.

In short, a non-merits dismissal of Kupperman v. House could still have a significant (and beneficial) effect on the House’s ability to get information in the current impeachment inquiry and/or in future information disputes between the political branches.

Congress in Court: Where Things Stand Today

Charlie Savage of the NY Times wrote an article over the summer which flagged the sheer volume of litigation in which the House has been involved this year. His count at the time was nine separate lawsuits in which the House was a party, plus four others in which it had filed amicus briefs. The cases in which the House is a party include three suits initiated by President Trump in his personal capacity to block Congress’s access to his financial records (Mazars, Deutsche Bank, and the effort to stop New York state authorities from providing his tax records to House committees), three initiated by the House to obtain information (the suit to require the Treasury Department to produce Trump’s tax records, the application for access to grand jury material, and the action to force Don McGahn to testify), plus the House’s effort to enjoin the border wall and its attempt to intervene in support of the constitutionality of the female genital mutilation statute.  The ninth, I think, would be the litigation over the Affordable Care Act. (I haven’t kept track of the cases in which the House has appeared as an amicus, but one was the census litigation).

Now the House is party to at least one more case (Kupperman), and it appears that Mick Mulvaney, his motion to intervene in the Kupperman case having been withdrawn, will be filing his own separate suit, which will bring the grand total of cases in which the House is a party to 11. In addition, there are several other ongoing cases that could affect the House’s institutional interests, including Blumenthal v. Trump, where members of Congress are suing the president for alleged violations of the emoluments clauses.

One of these cases has already produced a significant appellate court decision  (Mazars) and there are likely to be a number of important decisions coming out of the district and appellate courts in the next couple of months. The Supreme Court will be asked to weigh in and it seems very likely it will agree to hear at least one of these cases, if for no other reason than to decide questions of legislative standing. In the meantime, the House has decided, probably wisely, that further litigation is pointless in light of its determination to conclude impeachment proceedings in the near future (presumably by the end of the year).

We are therefore entering into a period in which there will be (1) a highly unusual amount of judicial precedent generated with potentially enormous impact on the balance of congressional and executive power and (2) an extremely difficult to predict interaction between these judicial opinions and ongoing impeachment proceedings (possibly including, if President Trump’s past statements are credited, an effort to directly challenge these proceedings in court). We cannot rule out the possibility that the chief justice of the United States will  be presiding over an impeachment trial in the Senate while the Supreme Court is being asked to consider directly or indirectly related issues at the same time.

In addition to all this, the very fact that Congress and the executive have taken so many of their disputes to court could itself have major effects on how our constitutional system functions in the future. As former House deputy general counsel Charlie Tiefer told Savage, “this is like nothing else in history.” It is probably not too early to start thinking about the consequences.

Why Mulvaney’s Attempt to Intervene in Kupperman’s Lawsuit is Bad for the White House

White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has filed this motion to intervene in the lawsuit brought by Charles Kupperman, just as the House is trying to moot the case by withdrawing its subpoena to Kupperman. Like Kupperman, Mulvaney has been subpoenaed by the House to give testimony in the impeachment inquiry and has been directed by the president not to testify based on absolute immunity. Unlike Kupperman, Mulvaney still works in the administration. Also unlike Kupperman, who is suing both the House and President Trump and purports to be neutral on the merits, Mulvaney is only suing the House defendants and appears to be supporting the president’s legal position on the merits.

Mulvaney argues that he should be permitted to intervene because a ruling that Kupperman is obligated to comply with his congressional subpoena could adversely affect Mulvaney, apparently by encouraging the House to move forward with some sort of action against him. Somewhat inconsistently, Mulvaney also argues that his interests will not be adequately represented by Kupperman because his situation is legally distinguishable– he “is both a closer and a more senior adviser to the President than was Mr. Kupperman.” Be that as it may, Judge Leon has scheduled a hearing tomorrow to discuss Mulvaney’s motion, and I guess we will know soon enough whether the motion to intervene will be granted.

The more interesting question is why Mulvaney is taking this action. Some suggest that this gambit is part of a White House strategy to undercut the House’s argument on uncooperative witnesses. The House has been arguing that those who fail to cooperate with its investigation are guilty of obstruction and that when the president directs a witness not to appear or testify one can reasonably make the inference that the testimony of that witness would be adverse to the president’s interests. The president’s defenders can respond that witnesses like Kupperman and Mulvaney are not acting lawlessly but seeking a judicial resolution of conflicting instructions from the political branches; they can also point to the House’s position in the Kupperman case as evidence the House is attempting to avoid a decision on the merits of its legal position.

I do not doubt these arguments will be made (indeed, I suggested as much in my last post), but I am skeptical that this is what motivated either Kupperman or Mulvaney. To begin with, there is little evidence to suggest the White House has a “strategy” for responding to the impeachment inquiry beyond its initial declaration that the inquiry is invalid and no one should cooperate with it. The fecklessness of that strategy is what has impelled individual witnesses to chart their own path on the advice of private counsel.

It also seems to me unlikely Kupperman and John Bolton (who share a lawyer and a legal strategy) are coordinating their actions with anyone else. In a letter to the House (which was also filed with the court) on Friday, their lawyer, Chuck Cooper, specifically denied that Kupperman’s “lawsuit [has] been coordinated in any way with the White House.” I see no reason to question the accuracy of this representation.

In the same letter Cooper responded to the House’s argument that his clients should follow whatever legal ruling emerges from the lawsuit against former White House counsel Don McGahn with the following remarkable paragraph:

Here, unlike McGahn, information concerning national security and foreign affairs is at the heart of the Committees’ impeachment inquiry, and it is difficult to imagine any question that the Committees might put to Dr. Kupperman that would not implicate these sensitive areas. After all, Dr. Kupperman was the Deputy National Security Advisor to the President throughout the period [of] your inquiry. The same is true, of course, of Ambassador Bolton, who was the National Security Advisor to the President, and who was personally involved in many of the events, meetings, and conversations about which you have already received testimony, as well as many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed in the testimonies so far.

(emphasis added).

At the risk of stating the obvious, if your objective is to keep your clients from having to testify, emphasizing how much important knowledge they have is a funny way to go about it. Cooper could easily have said something like: “As you have wisely recognized by backing off the subpoenas to my clients, they have nothing to add that would be more than cumulative  of other witnesses or that would advance your impeachment inquiry.” That is what you would say if the goal is to get your clients out of testifying and/or to advance the White House narrative. Instead, Cooper’s message to the House seems to be: “my client(s) have important information which they would like to share with you and you will want to hear so you should let us proceed with this lawsuit.” The message was clear enough that even the president seems to have understood it.

Of course, it is theoretically possible that Mulvaney’s attempt to intervene is designed to further a White House plan to which Kupperman/Bolton are not parties. This would seem rather risky, though, as it could quickly expose rifts between Cooper’s clients and the White House. Moreover, it is hard to see why Mulvaney needs to intervene in order for the White House to get rhetorical mileage out of the case. If it is dismissed as nonjusticiable (or, less likely, Judge Leon rules on the merits in favor of the president), the White House can score the same political points regardless of whether Mulvaney is a party. From the White House’s perspective, therefore, Mulvaney’s move has some potential downside and little if any upside.

Furthermore, although Mulvaney is avoiding the optics of actually suing the president, his legal position is in fact adverse to the president’s on the issue of justiciability. The Justice Department has already indicated that it will take the position that Kupperman’s suit is nonjusticiable, consistent with its position in the McGahn case. It cannot be helpful from the Justice Department’s perspective to have the president’s current chief of staff contradicting it on this key legal issue.

Finally, if Mulvaney were pulling a political stunt, he would have hired tv lawyers (you know the kind I mean). Instead, he is represented by Bill Pittard, another real lawyer and the former deputy general counsel to the House. The sort of attorney you would retain if you wanted to keep a channel of communication open to the House Counsel’s office.

My guess, therefore, is that Mulvaney’s primary if not sole objective is to protect his own personal legal interests. By joining (or attempting to join) Kupperman, Bolton and McGahn, he is hoping for a kind of herd immunity from potential contempt or other prosecutions stemming from his defiance of the congressional subpoena. That also means that if they testify, he will probably use that as political cover to testify as well.

This does not strike me as good news for the White House.