If the Washington Administration Had an Office of Legal Counsel . . .

To:  Edmund Randolph, Attorney General of the United States

From:  Paul Colborn (J.D. expected May 1793), Office of Legal Counsel

Date: April 1, 1792

Re: Assertion of executive privilege in response to congressional requests for information

In preparation for tomorrow’s cabinet meeting, you have requested the opinion of this office on a matter of some delicacy. On March 27, the House of Representatives appointed a special committee to conduct an investigation of recent military operations initiated by Major General Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory. As this represents the first time the House has authorized an investigation of this sort, our response will set an important precedent.

To briefly review the relevant facts, for the past several years the United States has been engaged in both diplomatic negotiations and military conflict with Indian nations in the Northwest Territory. Pursuant to orders from President Washington, in 1790 St. Clair sent General Josiah Harmar to lead a punitive expedition against the more recalcitrant elements of the indigenous population. This effort did not go well. Harmar lost about 200 men in battle and did not achieve his objective.

Last year St. Clair personally led another offensive against the Miami Indians in the Ohio region. The results were even worse. On November 4, 1791, St. Clair’s army was surrounded and completely destroyed by Indian forces. In a letter to the Secretary of War, St. Clair described this “as unfortunate an action as almost any that has been fought.” 3 Annals of Congress 1055. St. Clair is now considering an early retirement.

The House has empowered its committee “to call for such persons, papers and records, as may be necessary to assist their inquiries.” 3 Annals of Congress 493. Pursuant to this authority, the committee has made a broad request to the President for documents that might shed light on the causes of St. Clair’s defeat. We view this as a “fishing expedition” for politically explosive or embarrassing information that might gain the committee members some attention in the press.

The President has asked his cabinet for advice on how to respond to the committee request. Specifically, he wishes to know whether the House has the constitutional authority to seek the information requested and whether he may or should withhold any of the responsive documents.

We accept that the House is an inquest and is entitled to request documents and other information from the executive branch. See generally Mort Rosenberg, Congressional Oversight Manual (1st ed. 1791). However, this principle must be limited by a doctrine we have termed “executive privilege,” which subsumes the privileges set forth below: Continue reading “If the Washington Administration Had an Office of Legal Counsel . . .”

When Harry Met Liz (Or How I Learned to Relax and Love the Nuclear Option)

From The Hill:
“Next week Harry Reid is expected to start calling for votes on a range of executive branch nominees. I expect if he can’t get cloture, he will ask the Senate parliamentarian for a change in the rules so he can get the executive branch nominees confirmed,” said Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice and a member of the Fix the Senate Now coalition.


Personal and Confidential
The Honorable Elizabeth MacDonough
United States Senate
Washington, D.C.

Dear Liz:

I am writing you today about a matter of some delicacy. As you know, I have been having a lot of difficulties with the Senate, and with other things, and I am very certain that it is not your policy to add to those difficulties. So I am hoping you can help me out here.

As we are painfully aware, there is a Senate rule that allows a minority to block almost anything it pleases, including nominations that the President sends us. The Senate adopted this rule a long time ago, even before I was in the Senate. About the time Senator Byrd, may he rest in peace, came to the Senate, I think, though it is hard to believe that anything happened that long ago.

Specifically, Senate Rule XXII provides that to “bring to a close the debate upon any measure, motion, [or] other matter pending before the Senate” requires a vote “in the affirmative by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn.” This sounds like mumbo jumbo to your average Joe, but you and I know that it means that I need 60 votes to shut up the “wacko birds” and get anything done around here. Liz, I don’t have 60 votes. I have 55. Sometimes a couple more, sometimes a couple less, but not 60. You see the problem.

People often ask me why, if this rule is such a big problem, we don’t just change it. The answer, as you well know, is that the framers of Rule XXII thought of that. (By the way, it drives me crazy that the Senate Rules always have to be written in roman numerals- I am sure that this was Byrd’s idea). Rule XXII says that to close debate on a “measure or motion to amend the Senate rules . . . the necessary affirmative vote shall be two-thirds of the Senators present and voting.” That means that to change the rules, I need 67 votes.

Liz, I don’t have 67 votes. I have 55. If I had 67, I wouldn’t need to change the damn rule in the first place. Talk about your Catch XXII! (See what I did there? Get it?)

Continue reading “When Harry Met Liz (Or How I Learned to Relax and Love the Nuclear Option)”

The Notebook- House Ethics Committee Edition

Fans of the Maxine Waters ethics case (you know who you are) may recall that one of the controversies between Blake Chisam, the former Staff Director and Chief Counsel of the Ethics Committee, and the two senior counsel leading the Waters investigation (Morgan Kim and Stacy Sovereign), involved the binders that were handed out to committee members at a November 18, 2010 meeting. According to Chisam’s late 2010 memorandum to Chairman Lofgren, providing the reasons for terminating Kim and Sovereign:

            At that meeting, white binders were handed out to all the Members of the adjudicatory subcommittee, as well as the Chair’s and Ranking Member’s designated counsels. They were being passed out from a box. The Ranking Member’s counsel was helping to hand the binders out. Since the Waters staff [Kim and Sovereign] served as advocates, they could not be present at the ASC [Adjudicatory Subcommittee] discussion absent an invitation for participation by respondent. The binders were prepared by the Waters staff for the meeting. There were copies of the binder that were flagged, highlighted and contained handwritten notes and explanations when they came out of the box. The marked up copies were provided to Republican Members. Democratic Members did not receive annotated binders.

 So there you have it. Selective highlighting. Discriminatory annotation. Ex parte flagging. Such serious charges require a full investigation, preferably conducted by an outside lawyer whose hourly fee exceeds the average American’s mortgage payment.

Fortunately, we now have the report of Outside Counsel Billy Martin, who has cracked the case of the great notebook caper wide open. His report states (page 21):

During the course of the Outside Counsel’s review, Outside Counsel located  and reviewed what Outside Counsel believes are those very notebooks.

Eureka! (I hear you cry). Outside Counsel has located the very notebooks. The instruments of the crime. The murder weapon itself, so to speak. Surely the perpetrators of this dastardly deed will no longer go unpunished. Read on:

Outside Counsel determined that only one tab and minimal highlighting was placed on the notebooks in question. In addition, the designee to the Ranking Member testified that she had highlighted the binders to assist the Republican Members to more easily locate the documents that were going to be discussed at the meeting. As this was done by the designee to the Ranking Member, who was acting within the scope of her services and authority, and not by a staff member to assist one party, there is nothing noteworthy about the highlighted binders.

Nothing “noteworthy,” get it? Outside Counsel is Hercule Poirot and Jimmy Kimmel rolled into one. Sadly, however, our mystery seems to have gone from Murder on the Orient Express to Murder by Death.

Perhaps even sadder is the fact that absolutely nothing turned on the resolution of this controversy. Even if Kim and Sovereign had been responsible for marking up the binders, and even if the marking had been for a more nefarious purpose than helping the Republican Members more easily locate the relevant documents, it would not have changed the handling of the Waters case going forward. Martin would still have recommended the same action, namely the recusal of those committee members involved in the Waters matter in the prior Congress.

Gee, if only someone could have pointed that out in advance.