The Fast and Furious Decision: Can Congress Make Lemonade Out of Lemons?

The Court’s Decision

Judge Amy Berman Jackson recently issued her decision in the subpoena enforcement action brought by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (COGR) against the Attorney General. The case arose out of an October 11, 2011 subpoena from COGR to then-Attorney General Holder seeking documents in the “Fast and Furious” investigation. Holder refused to produce certain responsive documents on the ground that they were protected by the deliberative process privilege.

On June 19, 2012, the day before COGR was to vote on a resolution holding him in contempt, Holder asked President Obama to assert executive privilege with regard to the disputed documents. The next day Deputy Attorney General Cole informed COGR that Obama had done so. COGR and the House then proceeded to find Holder in contempt, and COGR was authorized to bring a civil enforcement action in federal court.

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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 . . .”

The Solyndra Subpoenas and the White House Response

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has issued subpoenas to the White House Chief of Staff and the Chief of Staff to the Vice President, seeking documents relating to the Solyndra loan scandal. Specifically, each subpoena asks for “[a]ll documents referring or relating in any way to the $535 million loan guarantee issued to Solyndra, Inc. by the Department of Energy.” This is the only request made by the subpoenas. Although they provide a non-exclusive list of examples that would be responsive to the request, they ask for no other documents.

In this letter, the White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler responds that the subpoenas are “unprecedented.” Unprecedented in what sense? Obviously, congressional committees have issued numerous subpoenas to prior administrations, including subpoenas seeking documents and testimony from White House officials. Such subpoenas were rare before Watergate (and virtually unheard of before World War II), but they have become rather commonplace since. Here are some examples of congressional subpoenas issued to the Bush Administration. During the Clinton Administration, House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton became something of a legend for the number of subpoenas he issued (reportedly over a thousand), including many to the White House.

Perhaps there is something about these particular subpoenas that makes them, in Ruemmler’s view, “unprecedented.” But nowhere in her letter does she explain what that might be.

Instead, her primary objection seems to be that the subpoenas are “overbroad.” She characterizes the document request as “extremely broad” because it “encompasses all communications within the White House from the beginning of this Administration to the present that refer or relate to Solyndra,” and she suggests that “any document that references Solyndra, even in passing, is arguably responsive to the Committee’s request.” She contends that responding to such an “expansive request” would place “an unreasonable burden on the President’s ability to meet his constitutional duties.” As an example, she cites the fact that the subpoenas would require producing “thousands of pages of news clips” literally responsive to the requests.

It is hard to characterize this objection as anything but silly. Asking the White House to produce all documents relating to a single small company is hardly placing an undue burden on the presidency. Federal agencies routinely respond to subpoenas and FOIA requests that are far broader in scope. All that needs to be done is to identify those locations most likely to contain responsive documents and to conduct a reasonable search thereof. Since most if not all of those locations will consist of electronic databases, a single search containing the word “Solyndra” would likely suffice.

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More Legal Misinformation About Congress

If there were an award for cramming the most amount of legal misinformation into the shortest segment, Friday’s edition of “Nightly Scoreboard” would surely earn a nomination. The subject was a potential congressional subpoena for White House emails concerning Solyndra, and the discussion took place between host David Asman and former federal prosecutor Annmarie McAvoy.

The premise of the piece was that a congressional subpoena for presidential emails would be “unprecedented” and would raise novel issues of executive privilege and separation of powers. McAvoy explained that “[t]here are certain communications that are not available to the Congress.” The following colloquy ensued:

 McAvoy: The argument will be made that the President has to be able to have full and free and open communications with those who are advising him, be those his senior staffers or be those other people in the industries that he is looking at who can come to him and openly talk to him and that he can communicate with them without having to worry about those communications going over to Congress.

 Asman: But have those statutes even been written- about emails- because this is new territory we’re in?

 McAvoy: It is and it raises a very interesting question because what happens is as we have new technologies essentially the law has to eventually catch up with the technology and it hasn’t as of yet. So they’ll be looking at your basic laws relating—and cases relating—to executive privilege in trying to figure out where this would fit in but there really isn’t a statute that directly applies to emails because it didn’t exist beforehand and none of the presidents before Obama had ever used email.

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