A Useful Resource on the Attorney-Client Privilege in Congressional Investigations

The American College of Trial Lawyers has issued this paper on the attorney-client privilege in congressional investigations. The ACTL is, not surprisingly, highly skeptical of Congress’s traditional claim not to be bound by the privilege, and it makes some forceful arguments on the other side. It also provides some helpful guidance for practitioners who wish to preserve the privilege in congressional investigations, as well as for committees that wish to avoid unnecessarily trampling upon it.

Law Professors Lecture Congress on Stuff They Know Nothing About

A group of law professors and labor policy experts have written this letter to Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (COGR), expressing their grave concerns over “threats to compel disclosure of privileged documents” from the National Labor Relations Board. COGR is investigating the NLRB’s decision to bring an action against Boeing for shifting work from a union plant in Washington State to a new non-union facility in South Carolina. Yesterday COGR issued a subpoena to the NLRB, seeking a broad range of documents relating to the agency’s investigation of Boeing in order to obtain “complete facts about the NLRB’s rationale and its decision making process in this matter.”

The letter asserts that the documents COGR is seeking will likely include some relating to settlement discussions, litigation strategy and “other key factors in deciding to file the Complaint.” It suggests that these documents are privileged, and that the privileged nature of the documents is illustrated by the Administrative Law Judge’s refusal to order that they be produced in the pending litigation.

The law professors claim that “[u]nder current law, Congress must look to how the courts would handle the assertion of attorney-client and work product privilege claims when determining whether to press for these documents.” In support of this proposition, they cite Mort Rosenberg’s “Investigative Oversight: An Introduction to the Law, Practice and Procedure of Congressional Inquiry” 32-37(1995). No other support is provided.

If you go to page 32 of the cited Rosenberg report (which evidently none of the professors did), you will see the following: “The precedents of the Senate and the House of Representatives, which are founded on Congress’ inherent constitutional prerogative to investigate, establish that the acceptance of a claim of attorney-client or work product privilege rests in the sound discretion of a congressional committee regardless of whether a court would uphold the claim in the context of litigation.” (emphasis added)

Hmm, that sounds like the exact opposite of what the professors said.

As anyone who knows Mort Rosenberg would realize, he does not support the proposition that the courts can dictate, even indirectly, how Congress conducts its oversight activities. As he explains on page 36 of the same report: “the suggestion that the investigatory authority of the legislative branch of government is subject to non-constitutional, common-law rules developed by the judicial branch to govern its proceedings is arguably contrary to the concept of separation of powers. It would, in effect, permit the judiciary to determine congressional procedures and is therefore difficult to reconcile with the constitutional authority granted each House of Congress to determine its own rules.”

Moreover, while it is true that Congress will normally follow judicial precedents with respect to determining the contours of the attorney-client privilege with respect to private parties, it is not at all clear that government agencies like NLRB even have the right to assert attorney-client privilege as against Congress. Cf. In re Lindsey, 158 F.3d 1263 (D.C. Cir. 1998), cert. denied 525 U.S. 996 (1998) (government attorney may not invoke attorney-client privilege in a grand jury proceeding). There is no reason why the advice given by executive branch lawyers should be entitled to special protection in a congressional investigation.

When a government agency wishes to withhold information from Congress regarding a pending litigation or investigation, the matter is typically evaluated under the deliberative process privilege. The issues raised by the professors with regard to the NLRB proceeding, such as the potential for interference with an ongoing proceeding and the disclosure of litigation strategy, etc., must be weighed against considerations that militate in favor of immediate congressional action, such as the need to consider a legislative fix to resolve the economic hardship caused by Boeing’s inability to commence operations in South Carolina. Ultimately the weighing of these competing considerations is in the discretion of the committee.

Again to quote Rosenberg, “[d]espite objections by an agency, either house of Congress, or its committees or subcommittees, may obtain and publish information it considers essential for the proper performance of its constitutional functions. There is no court precedent that requires committees to demonstrate a substantial reason to believe that wrongdoing occurred before seeking disclosures with respect to the conduct of specific criminal and civil cases, whether open or closed. Indeed, the case law is quite to the contrary.”

If these labor law professors want to opine on congressional procedure, perhaps they should learn a little about it first.


The Attorney-Client Privilege in Congressional Proceedings

Congressional practitioners will be interested in this article in the Journal of Law and Politics on the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine in congressional proceedings.  (Bradley Bondi, “No Secrets Allowed: Congress’s Treatment and Mistreatment of the Attorney-Client Privilege and the Work-Product Protection in Congressional Investigations and Contempt Proceedings”).  As the title implies, Bondi is critical of Congress’s assertion of the authority to disregard the attorney-client or other common law privileges.  While he concedes that Congress, like the British Parliament, may have the power to disregard privileges in inherent contempt proceedings (ie, where Congress uses its own contempt authority to try and imprison a contumacious witness), he argues that the situation is different with respect to statutory contempt proceedings under 2 U.S.C. § 192.

Bondi uses the legislative history of the statute, which was enacted in 1857, to show that Congress itself was uncertain of the default rule that applied in congressional proceedings.  Some legislators assumed that Congress was bound to respect common-law privileges, while others believed that it had the power to overrule them.  He also points to the fact that Congress has generally respected the attorney-client privilege since the enactment of the statute, although the relevance of this practice to the interpretation of the statute is unclear.

If a court were faced with the question of whether the statute permits prosecution of a witness who asserts an otherwise valid attorney-client privilege (ie, a claim of privilege that would be recognized at common law or in judicial proceedings), its conclusion would likely be dictated by the presumption that it starts with.  Since the statute itself is silent on its applicability to claims of attorney-client privilege, the court might hold that the statute should not be construed in derogation of a firmly established common law privilege.  Alternatively, the court might start with the presumption that the statute was intended to preserve the traditional legislative authority to overrule privileges and therefore reach the opposite conclusion.

Given the difficulty of this question, however, a court is likely to look for ways to avoid deciding it.  And there is likely to be an easy way for it to do so.  Under current congressional procedures, while a witness can argue his privilege claim to a congressional committee, there is no way to present the claim to the full House or Senate prior to being held in contempt.  But if the power to disregard privileges exists, it certainly inheres in the full legislative body, not in committees.  Thus, if a witness has a judicially valid claim of privilege, he can argue that it was a violation of due process to hold him in contempt without first giving him an opportunity to argue the claim before the full legislative body.