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.