Wednesday, September 27, 2017
Senate Judiciary on Special Counsels and Separation of Powers
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony yesterday on two bi-partisan measures to protect the Special Counsel from arbitrary firing. The bills, and the hearing, are a push-back against earlier White House murmurings and more recent public concerns that President Trump may try to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The bills, S. 1735 (sponsored by Senators Graham, Booker, Whitehouse, and Blumenthal) and S. 1741 (sponsored by Senators Tillis and Coons), would both codify the heightened "for cause" firing standard already in the DOJ regs. They'd also provide independent judicial oversight of any termination.
But they differ in the way they'd provide judicial oversight. The Graham-Booker bill would require the AG to file a case before a three-judge district court before firing the Special Counsel; in contrast, the Tillis-Coons bill would allow the Special Counsel to challenge the termination before a three-judge district court after the firing.
That distinction may make all the constitutional difference between the two approaches. That's because there may be Article III problems (standing, and possibly the bar on advisory opinions) with a court hearing a pre-termination challenge, as in Graham-Booker (as Prof. Steve Vladeck's suggested before the Committee). Moreover, adding a second-level determination of "for cause" prior to firing (as in Graham-Booker), but not after firing (as in Tillis-Coons), may run afoul of the prohibition on double-for-cause provisions in Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB (as Prof. John Duffy argued).
But more generally, the witnesses, with one exception, seemed to agree that there were no problems codifying the for-cause firing standard, so long as Morrison v. Olson remains good law. (Prof. Eric Posner argued that both bills are well within Morrison; Vladeck and Duffy more or less agreed.)
Only Prof. Akhil Reed Amar argued that Morrison is (at least de facto) no longer good law (that Justice Scalia has been vindicated), that the bills violate the separation of powers, and that, in any event, it'd be "unwise" to pass either law given the likelihood of a veto and the resulting blowback from the White House.