Wednesday, March 21, 2018
District Court Rejects Suit Against Trump for Violations of the Presidential Records Act
Judge Christopher Cooper (D.D.C.) today dismissed a suit against President Trump for violations of the Presidential Records Act. Judge Cooper ruled that the plaintiffs, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive, didn't have a valid statutory or mandamus claim, and that they failed to state a Take Care Clause claim (if they even had one). The ruling ends the case, unless and until CREW appeals.
The case involves the White House practice of using instant-delete apps to delete text messages that might otherwise be subject to recording-keeping requirements. The White House has not denied the practice. CREW alleged that it violates the PRA, and that the President's use of executive orders (instead of administrative action) to side-step PRA requirements violates the Take Care Clause. But Judge Cooper ruled that CREW didn't have a cause of action, and that it didn't state a Take Care claim.
As to the statutory causes of action, the court declined to say whether under circuit law the PRA denies judicial review, and instead ruled that even if it didn't, CREW failed to state a valid mandamus claim. The court said that the PRA didn't create a "clear and compelling duty" on the part of the President to issue record classification guidelines, and so CREW couldn't get mandamus:
While the Presidential Records Act may obligate the President to take steps to preserve records, it nowhere dictates which steps to take. And while CREW may question the effectiveness of any guidance the President has issued regarding the preservation of his records, the Act nowhere clearly and definitively directs him to issue particular guidelines. Because CREW has not identified a ministerial duty, it has failed to state a valid mandamus claim.
As to the Take Care claim, the court said even if CREW could get declaratory relief against the President directly under the Take Care Clause, CREW's claim wouldn't fall within it:
Even assuming some universe of viable Take Care Clause claims exists, CREW's claim here does not fall within it. CREW does not challenge any of the President's executive orders themselves, nor does it argue that they exceed the President's authority to issue. Nor does CREW offer any reason why an administration could not, in good faith, elect to act through executive order rather than administrative action, even if that decision has incidental effects on the preservation of government records and the public's access to them. And the Court is aware of no authority preventing the President from electing to "faithfully execute" the laws by executive order rather than administrative process (assuming, of course, that the particular executive order at issue does not exceed the President's authority). Put another way, CREW does not dispute that the President has the discretion to make policy by executive order. The Supreme Court has advised that "[h]ow the President chooses to exercise the discretion Congress has granted him is not a matter for [the courts'] review." The Court will not ignore that counsel here.