Tuesday, February 26, 2019
D.C. Circuit Rebuffs Challenge to Mueller's Appointment
The D.C. Circuit ruled in In re: Grand Jury Investigation that DAG Rosenstein's appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel did not violate the Appointments Clause. The ruling reaffirms Mueller's authority as Special Counsel and means that investigation target Andrew Miller will have to comply with grand jury subpoenas issued by Mueller.
We posted previously on the case here. We posted on Paul Manafort's similar case here, and another one here. We posted on yet another similar case here. We posted on Mueller's appointment regs and letter here.
The court held that the Special Counsel is an "inferior officer" (and not a "principal officer") under the Appointments Clause, and therefore need not be nominated by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. (If the Special Counsel were a principal officer, as Miller argued, the Appointments Clause would have required nomination by the President with advice and consent of the Senate. Because Mueller wasn't appointed this way, his appointment would have violated the Clause.) The court noted that the AG exerts near total control over the Special Counsel, notwithstanding the independence built into the Special Counsel regulatory scheme (the good-cause firing requirement), because ultimately the AG could simply revoke the Special Counsel regs and eliminate the office. (The court also noted that Deputy AG Rosenstein could have amended Mueller's appointment letter to do away with the regulatory independence that the office enjoys.) (The fact that the Special Counsel is a creation of DOJ regulations distinguishes this case on this point from Morrison v. Olsen, where the Independent Counsel was a creature of the Ethics in Government Act.)
The court held moreover that Supreme Court and circuit precedent and the AG's broad statutory power to appoint attorneys in the DOJ all say that the AG (or acting AG, here the DAG) had clear authority to appoint a Special Counsel--even one from outside the ranks of the Department. The court pointed to its own ruling in Sealed Case, involving the Office of Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra: "[T]his court assumed that the independent counsel did not already hold a position inside the Department when it held that the Attorney General's appointment of him to the Office of Independent Counsel: Iran/Contra was valid. That analysis applies equally to the facts of the instant case."
Finally, the court ruled that DAG Rosenstein sat in the seat of the AG for the purpose of Mueller's appointment--and therefore Mueller, as an inferior officer, was properly appointed by the head of an agency under the Appointments Clause. The court said that AG Sessions's recusal meant that he was "disabled" under the DOJ line-of-succession act for the purpose of appointing a Special Counsel, and that DAG Rosenstein validly stood in his shoes for that limited purpose.