Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Here's a short Q&A on some of the questions surrounding congressional efforts to impeach and disqualify President Trump. (I previously posted a primer on constitutional issues related to last week's insurgency.)
Can the House impeach President Trump again?
Yes. Recall that the House impeached President Trump just last year--for abusing power by pressuring the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on Joe Biden to boost Trump's chances of reelection, and for obstructing the House investigation into the matter. Still, there's nothing prohibiting the House from impeaching President Trump again. (The House has only impeached two other presidents in our history, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. It only impeached them once. But nothing prohibits a second impeachment.)
What happens if the House impeaches?
Alone, nothing. Remember that impeachment is a two-step process: impeachment in the House, and conviction in the Senate. Impeachment in the House requires a bare majority; conviction in the Senate requires a 2/3 vote. "Impeachment" requires both actions. So a House impeachment alone does nothing . . . except record for history that the House voted that the president committed impeachable offenses. Removal from office and disqualification from future office (see below) require the action of both chambers.
What happens if both chambers act?
Two things could happen. First, Congress (again, upon impeachment by the House and conviction in the Senate) could remove the president from office. That only happens, of course, if the president is still in office. So removal would only follow if Congress acted before President Trump's term ends.
Second, Congress can disqualify the president from holding office in the future. Under past congressional practice, this takes a bare majority in both chambers (and not the 2/3 super-majority in the Senate that's required for removal). (The Constitution itself isn't clear on the vote required for disqualification. But when the Constitution isn't clear, and there's no judicial precedent, we often look to past practice to discern the meaning. Past practice on disqualification says that Congress can disqualify with a bare majority vote in both houses.)
Finally, if both chambers act, Congress sets a precedent that behavior like President Trump's is impeachable, and cause for removal and disqualification. Because of the important role that history and practice play in our constitutional tradition, this kind of precedent would be significant, and could influence the future practices of both the President and Congress.
Can Congress impeach the President after his term ends?
Probably yes. The Constitution doesn't explicitly answer this question. But the House has twice impeached officials after they left office--once in 1797 (a Senator, after he was expelled), and once in 1876 (the Secretary of War, after he left office). These precedents are a good indication that Congress could impeach President Trump after he leaves office. (Again: past practice is a good indicator of meaning when the text is silent or ambiguous, and when there's no judicial precedent.) Moreover, as a practical matter, it only makes sense that Congress could impeach an officer after the officer leaves office. Otherwise, an officer could escape removal by resigning, or committing an impeachable offense near the end of the officer's term; and the officer could entirely escape disqualification (because a vote on disqualification often occurs only after an officer leaves office).
On the other hand, some argue that Congress can only impeach a sitting officer, in short, because only a sitting officer can be removed from office.
Can President Trump pardon himself out of impeachment?
No. The pardon power does not extend to impeachments.
Moreover, President Trump probably cannot pardon himself. (The Constitution doesn't say, and there's some disagreement on this. But the Justice Department has long held the view that the president cannot pardon him- or herself, based on the background constitutional principle that no person should be a judge in their own case.)
Can President Trump sue to stop or undo an impeachment?
No. The Supreme Court has ruled that impeachments are "non-justiciable." It said that the impeachment power belongs exclusively to Congress, and that the courts lack authority to second-guess congressional judgments about impeachment and its processes.
Can Congress disqualify President Trump from future office in some other way?
Yes. The 14th Amendment, Sections 3, says that any person who "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" is disqualified from holding federal and state offices, including the presidency. This would require a bare majority vote in both houses, and Congress could disqualify President Trump under the 14th Amendment after he leaves office. (Note that the current House articles of impeachment reference 14th Amendment disqualification.)
Vice President Mike Pence wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late yesterday declining to invoke the 25th Amendment against President Trump, writing that he does "not believe that such a course of action is in the best interest of our Nation or consistent with our Constitution."
As to why invocation of the 25th Amendment was not "consistent with our Constitution," Pence wrote,
As you know full well, the 25th Amendment was designed to address Presidential incapacity or disability. . . . Under our Constitution, the 25th Amendment is not a means of punishment or usurpation. Invoking the 25th Amendment in such a manner would set a terrible precedent.
He went on to argue that it'd be a bad idea, too, writing that "now is the time for us to come together, now is the time to heal."
For more on the 25th Amendment, check out this Congressional Research Service report.
Friday, January 8, 2021
Here's a short Q&A on some of the more common constitutional questions related to Wednesday's insurgency:
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment
What is it?
Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment provides a four-step process for determining when a President "is unable to discharge the powers and duties of . . . office . . . ." Section 4 comes into play when a sitting President cannot or will not determine for him- or herself that he or she is so unable. (Section 3 provides the process for a President to make this determination for him- or herself, e.g., to temporarily designate him- or herself as unable to discharge the duties when he or she goes in for a medical procedure that may render the President temporarily unable to do the job.) If successful, a Section 4 process would make the Vice President the "Acting President."
How does it work?
Section 4 has four steps:
Step 1: The VP and a majority of the principal officers of the executive departments (the cabinet) send a written declaration of inability to the President Pro Tem of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. (There are 15 executive departments, so a majority is 8. Section 4 alternatively allows "such other body as Congress may by law provide" to serve this role. But there's currently no "such other body.") When this happens, the VP automatically becomes Acting President and assumes the powers of the presidency.
Step 2: The President may then send a letter to these congressional leaders stating that he or she has no disability--in other words, contesting the judgment of the VP and the cabinet. Note that the President isn't required to do this. If the President doesn't do it, the VP continues as Acting President. There's no time limit for the President to submit this transmission.
Step 3: The VP and a majority of the principal officers of the executive departments can send another transmission to the congressional leaders, but must do so within four days of the President's transmission. If so, then the VP remains Acting President. (There is some disagreement about who would have the powers of the presidency during the period between the President's transmission and the VP/cabinet's re-submission. There is good textual and historical evidence that the VP would remain Acting President during this period.)
Step 4: Congress shall assemble within 48 hours to decide the issue; it must make a decision within 21 days (of receipt of the last transmission (in Step 3), or, if not in session, after it's required to assemble). If Congress votes by 2/3 in each chamber that the President is unable to discharge the duties of office, then the VP remains Acting President. "[O]therwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office."
What does it mean for President Trump?
If the VP and cabinet activate Section 4, VP Pence is likely to become the Acting President for the rest of President Trump's term, no matter what President Trump does. That's because the VP would become Acting President after Step 1, and because the VP and the cabinet would almost certainly complete Step 3 (having already committed to Step 1). At that point, Congress has a full 21 days--days in which the VP would be Acting President--which would carry us beyond January 20, the date of President-Elect Biden's inauguration. (Congress could easily drag its feet and avoid a vote until after January 20.)
Here's a fantastic Congressional Research Service report on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.
What is it?
Impeachment is a two-step process by which Congress can remove a sitting President from office and ban the President from holding future office. According to the Congressional Research Service, "[i]t appears that federal officials who have resigned have still been thought to be susceptible to impeachment and a ban on holding future office." A pardon doesn't work on impeachment. An impeached individual could also be subject to criminal liability.
How does it work?
Impeachment is a two-step process:
Step 1: The House votes to impeach. This requires only a bare majority.
Step 2: The Senate then holds a trial and votes to convict. Removal from office requires a 2/3 vote. But under Senate practice, a bare majority could vote to prevent the President from holding future office.
What does it mean for President Trump?
Congress could remove President Trump from office, or ban him from holding office in the future, or both. Congress could ban President Trump from holding future office, even if he resigns from office first. Congress could dispense with its ordinary impeachment procedures (which take a longer time) and move very quickly, even before January 20. That's because impeachment proceedings are non-justiciable (the courts won't hear challenges to them), and President Trump therefore couldn't challenge an impeachment process in court.
Here's an excellent Congressional Research Service Report on impeachment.
President Trump is free to resign from office at any time. There are no restrictions on this. If he resigns, under Section 1 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, "the Vice President shall become President."
What is it?
The President has the power to pardon individuals for federal (but not state) crimes. But the President can pardon for crimes arising from past behavior only; the President cannot pardon for future acts. (But by pardoning for past behavior, the President can insulate individuals from future indictments or convictions.) The pardon power is probably not reviewable in the courts, although an improper exercise of the pardon power could be an impeachable offense.
The Justice Department has long held that a President cannot pardon him- or herself. (The OLC memo is here.) But we've never faced that situation, and we have no court rulings.
There's a question as to whether the President can issue a blanket pardon, or whether the President must identify the specific criminal behavior. This has never been tested.
What does it mean for President Trump?
President Trump cannot pardon himself. If he tries--and attempts to use his self-pardon as a defense in a future federal prosecution--he will likely fail. But President Trump could resign from office, or delegate authority to the VP, and VP Pence (as Acting President) could pardon him. (See the discussion on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, above.)
VP Pence could not pardon President Trump for state crimes. The pardon power only works for federal offenses.
What is it?
The President enjoys certain immunities from the law by virtue of the President's unique position in our constitutional system. For example, the President is absolutely immune from civil liability for official actions. But the President is not immune from civil lawsuits for behavior prior to coming to office.
The Justice Department has long held that a sitting President is immune from federal criminal prosecution while in office. This is not uncontroversial, however, and it's never been tested. At the same time, DOJ has also long held that a President is not immune from federal criminal prosecution after the President leaves office. (Here's the most recent DOJ/OLC memo on this.)
The Supreme Court ruled just this past summer that a sitting President is not absolutely immune from all state criminal processes. President Trump is not immune from state criminal investigations and more, and he will enjoy no immunity from state criminal indictments or convictions when he leaves office.
What does it mean for President Trump?
President Trump is subject to federal and state criminal indictment and conviction for behavior while in office when he leaves office, and maybe sooner. Traditionally, the DOJ has not pursued criminal charges against a former President. But the Constitution does not forbid this.
A pardon, of course, would insulate President Trump from future federal criminal prosecution.
Friday, January 1, 2021
Judge Jeremy D. Kernodle (E.D. Tx.) dismissed the lawsuit headed by Representative Louie Gohmert against Vice President Mike Pence to throw the 2020 presidential election.
The ruling in the frivolous case was not unexpected.
The case arose when Gohmert and self-appointed Trump electors from Arizona sued VP Pence, arguing that the Electoral Count Act violates the Electors Clause and the Twelfth Amendment, and that Pence has authority to determine which slate of electors to accept when he presides over the congressional count of electoral votes on January 6. The, er, novel argument turns on the plaintiffs', um, creative reading of the Electors Clause, the Twelfth Amendment, and the Electoral Count Act.
Start with the Electors Clause. It says that "[e]ach State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . . ."
Next, the Twelfth Amendment. It says that each state's electors meet in their respective states and vote for President and VP. The electors then transmit their votes to the President of the Senate, the VP. "The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted." The candidate winning the majority of electoral votes wins. But if no candidate gets a majority, the House selects the President, with each state delegation receiving one vote.
Finally, the Electoral Count Act. It says that Congress must count the votes in a joint session on January 6, with the VP presiding. It says that the executive in each state shall certify the electors to the Archivist of the United States, who then transmits the certificates to Congress. It says that a state's determination of their electors is "conclusive" if the state resolved all disputes over the election pursuant to state law at least 6 days before the electors meet. (This is called the "safe harbor" date.) Under the Act, if at least one Member of the House of Representatives and one Senator objects to a state's elector votes, the House and Senate meet in separate sessions and vote on the objection--by members, not state delegations.
Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin all certified their electors to President-Elect Biden and VP-Elect Harris, pursuant to state law and the Electoral Count Act. The governors certified the electors to the Archivist.
But then Trump electors in those states met and, without any legal authority, self-certified their votes to President Trump and VP Pence.
The plaintiffs contend that the self-appointed Trump electors created a competing slate of electors in each of these states. (They did not. The "Trump electors" named themselves electors without any legal authority and contrary to state law in each state.) They argue that "provisions . . . of the Electoral Count Act are unconstitutional insofar as they establish procedures for determining which of two or more competing slates of Presidential Electors for a given State are to be counted in the Electoral College, or how objections to a proffered slate are adjudicated, that violate the Twelfth Amendment."
In particular, they argue that the states appointed Biden electors in violation of the Electors Clause, because the state governors and secretaries of state certified those electors, even though the Electors Clause specifies that this is a function for the legislature. (In fact, the legislatures in each of those states already determined the manner of appointing electors by enacting state law that awards electors to the majority winner of the popular vote in those states.)
Moreover, they argue that the dispute-resolution procedure in the Electoral Count Act "limits or eliminates [the VP's] exclusive authority and sole discretion under the Twelfth Amendment to determine which slates of electors for a State, or neither, may be counted." (In fact, the Twelfth Amendment does not give this authority to the VP. The VP's role is ceremonial, simply to read and count the certified results from each state.)
Finally, they argue that the dispute-resolution procedure in the Electoral Count Act "replaces the Twelfth Amendment's dispute resolution procedure--under which the House of Representatives has sole authority to choose the President." (In fact, the Twelfth Amendment dispute resolution procedure only applies when no candidate won a majority of electoral votes. The Electoral Count Act procedure applies when a member of both Houses objects to a state's slate of electors. Those are different dispute resolution processes, to be sure, but for very different kinds of dispute.)
The plaintiffs asked the court to hold that the VP has "exclusive authority and sole discretion in determining which electoral votes to count for a given State."
But the court ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing. It said that Gohmert lacked standing, because he asserted only an institutional harm (to the House), and not a personal harm. "Congressman Gohmert's alleged injury is 'a type of institutional injury (the diminution of legislative power), which necessarily damages all Members of Congress.'" It said that the Trump "electors" lacked standing, because any alleged injury that they suffered was not created by VP Pence, the defendant. Moreover, it said that both Gohmert and the Trump "electors" failed to show that their requested relief (an order that VP Pence has exclusive discretion to determine which electoral votes to count) would redress their injuries, because VP Pence might not determine the electoral votes in their favor.
The plaintiffs vowed to appeal. But don't expect this case to go anywhere . . . on standing, or on the merits.
Wednesday, December 30, 2020
The D.C. Circuit ruled this week that members of a House committee have standing to sue to enforce their statutory right to obtain information from executive agencies, in this case the General Services Administration.
The ruling means that the plaintiff-House members can pursue their claim to get the information, but it does not say that they'll win. In any event, the case is likely to become moot under President Biden, when the administration seems much more likely to comply with the request. (The ruling is likely to embolden minority Republican House members to ask for information from the Biden Administration.)
The case, Maloney v. Murphy, arose when Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee, then in a minority, sought information from the GSA related to the Agency's lease with a Trump corporation for the Old Post Office. The members invoked 5 U.S.C. Sec. 2954, which authorizes seven members of the House Oversight Committee or five members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to request and obtain information from any executive agency. The statute functionally allows a minority group of lawmakers on those committees to obtain information from an executive agency, even if the full committee does not seek that same information.
GSA balked, and the members sued. The district court granted the GSA's motion to dismiss for lack of standing, but the D.C. Circuit reversed.
The court said that the plaintiffs suffered a cognizable informational injury--that the GSA deprived them of information to which they were entitled, and that their lawsuit would redress that injury.
The court went on to say that the injury was "personal," and not "institutional," and therefore the individual lawmakers had standing. (A personal injury is a direct harm to a person, or in this case a lawmaker; the harmed individual, even if a lawmaker, has standing to sue. An institutional injury, in contract, is a generalized harm to the institution, in this case the Committee; the Committee would have standing, but not an individual lawmaker.) The court explained:
The Requestors do not assert an injury to institutional powers of functions that "damages all Members of Congress and both Houses of Congress equally." The injury they claim--the denial of information to which they as individual legislators are statutorily entitled--befell them and only them. Section 2954 vested them specifically and particularly with the right to obtain information. The 34 other members of the Committee who never sought the information suffered no deprivation when it was withheld. Neither did the nearly 400 other Members of the House who were not on the Committee suffer any informational injury. Nor was the House (or Senate) itself harmed because the statutory right does not belong to those institutions.
Judge Ginsburg dissented:
The Plaintiff-Members here allege harm to the House rather than to themselves personally. Their theory of injury is that the General Services Administration (GSA), by refusing their request for certain documents, hindered their efforts to oversee the Executive and potentially to pass remedial legislation. The Complaint is clear and consistent on this point: The Plaintiff-Members were harmed through the "impedance of the oversight and legislative responsibilities that have been delegated to them by Congress . . . ."
Tuesday, November 10, 2020
The Supreme Court hears arguments today in the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act--a case that could take down the entire Act. Here's my preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court cases, with permission:
The universal coverage provision is once again at the Supreme Court. This time, challengers argue that the provision is not a valid exercise of Congress’s taxing authority, because the provision lacks a critical feature of a “tax”: it cannot raise revenue for the government. (After all, the penalty for noncompliance is zero.) Moreover, challengers argue that because the universal coverage provision is so integrated with the rest of the Act, the provision’s invalidity also means that the rest of the Act must fall, too. But before we even get to these issues, the Court will first consider whether the challengers even have standing to bring their claims.
- Do individual and state plaintiffs have standing to challenge the minimum-coverage provision in the Affordable Care Act?
- Did Congress render the minimal-coverage provision unconstitutional by setting the tax penalty for individuals who lack health insurance to zero?
- If the minimal-coverage provision is unconstitutional, is the rest of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, too?
In 2010, Congress enacted the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). The central goal of the Act was to extend quality and affordable health insurance to all Americans. In order to achieve this goal, the ACA included a host of new policies and regulations of the health-insurance market.
Three of those policies stand out. First, the “guaranteed-issue provision” prohibits health-insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. Second, the “community-rating provision” bars health-insurance companies from charging individuals higher premiums because of their health conditions. And third, the “universal coverage provision” (or “individual mandate”) requires all individuals to obtain health insurance, or to pay a tax penalty. 26 U.S.C. § 5000A.
The three provisions complement each other in order to achieve the goals of the Act. The guaranteed-issue provision ensures that all individuals have access to health insurance. The community-rating provision ensures that no individuals pay an outsized rate based on their health conditions. And the universal-coverage provision helps to ensure that health-insurance rates are affordable, by expanding the pool of insured individuals who pay into the health-insurance system, including healthy, but previously uninsured, individuals. These provisions form a “three-legged stool” that sits at the center of the Act.
But the ACA contains a web of other reforms and regulations, too, all designed to help extend quality and affordable health insurance to all Americans. Most notably, the Act provides federal financial incentives to states to expand their Medicaid programs; it expands access to employer-based health insurance; it creates health-insurance marketplaces ( “exchanges”) where individuals can shop for insurance; it provides subsidies to insurance companies and individuals to help keep rates affordable; it requires health-insurance plans to provide certain minimal benefits; it allows young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans until age 26; and more. The ACA also contains a number of provisions that are designed to expand access to quality and affordable healthcare and improve public health outcomes, even if they are not directly related to the health-insurance market.
Opponents of the ACA immediately sued to stop the Act. They argued, among other things, that Congress lacked authority to enact the universal-coverage provision, and that the provision was therefore unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court disagreed. A sharply divided five-to-four Court ruled that while Congress could not enact the provision under its Commerce Clause authority, Congress could enact the provision under its taxing authority. NFIB v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012). In other words, the Court held that Congress could not require individuals to purchase health insurance as a free-standing regulatory mandate. But it said that Congress could impose a tax penalty against individuals who failed to comply with the provision.
In explaining why Congress could enact the universal coverage provision under its taxing authority, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the Court, noted that the tax penalty for noncompliance with the universal coverage had all the indicia of valid tax. He observed that the provision was located in the Internal Revenue Code, and that the amount of the penalty was “determined by such familiar factors as taxable income, number of dependents, and joint filing status.” Most importantly, he noted that the provision “yield[ed] the essential feature of any tax: It produce[d] at least some revenue for the Government.” As a tax, Chief Justice Roberts observed, the provision “is not a legal command to buy insurance,” but instead “a condition—not owning health insurance—that triggers a tax.”
Before and after the ruling, opponents of the ACA waged several attempts to revoke the Act through legislation. These efforts failed. But in 2017, in direct response to the ruling, opponents in Congress, through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), succeeded in undermining the universal-coverage provision indirectly, by setting the tax penalty for noncompliance at zero dollars.
After Congress enacted the TCJA, two private individuals and a group of states sued the government, arguing that the TCJA rendered the universal-coverage provision unconstitutional. They claimed that by zeroing out the tax penalty for noncompliance, Congress transformed the universal-coverage provision from a valid tax (under NFIB) to an unconstitutional direct requirement to buy health insurance (also under NFIB). Moreover, they argued that because the universal-coverage provision worked in concert with the many other provisions of the ACA, the universal-coverage provision was not “severable” from the rest of the Act, and the rest of the Act must necessarily fall, too.
The government sided with the plaintiffs on the universal-coverage provision, but adopted a somewhat more nuanced position on severability. In particular, the government maintained that the universal-coverage provision was inseverable only as to the guaranteed-issue and community-rating provisions, and so only those two additional components of the ACA must fall. Because the government sided with the plaintiffs, a group of states and the District of Columbia, and later the U.S. House of Representatives, intervened to defend the Act.
The district court ruled for the plaintiffs. The court held that the universal-coverage provision was no longer valid as a tax, and that it was inseverable from the rest of the Act. The court struck the entire ACA, but stayed the ruling pending appeal.
The Fifth Circuit agreed that the universal-coverage provision was no longer valid as a tax, and therefore exceeded Congress’s authority. But it remanded the case to the district court for further consideration of the severability question. The appeals court instructed the lower court to give more attention to the legislative intent behind the TCJA, and to more carefully consider how particular portions of the ACA were linked to the universal-coverage provision.
This appeal followed.
The case includes three distinct issues. Let’s take a look, one at a time. (The individual and state plaintiffs briefed a fourth issue—that the Court should uphold the district court’s nationwide injunction against the ACA—but the Court did not certify that question for appeal. We’ll refer to the parties defending the ACA, the states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. House of Representative, together as the “petitioners.”)
In order to sue in federal court, plaintiffs must demonstrate that they have “standing.” This requires a plaintiff to show (1) that the plaintiff suffered a direct and concrete harm (2) that was caused by the defendant’s actions and (3) that would be redressed by the plaintiff’s requested relief in court. Only one plaintiff needs to demonstrate standing for a case to move forward, so this case could proceed if any of the individual plaintiffs or the states have standing.
The petitioners argue that the plaintiffs (now the respondents) lack standing. As to the individual plaintiffs, the petitioners claim that the universal-coverage provision, as altered by the TCJA, does not harm the plaintiffs, because it doesn’t require them to do anything, and because it doesn’t penalize them if they don’t buy insurance. The petitioners say that the zeroed-out universal-coverage provision simply gives individuals a choice—buy insurance or don’t—but that it doesn’t impose any consequence. They say that any harm is therefore self-inflicted, and doesn’t count for standing purposes. As to the states, the petitioners point out that the universal-coverage provision doesn’t even apply to them. Moreover, the petitioners maintain that they simply have failed to introduce any evidence that the zeroed-out universal-coverage provision itself inflicts any injury on them at all (even if other provisions of the ACA may increase their costs).
The plaintiffs argue that they have standing. The individual plaintiffs contend that they have standing, because the universal-coverage provision, even without a penalty, still requires them to purchase insurance—an actual harm for standing purposes. The states claim that the universal-coverage provision, even without a penalty, imposes several costs on them: increased enrollment in their Medicaid programs (because some individuals will enroll in Medicaid to comply with the universal-coverage provision); increased reporting and regulatory requirements under other provisions in the ACA; and increased costs in providing state employees with health insurance in order to comply with the ACA’s employer mandate. The states say that all of these costs count toward standing, notwithstanding the petitioners’ unduly narrow focus on the lack of particular harms that derive from the universal-coverage provision.
The government argues that the individual plaintiffs have standing. (The government does not make an argument one way or another about the states’ standing.) The government claims that the individual plaintiffs are injured by the ACA’s provisions that regulate health-insurance plans (the government calls these “insurance reform provisions”), because these provisions limit the individual plaintiffs’ choices and increase their costs in the health-insurance market. The government says that the individual plaintiffs can leverage this harm to challenge the universal-coverage provision, because the insurance reform provisions are inseverable from the universal-coverage provision, and all other portions of the ACA, because they, too, are inseverable. But the government maintains that the Court can only grant relief with regard to those provisions that actually injure the individual plaintiffs—relief that would redress only the individual plaintiffs’ harms. The government urges the Court to rule the entire Act unconstitutional, but then to remand the case “for consideration of the scope of appropriate relief redressing the plaintiffs’ injuries.”
Constitutionality of the Universal-Coverage Provision
The petitioners argue that the universal-coverage provision is still constitutional, even after Congress reduced the tax penalty to zero. They say that while the provision may encourage individuals to buy insurance, it doesn’t require anyone to do anything. They contend that this kind of action is well within Congress’s authority, either as a precatory statement, or as a suspended exercise of its taxing power (a placeholder provision in the law that is currently dormant, but that Congress could reactivate in the future). And they note that Congress did not revoke the provision; it simply zeroed out the penalty. The petitioners claim that the Fifth Circuit’s ruling to the contrary—that Congress transformed the universal-coverage provision into an invalid exercise of its Commerce Clause authority—flies in the face of NFIB itself, which says that the courts must “construe a statute to save it, if fairly possible.”
The plaintiffs and the government respond that the universal-coverage provision is no longer constitutional under Congress’s taxing authority, because it no longer raises revenue. As the government says, “Under NFIB’s functional approach, a statute that imposes no tax liability on anyone cannot be sustained as a tax.” The plaintiffs and the government say that the provision now reads most naturally to directly require individuals to buy insurance. They contend that this is exactly what the Court in NFIB ruled that Congress could not do.
The petitioners argue that even if the universal-coverage provision is no longer constitutional, it is severable from the rest of the Act. They note that when Congress zeroed-out the tax penalty in the TCJA, it left the rest of the Act in place. According to the petitioners, this shows that Congress intended only to remove the enforcement mechanism for the universal-coverage provision, but not to undermine the rest of the ACA. (Importantly, the petitioners focus on congressional intent in 2017, when it enacted the TCJA, and not 2010, when it enacted the ACA.) The petitioners maintain that, as a practical matter, the rest of the ACA has continued to operate since 2017, even without the tax penalty.
The individual and state plaintiffs and the government counter that the universal-coverage provision is inseverable from the rest of the ACA, because Congress enacted the provision as an essential part of the larger Act. They say that the universal-coverage provision is an indispensable part of the “three-legged stool” (along with the guaranteed-issue and community-rating provisions), and that the many and myriad other provisions in the Act cannot operate without the Act’s core three-legged stool. (In contrast to the petitioners, the individual and state plaintiffs emphasize congressional intent in 2010 and before the TCJA. They note, however, that the TCJA retained statutory findings as to how these provisions work together to achieve the goals of the Act.)
This case is easily one of the most important cases of the Term. That’s because it tests the entire ACA—a sweeping piece of legislation that comprehensively restructured the health insurance market in the United States and brought quality and affordable health insurance to millions of individuals. A ruling for the challengers could mean the end for many or all of the ACA’s reforms, and could result in millions of individuals losing health insurance and other protections and benefits under the Act. Given that Congress has not offered a viable alternative to the ACA, a ruling for the challengers would likely return the health-insurance market to its pre-ACA status.
This is all the more significant in the middle of a pandemic, with an illness, Covid-19, that has infected millions of Americans and killed over 200,000. Infected individuals require various levels of health care, often quite significant, paid at least in part by their health insurance. Many previously infected individuals continue to show signs of longer-lasting, even chronic, conditions that will require future health care and health insurance. A ruling for the plaintiffs could affect these individuals’ health-insurance policies, and their ability to obtain quality and affordable health care for treatment. At the same time, lingering Covid-19-related conditions could drive up insurance rates or even prevent some previously infected individuals from obtaining new health insurance without the community-rating and guaranteed-issue provisions in the ACA.
But that’s only if the Court rules for opponents on each of the three issues in the case. Such a ruling is not at all certain. For starters, the Court could dismiss the case for lack of standing, vacate the lower courts’ rulings, and leave the ACA in place, exactly as it is. Despite the plaintiffs’ and the government’s arguments, and despite the lower courts’ rulings, the plaintiffs’ standing is tenuous. The universal-coverage provision doesn’t require any of the individual or state plaintiffs to do anything, and the states’ theory of standing hinges on other provisions of the ACA. It’s not at all clear that the Court will rule for the plaintiffs on standing. That said, the Court’s rulings on standing often seem to turn on the underlying merits. That may be true here, too: if a majority wishes to address the merits, the Court will likely find standing.
As to the universal-coverage provision, the Court seems primed to rule this unconstitutional. Remember that Chief Justice Roberts wrote for a bare majority in NFIB that the universal-coverage provision fell within congressional authority to tax, because it could raise revenue. But with the provision now zeroed-out, it is not at all clear that Chief Justice Roberts would vote to uphold it. Even if the other current justices who joined this portion of the NFIB ruling (Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan) voted to uphold the provision, there may now be a five-justice majority against the provision. Since Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the Court has only eight justices. (More on this below.) A four-four tie would affirm the Fifth Circuit’s ruling striking the universal-coverage provision, but without setting a Supreme Court precedent.
As to severability, we just don’t know. To be sure, there is language in NFIB that suggests that the universal-coverage provision is inextricably linked to other provisions of the Act, particularly the guaranteed-issue and community-rating provisions. But that language does not necessarily foretell the Court’s ruling on severability. (The inextricability of the universal-coverage provision as a matter of policy may be different than the inseverablity of the provision as a matter of constitutional law.) If the Court were to strike the universal-coverage provision, it could (1) rule all of the Act severable (and strike only the universal-coverage provision), (2) rule only the guaranteed-issue and community-rating provisions inseverable (and strike only the three provisions), (3) rule certain other provisions of the ACA also inseverable (and strike only those provisions), or (4) rule the entire ACA inseverable (and strike the whole Act). Because the Fifth Circuit did not rule on the severability of specific ACA provisions—remember that the Fifth Circuit remanded the case for further consideration of severability—the Court may similarly kick the question back to the lower courts. (As described above, in standing, the government urges the Court to rule the entire Act unconstitutional, but to remand the case for a determination of which provisions harm the individual plaintiffs.)
The timing of the case, just a week after the 2020 presidential election, is critical. As this piece goes to print, President Trump has nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Court. Justice Ginsburg voted to uphold the universal-coverage provision in NFIB, and has consistently voted against other challenges to the Act. Judge Barrett, in stark contrast, is on the record opposing the Court’s holding in NFIB that Congress validly enacted the universal-coverage provision under its taxing authority. A Justice Barrett would almost certainly tilt the Court—with possibly a six-justice majority—further against the universal-coverage provision. We probably don’t have enough information to predict the way a Justice Barrett might rule on severability.
At publication, the Senate just began confirmation hearings. If the Senate confirms Judge Barrett before November 10, as now seems likely, she will sit for oral arguments and participate in the case. If the Senate does not confirm Judge Barrett before November 10, under ordinary practice, she won’t—unless the Court orders a reargument in order to include her. With the current eight-justice Court, a tie would simply leave the Fifth Circuit ruling in place.
One final point. Even if the Court were to rule for the plaintiffs on all the issues, Congress could probably restore much or all of the ACA, if it had the votes. Remember that the Court in NFIB held that Congress could enact the universal-coverage provision with a tax penalty under its taxing authority. That ruling still stands, for now, at least. Again, a Justice Amy Coney Barrett could move the Court against it.
Saturday, September 26, 2020
Judge Lucy H. Koh (N.D. Cal.) ruled this week that the Trump Administration's late summer plan to rush census data collection likely violated the Administrative Procedure Act. The ruling halts the implementation of the plan.
The ruling is a blow to the Trump Administration and its latest effort to alter or manipulate census data.
The case arose when the Census Bureau first suspended census operations and then pushed back internal deadlines for census data collection and analysis because of collection problems related to COVID-19. (For one, the Bureau couldn't keep census data doorknockers on the payroll: they kept quitting out of fear of contracting COVID.) The Bureau also announced that it wouldn't be able to meet statutory deadlines for reporting census data. The Bureau said that under its regular deadlines the census would be incomplete and inaccurate.
But then in early August, the Bureau abruptly reversed course and issued the "Replan." The Replan "accelerate[d] the completion of data collection and apportionment counts by our statutory deadline of December 31, 2020 . . . ."
The problem was that the Bureau itself--and the Bureau's unanimous Scientific Advisory Committee, and the GAO, and the Commerce Department's Inspector General--concluded that the Replan increased the risks of an incomplete and inaccurate 2020 census.
Plaintiff organizations and local jurisdictions sued, arguing that the Replan violated the APA and the Enumeration Clause and sought to halt its implementation. The court ruled that the case was justiciable, that the plaintiffs had standing, and that the Replan likely violated the APA. (It did not rule on the Enumeration Clause, because it didn't have to. The APA ruling was enough to say that it likely violated the law.) As to the APA claim, the court wrote:
[T]he Court agreed that Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their APA arbitrary and capricious claim for five reasons: (1) Defendants failed to consider important aspects of the problem, including their constitutional and statutory obligations to produce an accurate census; (2) Defendants offered an explanation that runs counter to the evidence before them; (3) Defendants failed to consider alternatives; (4) Defendants failed to articulate a satisfactory explanation for the Replan; and (5) Defendants failed to consider reliance interests.
Friday, September 25, 2020
The D.C. Circuit ruled today that the House of Representatives has standing to challenge President Trump's reprogramming of federal funds to build a border wall.
The ruling is a setback for the Trump Administration and its efforts to build the wall (or at least more of it than Congress authorized through federal funding). But the ruling only says that the House has standing--not that it wins. The case now goes back to the district court for further proceedings, unless the administration seeks en banc or Supreme Court review.
The court said that the House has standing to challenge the reprogramming under the Appropriations Clause, but not under the Administrative Procedure Act. That shouldn't matter much to the future of the case, though: the lower court will still rule whether the Trump administration violated the law (the Constitution) in reprogramming funds.
Aside from allowing this case to move forward, the ruling is also significant because it says that a single house of Congress has standing to challenge executive action in violation of the Appropriations Clause. Appropriations, of course, require both houses of Congress. But the court said that a single house nevertheless suffered sufficient injury to satisfy Article III standing requirements when the executive branch reprograms federal funds in alleged violation of the Appropriations Clause. Here's what the court wrote on that point:
More specifically, by spending funds that the House refused to allow, the Executive Branch has defied an express constitutional prohibition that protects each congressional chamber's unilateral authority to prevent expenditures. It is therefore "an institutional plaintiff asserting an institutional injury" that is both concrete and particularized, belonging to the House and the House alone.
To put it simply, the Appropriations Clause requires two keys to unlock the Treasury, and the House holds one of those keys. The Executive Branch has, in a word, snatched the House's key out of its hands. That is the injury over which the House is suing.
. . .
[U]nder the defendants' standing paradigm [requiring Congress to sue, not just a single house], the Executive Branch can freely spend Treasury funds as it wishes unless and until a veto-proof majority of both houses of Congress forbids it. Even that might not be enough: Under defendants' standing theory, if the Executive Branch ignored that congressional override, the House would remain just as disabled to sue to protect its own institutional interests. That turns the constitutional order upside down.
Friday, July 24, 2020
Federal Judge Enjoins Federal Agents Acting Against Journalists and Legal Observers in Portland, Oregon
In a Temporary Restraining Order and Opinion in Index Newspapers v. City of Portland, Judge Michael Simon enjoined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ("DHS"); and the U.S. Marshals Service ("USMS") — the "Federal Defendants" — from arresting and otherwise interfering with journalists and legal observers who are documenting the troublesome and now widely reported events in Portland, Oregon, which have attracted Congressional attention.
Judge Simon's relatively brief TRO opinion, first finds that the plaintiffs have standing, and then applying the TRO criteria importantly finds that there is a likelihood the plaintiffs would prevail on the First Amendment claim. Judge Simon found both that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence of retaliatory intent against First Amendment rights and that plaintiffs had a right of access under Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court (1986). Judge Simon found fault with many of the specific arguments of the federal defendants, including the unworkability of the remedy:
The Federal Defendants also argue that closure is essential because allowing some people to remain after a dispersal order is not practicable and is unworkable. This argument is belied by the fact that this precise remedy has been working for 21 days with the Portland Police Bureau. Indeed, after issuing the first TRO directed against the City, the Court specifically invited the City to move for amendment or modification if the original TRO was not working, or address any problems at the preliminary injunction phase. Instead, the City stipulated to a preliminary injunction that was nearly identical to the original TRO, with the addition of a clause relating to seized property. The fact that the City never asked for any modification and then stipulated to a preliminary injunction is compelling evidence that exempting journalists and legal observers is workable. When asked at oral argument why it could be workable for City police but not federal officers, counsel for the Federal Defendants responded that the current protests are chaotic. But as the Federal Defendants have emphatically argued, Portland has been subject to the protests nonstop for every night for more than 50 nights, and purportedly that is why the federal officers were sent to Portland. There is no evidence that the previous 21 nights were any less chaotic. Indeed, the Federal Defendants' describe chaotic events over the Fourth of July weekend through July 7th, including involving Portland police, and the previous TRO was issued on July 2nd and was in effect at that time. The workability of the previous TRO also shows that there is a less restrictive means than exclusion or force that is available.
The TRO is quite specific as to journalists as well as to legal observers, providing in paragraph 5, to "facilitate the Federal Defendants' identification of Legal Observers protected under this Order, the following shall be considered indicia of being a Legal Observer: wearing a green National Lawyers' Guild-issued or authorized Legal Observer hat (typically a green NLG hat) or wearing a blue ACLU-issued or authorized Legal Observer vest."
The TRO lasts for 14 days; the litigation will undoubtedly last much longer.
Thursday, July 9, 2020
Court Says Congress Can Subpoena Trump Financial Records, but Must Account for Separation of Powers Concerns
The Supreme Court ruled today that while Congress has authority to issue subpoenas for the President's personal financial records, courts that judge those subpoenas must take more careful account of the separation-of-powers considerations at play.
The ruling in Trump v. Mazars vacates the lower courts' rulings and remands the case for reconsideration in light of the balancing test that the Court sets out.
The ruling means that the congressional committees won't get President Trump's financial records yet, and maybe never. It all depends on whether Congress can meet the test set out in the Court's opinion. Either way, it almost certainly won't happen before the 2020 election.
The ruling, like Vance, is a short-term victory for President Trump, in that his records probably won't come out soon. But on the other hand, it's a decisive long-term defeat for the presidency (and victory for Congress), as the Court affirmed Congress's power to subpoena the President's personal records, even with a somewhat higher-than-normal requirement.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the Court, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Thomas dissented, and Justice Alito dissented. (If you're keeping count, that's the same line-up as in Vance.)
The Court first rejected the President's sweeping claim that tried to shoe-horn executive privilege into the case: "We decline to transplant that protection root and branch to cases involving nonprivileged, private information, which by definition does not implicate sensitive Executive Branch deliberations."
The Court then acknowledged that Congress has very broad, but still defined, powers of investigation and subpoena, even against the President, and even for the President's personal papers. But the Court said that because these subpoenas sought personal information of the President (as the single head of the Executive Branch), they raised especial separation-of-powers concerns that the lower courts failed sufficiently to account for:
The House's approach fails to take adequate account of the significant separation of powers issues raised by congressional subpoenas for the President's information. . . .
Without limits on its subpoena powers, Congress could "exert an imperious controul" over the Executive Branch and aggrandize itself at the President's expense, just as the Framers feared.
The Court set out a non-exhaustive list of things that courts should look for in judging congressional subpoenas for a President's personal information:
First, courts should carefully assess whether the asserted legislative purpose warrants the significant step of involving the President and his papers. Congress may not rely on the President's information if other sources could reasonably provide Congress the information it needs in light of its particular legislative objective. . . .
Second, to narrow the scope of possible conflict between the branches, courts should insist on a subpoena no broader than reasonably necessary to support Congress's legislative objective. . . .
Third, courts should be attentive to the nature of the evidence offered by Congress to establish that a subpoena advances a valid legislative purpose. The more detailed and substantial the evidence of Congress's legislative purpose, the better. . . .
Fourth, courts should be careful to assess the burdens imposed on the President by a subpoena. . . .
Other considerations may be pertinent as well; one case every two centuries does not afford enough experience for an exhaustive list.
The Court vacated the lower courts' opinions and remanded for reconsideration under these factors.
Justice Thomas argued that "Congress has no power to issue a legislative subpoena for private, nonofficial documents--whether they belong to the President or not," unless Congress is investigating an impeachment.
Justice Alito dissented, too, arguing that the bar for Congress should be set higher than the Court's setting, and that "the considerations outlined by the Court can[not] be properly satisfied [on remand] unless the House is required to show more than it has put forward to date."
Monday, June 29, 2020
The Supreme Court today struck the statutory independence of the Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, even as it declined to rule the entire CFPB unconstitutional. This means that the CFPB stays in place, Director and all, but that the President can terminate the Director at will. (As to the particular case before the Court, which challenged a CFPB enforcement demand, the ruling invalidates the demand. But the CFPB could reissue it and re-commence enforcement, but without protections for the Director.)
More broadly, the ruling in Seila Law v. CFPB says that Congress lacks authority to create an Executive Branch "independent" principal office, unless that office is part of a larger board or commission, and probably without significant executive power.
The ruling is a victory for the Trump Administration, which opposed independence for the CFPB Director. But at the same time, it sharply restricts Congress's power to create an independent principal office within the Executive Branch.
Under the Dodd-Frank Act, the CFPB has authority to implement and enforce a variety of consumer financial protection laws to "ensur[e] that all consumers have access to markets for consumer financial products and services and that markets for consumer financial products and services are fair, transparent, and competitive."
The Director is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. In creating an independent Director, Congress legislated that the Director would be appointed for five years and can be removed only for "inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office." It's that "independence" that was at stake in the case.
The Court ruled that this independence violated the separation of powers. Pointing to the Article II Vesting Clause, the Court wrote that "[t]he entire 'executive Power' belongs to the President alone." It held that statutory independence for a principal executive officer who is not a part of a board of commission impermissibly restricts the President's executive power.
The Court distinguished Humphrey's Executor, holding that Humphrey's upheld the independence of a multi-member board, the FTC, whereas the CFPB has a single head. According to the Court, unlike the FTC (at the time), the CFPB's single Director is not a "body of experts," is not "non-partisan," and does not have staggered terms that "prevent complete turnover in leadership." Moreover, the CFPB Director has greater responsibilities than the old FTC did, including the "quintessentially executive power" to seek monetary penalties in federal court.
The Court distinguished Morrison v. Olson, holding that Congress may create an independent inferior officer. The Court said that the CFPB Director was a principal office, and had more wide-ranging authority than the independent counsel in Morrison, and that the independent counsel's prosecutorial authority looked inward, to Executive Branch officials on specified matters, whereas the CFPB Director has authority over "millions of private citizens and businesses, imposing even billion-dollar penalties through administrative adjudications and civil actions."
The Court declined to "extend" those cases to cover the "new situation" of the CFPB Director's independence. The Court said that there was no precedent for this kind of office, and that it "is incompatible with our constitutional structure." "The . . . constitutional strategy is straightforward: divide power everywhere except for the Presidency, and render the President directly accountable to the people through regular elections. In that scheme, individual executive officials will still wield significant authority, but that authority remains subject to the ongoing supervision and control of the elected President."
But even as the Court struck statutory independence for the Director, it declined to take down the entire CFPB. The Court ruled that the independence provision was severable from the rest of the Act, and therefore that the CFPB could remain, Director and all, but without the independence protection.
Justice Kagan, dissenting on independence but concurred on severability, and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, wrote:
If a removal provision violates the separation of powers, it is because the measure so deprives the President of control over an official as to impede his own constitutional functions. But with or without a for-cause removal provision, the President has at least as much control over an individual as over a commission--and possibly more. That means the constitutional concern is, if anything, ameliorated when the agency has a single head. . . .
In second-guessing the political branches, the majority second-guesses as well the wisdom of the Framers and the judgment of history. It writes in rules to the Constitution that the drafters knew well enough not to put there. It repudiates the lessons of American experience, from the 18th century to the present day. And it commits the Nation to a new static version of governance, incapable of responding to new conditions and challenges.
Friday, June 26, 2020
In a pair of rulings today, here and here, the Ninth Circuit held that President Trump exceeded his authority under federal law and violated the Appropriations Clause in reprogramming funds to build portions of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
The rulings are a sharp set-back to President Trump's efforts to make good on his promise to build the wall.
Today's rulings come after the case has already been to the Supreme Court. Recall that the Court earlier granted the Administration's motion for a stay of the district court's earlier injunction, affirmed by the Ninth Circuit. The Court's stay meant that the injunction would not remain in place as the case moved forward on the merits. So the case moved forward on the merits, sans injunction. But then the district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and granted a new injunction. That's why we got today's rulings.
(There's some weirdness here. The Supreme Court granted the stay, stating, "Among the reasons is that the Government has made a sufficient showing at this stage that the plaintiffs have no cause of action to obtain review of the Acting Secretary's compliance with Section 8005." Despite this language, the court today ruled that the plaintiffs in both cases did have causes of action.)
The rulings say that President Trump exceeded his authority under the 2019 Defense Department Appropriations Act and violated the Appropriations Clause, and affirmed a permanent injunction.
The court held that in order to reprogram under Sections 8005 and 9002 of the 2019 Defense Department Appropriations Act, (1) there must be for an unforeseen military requirement and (2) Congress must not have previously denied funding. The court said that President Trump's reprogramming violated both requirements.
As to the first, the court said that the border wall was no "unforeseen military requirement." Among other things, the court noted that President Trump had long advocated for the wall, suggesting that it couldn't have been "unforeseen."
As to the second, the court noted that Congress had previously denied the Administration's request for full funding.
Judge Collins dissented in both cases. Judge Collins argued that the plaintiffs didn't have a cause of action (see the weirdness parenthetical, above), and that even if they did they'd lose on the merits.
Monday, June 15, 2020
In its opinion in the consolidated cases of Bostock v. Clayton County, the United States Supreme Court interpreted the prohibition of discrimination "because of sex" in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000e et. seq. to include sexual and transgender identities. As we discussed in our preview, two of the consolidated cases involved sexual orientation discrimination - Altitude Express v. Zarda and Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners - while the third - R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC - involved gender identity.
The Court's opinion, authored by Justice Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, states:
At bottom, these cases involve no more than the straightforward application of legal terms with plain and settled meanings. For an employer to discriminate against employees for being homosexual or transgender, the employer must intentionally discriminate against individual men and women in part because of sex. That has always been prohibited by Title VII’s plain terms—and that “should be the end of the analysis.”
After considering and rejecting the employers' arguments, the opinion concludes:
Some of those who supported adding language to Title VII to ban sex discrimination may have hoped it would derail the entire Civil Rights Act. Yet, contrary to those intentions, the bill became law. Since then, Title VII’s effects have unfolded with far-reaching consequences, some likely beyond what many in Congress or elsewhere expected.
But none of this helps decide today’s cases. Ours is a society of written laws. Judges are not free to overlook plain statutory commands on the strength of nothing more than suppositions about intentions or guesswork about expectations. In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.
The judgments of the Second and Sixth Circuits in Nos. 17–1623 and 18–107 are affirmed. The judgment of the Eleventh Circuit in No. 17–1618 is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
The Court's opinion is 33 pages or so and there are no concurring opinions. Justice Alito's dissent, joined by Justice Thomas, weighs in at over 100 pages including its appendices. There is another dissenting opinion by Justice Kavanaugh, at a more modest 27 pages.
It is the dissenting opinions that provide the constitutional law perspective to the Court's statutory interpretation decision: both claim that the Court is violating separation of powers. Justice Alito begins his lengthy dissent by stating:
There is only one word for what the Court has done today: legislation. The document that the Court releases is in the form of a judicial opinion interpreting a statute, but that is deceptive.
And the Court's most recently appointed Justice, Kavanaugh, begins in a similar vein:
Like many cases in this Court, this case boils down to one fundamental question: Who decides?
Kavanaugh concludes that it should not be the Court's decision, but does expound on why the Court's interpretation regarding "sex" is incorrect.
Congress could, of course, amend Title VII to exclude LGBTQ identities. But the momentum in Congress has tilted in the direction of inclusion, a step which would now be redundant.
As for the connections between Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause and the definitions of "sex" and protection for LGBTQ individuals, these arise in the dissenting opinions. Alito's dissent worries that the Title VII interpretation will "exert a gravitational pull in constitutional cases," so that LGBTQ identities will be afforded the heightened scrutiny standard applicable to sex/gender. For his part, Kavanaugh's dissent stresses that in the Court's discussions of sexual orientation in equal protection doctrine, the Court did not consider sexual orientation part of sex discrimination.
Additionally, all of the opinions raise the First Amendment free exercise of religion specter. The Court's majority states that "worries about how Title VII may intersect with religious liberties are nothing new; they even predate the statute’s passage," but that issue is for another day:
So while other employers in other cases may raise free exercise arguments that merit careful consideration, none of the employers before us today represent in this Court that compliance with Title VII will infringe their own religious liberties in any way.
For Alito dissenting, his views are similar to his views in the same-sex marriage cases. He states here that the " position that the Court now adopts will threaten freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and personal privacy and safety. No one should think that the Court’s decision represents an unalloyed victory for individual liberty."
Wednesday, May 13, 2020
The Fifth Circuit yesterday upheld the state sovereign immunity waiver for state recipients of Title IX funding. The ruling means that state recipients of Title IX can be sued for monetary damages in federal court for violations of Title IX.
That's the same result that's long been on the books in the Fifth Circuit and all others to have considered the question.
But this case is notable because it rejects a novel claim by Louisiana (LSU was the defendant) that the Supreme Court's Medicaid ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius changed the landscape as to Title IX waiver. In particular, the state claimed that under NFIB the Title IX waiver was unduly coercive.
Not so, said the court. The court said that NFIB "does not unequivocally alter Dole's conditional-spending analysis," under which the Court previously upheld the Title IX waiver. Moreover, "[t]he threat of LSU losing what amounts to just under 10% of its funding is more like the 'relatively mild encouragement' of a state losing 5% of its highway funding . . . than the 'gun to the head' of a state losing all of its Medicaid funding [in NFIB]."
Tuesday, May 12, 2020
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Trump v. Mazars and Trump v. Vance, the cases testing congressional authority and a local D.A.'s authority, respectively, to subpoena President Trump's financial records from his accounting firm and bank.
As usual, it's hard to say where the Court is going to land based on oral arguments. (It might be even harder than usual, given the teleconference format.) But based on questioning, it seems likely that the Court in Mazars could issue a split decision, upholding one or two subpoenas while overturning the other(s). In both cases, the Court'll seriously balance the interference (or not) of the subpoenas with the President's ability to do the job. Look for that balance to split along conventional ideological lines, with Chief Justice Roberts right in the center.
Another possibility: the Court could set a new standard for these subpoenas and remand for reconsideration.
Whatever the Court does, two things seem very likely. First, the rulings will have a dramatic effect on the separation of powers and checks and balances, likely shifting power and immunities (to some degree, more or less) to the President. Second, likely the only way we see President Trump's financial records and taxes before the 2020 election is if the Court outright upholds one of the House Committee's subpoenas. (Even if the Court rules against the President in Vance, grand jury secrecy rules mean that we probably may not see those records until after the election.)
The two cases raise very different questions. Mazars is all about the separation of powers--congressional authority to issue subpoenas to third parties for the President's personal information--while Vance is about federalism and presidential immunities--a local prosecutor's authority, through a grand jury, to subpoena that same material, and the President's claim of absolute immunity from any criminal process.
Despite the differences, though, much of the arguments in both cases focused on how the subpoenas, wherever they came from, would, or would not, "interfere" with the President's execution of the Article II powers. The President's attorneys argued repeatedly that allowing subpoenas in this case could open the door to free-flowing subpoenas from every congressional committee and every local prosecutor, and would thus impede the President's ability to do the job. On the other hand, attorneys for the Committees and the D.A. noted that these particular subpoenas are directed at a third party and don't require the President to do anything.
Look for the Court to incorporate this into its reasoning--the extent to which the subpoenas interfere with the President's job, either in fact (where there's no real evidence that President Trump has actually been distracted by these subpoenas) or in theory (where we can imagine that a future President might be distracted by a flurry of future subpoenas).
Questions in Mazars also focused on the three committees' precise authorities and reasons for their subpoenas. Did they have authority under the House's standing rules? Did the House's subsequent "ratification" of them suffice to demonstrate that the whole House supported them? Were the reasons within a "legitimate legislative purpose"?
These questions suggest that the Court may examine each subpoena separately, and could well uphold one or two, while overturning the other(s).
We also heard some pretty breathtaking claims by the President's attorneys about the scope of presidential powers and immunities. In Mazars we heard that Congress can't regulate the President at all (even if it can regulate other offices in the Executive Branch), and therefore can't investigate (and subpoena) material to help enact law that would regulate the President. In Vance, we heard that the President is absolutely immune from all criminal processes.
The government, weighing in as amicus in both cases in support of the President, dialed back the President's most extreme and categorical positions, and argued instead for a more stringent test for subpoenas directed at the President's personal information. This could give the Court an attractive "middle" position. (This isn't really a middle position. But the President's extreme claims make the government's position look like a middle position.)
On the other side, Congress's attorney in Mazars struggled to identify a limit to Congress's power to subpoena--an issue that several Justices thumped on. The lack of a limiting principle could come back to bite the House Committees, even if these particular subpoenas might've come well within a reasonable limiting principle. That's because if the Court rules for the Committees, it'll have to say why--knowing that the reason will apply to all future congressional subpoenas. If the Committees can't give the Court a limiting principle, the Court could conclude that they see no limit on their authority. And that may be reason enough for at least some of the Justices to rule against them.
Monday, May 11, 2020
The Supreme Court will hear oral argument tomorrow in Trump v. Vance, the case testing whether the President is immune from a state grand jury subpoena for his records that have nothing to do with his official duties. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
In the summer of 2018, the New York County District Attorney’s Office (the Office) opened an investigation into possible criminal misconduct in activities connected to the Trump Organization. The Office obtained information about transactions and tax strategies by individuals and organizations that raised the prospect that a continuing pattern of criminal activity might have occurred within the Office’s jurisdiction and within the statute of limitations. Importantly, the Office has not eliminated President Trump himself as a potential target.
These transactions include the now-familiar “hush money” payments during the 2016 presidential campaign that President Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, paid to two women with whom President Trump had extra-marital affairs. Cohen admitted that he violated campaign finance laws in coordination with, and at the direction of, a person later identified as President Trump. Cohen pleaded guilty to the charges and is now serving a prison sentence.
Around the time of Cohen’s guilty plea, at the request of federal prosecutors and in order to avoid disruption of the ongoing federal investigation, the Office deferred its own investigation. After the Office learned in July 2019 that the federal investigation had concluded without any further charges, the Office then resumed its investigation.
On August 1, 2019, the Office served the Trump Organization with a grand jury subpoena for records and communications concerning certain financial transactions. The Office later informed the Trump Organization’s attorney that the subpoena also required production of certain tax returns. Over the next several months, the Trump Organization produced responsive documents, but not the tax returns.
On August 29, 2019, the Office served a grand jury subpoena on Mazars USA, LLP, President Trump’s accounting firm, for financial and tax records from January 1, 2011, to the date of the subpoena, including records for President Trump himself and entities he owned before becoming President. The Office largely patterned the Mazars subpoena on a similar subpoena to Mazars issued by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The Office’s Mazars subpoena does not seek any official government communications or involve any official presidential conduct.
Soon after the Office issued the Mazars subpoena, the Trump Organization informed the Office that they believed that the request for tax records implicated constitutional considerations. The Office agreed to temporarily suspend the tax portion of the subpoena to allow the Trump Organziation to challenge it.
President Trump then sued the Office and Mazars, seeking preliminary injunctive relief to stop Mazars from complying with the subpoena. (The “Vance” in the case name refers to Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., District Attorney of the County of New York.) President Trump argued that as sitting President he enjoyed absolute immunity from any form of “criminal process” or “investigation,” including a subpoena issued to a third party like Mazars.
The district court dismissed the case, ruling that it belonged in state court, not federal court. Alternatively, the district court denied injunctive relief, holding that the President’s claim of absolute immunity from criminal process “finds no support in the Constitution’s text or history” or in the Court’s precedents. The Second Circuit vacated the district court’s ruling that the case belonged in state court, but affirmed its alternative ruling on the merits. This appeal followed.
The Supreme Court has ruled in a series of cases that the President enjoys certain privileges and immunities from various judicial processes. For example, the Court held in United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), that the President had an “executive privilege” against disclosure of confidential presidential communications. At the same time, however, the Court ruled that a sufficiently important countervailing need for the information (like a federal court’s need for evidence in a criminal trial, as in that case) could outweigh the President’s interest in confidential communications.
As to immunities, the Court held in Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731 (1982), that the President is absolutely immune from civil liability for official acts taken while in office. But the Court held in Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681 (1997), that the President is not immune from civil suits for unofficial actions taken before he came to office.
The Department of Justice has long held the position that the President is immune from criminal prosecution while in office. But the Supreme Court has never addressed that question, or the related question whether the President is immune from any criminal process that might lead up to a prosecution. That last question is what this case is all about.
President Trump argues that as sitting President he is absolutely immune from any criminal process that targets him, including the Office’s subpoena to a third party like Mazars. President Trump claims that subjecting him to any criminal process at all would interfere with the President’s “unparalleled responsibilities to defend the nation, manage foreign and domestic affairs, and execute federal law.” Moreover, he contends that subjecting the President to any criminal process would “stigmatize the President in ways that will frustrate his ability to effectively represent the United States in both domestic and foreign affairs.” President Trump says that Congress can hold the President to account through impeachment, and that state and federal prosecutors can hold the President to account through criminal processes after he leaves office, but that the President is absolutely immune from criminal process while in office. President Trump asserts that this is consistent with the text, structure, and history of the Constitution and with the longstanding position of the Justice Department.
President Trump argues that the need for absolute immunity from criminal processes is particularly acute when it comes to state and local prosecutors. He says that these processes (unlike federal criminal processes, from which the President also claims absolute immunity) threaten federal supremacy under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause. In particular, President Trump contends that without absolute immunity, state and local prosecutors, motivated only by their own parochial and political interests, could impede the work of the President and the President’s duties to the entire, undivided nation.
President Trump argues that the Mazars subpoena violates all of these principles. He says that there is “no dispute” that the Mazars subpoena targets him, given that it specifically seeks his records. And he says that it doesn’t matter that his compliance with this subpoena would not burden his official duties (because it is directed as Mazars, not him); instead, he claims that the President’s absolute immunity is based on the mere threat of a like subpoena (or other criminal process) by every state and local prosecutor.
President Trump argues that the Court’s precedents support his position. He points to Nixon v. Fitzgerald, where the Court held that a former President was immune from a suit for civil damages based on the President’s official acts. He says that subjecting the President to criminal processes would be even more burdensome. President Trump distinguishes Clinton and United States v. Nixon, arguing that both cases arose from federal, not state, proceedings, and that they involved different kinds of behavior or processes. Finally, President Trump argues that at the very least United States v. Nixon requires that a prosecutor show a “demonstrated, specific need” for material sought in a subpoena directed at the President, and that the Office failed to show this.
The government weighs in to support President Trump and echoes many of these themes. The government, however, stops short of arguing for absolute immunity from all criminal processes and instead argues only that President Trump is immune from “any process that would risk impairing the independence of his office or interfering with the performance of its functions.” In evaluating any particular process, the government contends that the Court should apply, at a minimum, the “heightened standard of need” in United States v. Nixon. It says that the Mazars subpoena does not meet this standard.
The Office argues in response that the President has no absolute immunity from a state grand jury subpoena for documents unrelated to the President’s official duties. The Office claims that the Court’s precedents extend immunity only to official acts (not private acts), and that the “mere risk of interference” with the President’s official functions cannot support immunity from this kind of subpoena. The Office contends that the Mazars subpoena only seeks information related to President Trump’s private acts, and only raises, at most, a “risk of interference” with the President’s official functions (because it’s directed at Mazars, not President Trump), and so the President is not immune from it.
The Office argues that this result is not altered by the President’s arguments in support of absolute immunity from all criminal processes. It says that responding to a subpoena is far less burdensome than facing indictment or prosecution, and does not stigmatize the President the way an official accusation of wrongdoing might. By way of comparison, it claims that the burdens on the President in United States v. Nixon were far greater, yet the Court still ruled against the President’s claim of privilege.
As to President Trump’s federalism claims, the Office argues that these lack merit. It says that state and local prosecutors are on the front lines of criminal law enforcement in the country, and that they are “cloaked with a presumption of regularity that makes federal interference particularly inappropriate.” Moreover, it asserts that there are other procedural safeguards—including a prohibition on state investigation of official presidential conduct—that protect the President from abusive state and local criminal processes. In any event, the Office contends that the Court already considered and dismissed President Trump’s worry that state and local prosecutors could hassle the President for political reasons when it rejected a similar argument for immunity from a private civil suit against the President in Clinton.
The Office argues further that there are good policy reasons not to provide absolute immunity to the President. For one, such immunity could effectively immunize the President from any post-office indictment and prosecution, because evidence may go stale and statutes of limitations may run. For another, immunity may impede other, related criminal investigations and prosecutions.
In short, the Office argues that there is no basis for absolute presidential immunity from all criminal processes, that there are good reasons not to provide such sweeping immunity, and that in any event the President has plenty of opportunities to claim immunities on a case-specific (and not absolute, categorical) basis.
The Office argues that the alternative test for immunity, the government’s “heightened standard of need,” derives from the Court’s test in evaluating claims of executive privilege, and has no application here. According to the Office, that’s because the subpoena here does not seek privileged material or material related to official conduct. Moreover, it says that the mere risk of the subpoena’s burden on the President is insufficient to justify a heightened standard. And it claims that such a standard would impede state and local law enforcement.
Finally, the Office argues that President Trump has failed to demonstrate that the Mazars subpoena suffers from any of the problems that may immunize the President from it. In particular, the Office says that President Trump has failed to show that it was issued in bad faith, or that it would be overly burdensome. (The Office notes that the district court already ruled on this last point, and that President Trump hasn’t produced any new evidence.)
This case has obvious and much-rehearsed (maybe too much rehearsed) political significance. In short, President Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns has been a central issue of political debate since at least the 2016 primaries. A ruling for President Trump would close this particular channel that could eventually lead to public release. A ruling against him, on the other hand, would require Mazars to turn over President Trump’s taxes to the Office, and thus leave open this channel which could lead to public release. It’s not entirely clear how much this matters, however, given that so many voters are stuck in their support of or opposition to President Trump, whatever his taxes might reveal. In any event, the ruling (which will likely come down this summer) will fast become political fodder for both sides and will certainly play some role in the presidential election.
The case and its companions, Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, and Trump v. Deutsche Bank AG, raise the specter of a secondary political effect, which is likely far more significant. That is: these cases, as much as any other this Term (given the high-profile role that President Trump’s taxes and finances continue to play in our politics), will put the Court front and center in the ongoing political debates and the 2020 presidential election. Whatever the Court says, polls on one side or the other will claim that our Supreme Court justices are really only politicians masquerading in robes. That inevitable claim could have extra resonance here, in this explosive political environment and on this uniquely red-hot political issue, and could do serious and lasting damage to our collective faith in the judiciary and to the separation of powers.
And speaking of the separation of powers, this case could fundamentally reshape our structural constitution. The Court has never come close to endorsing the President’s claimed sweeping and absolute privilege against all criminal processes. If it creates such a privilege here, the ruling will mark a dramatic shift of power away from Congress, the judiciary, and even the states—and to the Executive Branch. This is big enough that we’ll almost feel the shift in our constitutional tectonic plates.
One final point. This case, of course, is linked with Trump v. Mazars and Trump v. Deutsche Bank AG, the two cases testing congressional authority to get President Trump’s taxes. While those cases raise the same practical bottom-line question—Can anybody get at President Trump’s taxes and financial records?—they involve very different constitutional issues, and therefore have their own (also quite weighty) constitutional significance.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in Trump v. Mazars and Trump v. Deutsche Bank, testing whether Congress has authority to subpoena the President's financial records from third-party custodians of those records. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission. (This doesn't address the political question issue, which the Court asked the parties to brief after this came out).
These cases test the authority of three different Committees of the U.S. House of Representatives to issue third-party subpoenas in support of their oversight and investigations into different aspects of President Trump’s private financial dealings. Let’s look at the Committees’ investigations one at a time.
The Oversight Committee Investigation
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform is engaged in an ongoing investigation into Executive Branch ethics and conflicts of interest, presidential financial disclosures, federal lease management, and possible violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses. As relevant here, the Committee is examining President Trump’s personal business interests and his decision to maintain ties to these interests (and not fully divest from them, consistent with prior presidential practice). In particular, the Committee has identified concerns with the Government Services Administration’s (GSA) ongoing management of the lease of the federal Old Post Office Building for the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.; the adequacy and accuracy of President Trump’s financial disclosures and the adequacy of federal ethics laws; and allegations by Michael Cohen that President Trump falsely reported his assets. According to the Committee, the investigation is designed “to determine the adequacy of existing laws and perform related agency oversight.”
After the Committee heard testimony from Cohen that included allegations that President Trump falsely reported his assets, the chair wrote to Mazars and requested accounting documents related to President Trump and certain of his businesses from January 1, 2009, to the present. Mazars declined to produce this material.
On April 12, 2019, the chair then sent a memorandum to Committee members explaining the need for a subpoena to Mazars. The memo identified four subjects that the Committee had “full authority to investigate”: (1) “whether the President may have engaged in illegal conduct before and during his tenure in office,” (2) “whether [the President] has undisclosed conflicts of interest that may impair his ability to make impartial policy decisions,” (3) “whether [the President] is complying with the Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution,” and (4) “whether [the President] has accurately reported his finances to the Office of Government Ethics and other federal entities.” The chair also wrote that the Committee’s “interest in these matters informs its review of multiple laws and legislative proposals under our jurisdiction.”
The Committee then issued a subpoena to Mazars seeking documents related to financial statements, engagement letters, supporting documents, and related communications for President Trump and certain of his businesses, from 2011 through 2018.
The Financial Services Committee Investigation
The Financial Services Committee is engaged in an ongoing, broad investigation into financial institutions’ compliance with banking laws and whether those laws adequately protect against foreign money laundering, other financial crimes, and high-risk loans. As part of this investigation, the Committee is looking into practices at Deutsche Bank and Capital One.
These banks “have long provided business and personal banking services” to President Trump and his family. According to a series of media reports over the last few years, these banks made questionable loans to President Trump. Most recently, a New York Times Magazine article reported that Deutsche Bank had concerns that President Trump’s “real estate projects were laundromats for illicit funds from countries like Russia, where oligarchs were trying to get money out of the country.”
In order to further its investigation, the Committee issued two subpoenas. The first was directed at Deutsche Bank; it sought documents and records that included detailed financial information “belonging to, or likely to reveal information, concerning” President Trump and his family. The Deutsche Bank subpoena covered material from January 1, 2010, to the present (with no closing date). The second subpoena was directed at Capital One; it sought information about various Trump businesses and their principals and “other representatives,” including businesses affiliated with the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. The Capital One subpoena covered material from July 19, 2016, to the present (again with no closing date). Deutsche Bank and Capital One declined to comply.
The Intelligence Committee Investigation
The House Intelligence Committee is engaged in an ongoing investigation into “efforts by Russia and other foreign actors to influence our political process before, during, and since the 2016 election.” The investigation includes assessing “whether foreign actors have financial leverage over President Trump, whether legislative reforms are necessary to address these risks, and whether our Nation’s intelligence agencies have the resources and authorities needed to combat these threats.”
In order to further its investigation, the Committee issued a subpoena to Deutsche Bank, covering the exact same material and time frames as the Financial Services Committee’s subpoena. Deutsche Bank declined to comply.
In all, the three House committees issue four third-party subpoenas for financial information about President Trump.
Before the response date for any of the subpoenas, President Trump brought two separate lawsuits—one in Washington, D.C., and the other in New York City—to stop Mazars and the banks from complying. President Trump sued “solely in his capacity as a private citizen.” Mazars and the banks took no position on the underlying issue—the Committees’ authority to issue the subpoenas—and so the Committees intervened as defendants.
After the President filed suit, the House passed Resolution 507, purporting to ratify the Committees’ subpoenas. The Resolution stated that the House “ratifies and affirms all current and future investigations” and “subpoenas previously issued or to be issued in the future, by any standing or permanent select committee of the House,” related to the President, his immediate family, his businesses and organizations, and others with ties to the President, including any “current or former” government employees.
Both district courts ruled against President Trump, and the D.C. and Second Circuits affirmed. This appeal followed.
Congress has implied authority under the Constitution to engage in investigations and oversight of issues and areas that fall within its legitimate lawmaking power. As part of this implied authority, Congress can issue subpoenas to collect information to advance its investigations and oversight. Either house of Congress can delegate these authorities to its committees.
But a committee’s investigative and oversight authorities are not unbounded. Congressional investigations or oversight must serve a “legitimate legislative purpose,” they must be authorized by their full house, and they may not impermissibly encroach on another branch’s authority.
The parties frame their arguments around these baseline principles.
President Trump argues first that the committees did not have a legitimate legislative purpose in issuing the subpoenas. For one, he says that the subpoenas at best seek information that might lead to legislation. But he claims that this is not enough to bring the subpoenas within Congress’s legitimate lawmaking authority. For another, he asserts that the subpoenas probe into areas where Congress simply cannot legislate, for example, extending conflict-of-interest restrictions to, and imposing disclosure requirements upon, the President, and that they therefore lack a legitimate legislative purpose. For a third, he contends that the bank subpoenas impermissibly seek his personal financial information only as a “case study” for financial sector reform, and that simply does not fit within Congress’s legitimate lawmaking power. For a fourth, he contends that the subpoenas are part of the Committees’ exercise of law enforcement power, not law-making power, and that they impermissibly encroach on executive authority in violation of the separation of powers. And for a fifth, he asserts that the subpoenas are based on the Committees’ pure political interests, not legitimate lawmaking interests.
President Trump argues that for all these reasons even an ordinary congressional subpoena would fail. But he claims that the “unprecedented” congressional subpoenas seeking private information of the President should be subject to an even higher standard, and that under a higher standard these subpoenas would fail all the more.
President Trump argues next that the Committees lack express authority under House rules to issue the subpoenas. He claims that express delegation to the Committees to issue subpoenas is necessary in investigations, like these, that raise serious separation-of-powers issues, because “Congress seeks to encumber the President” and because the Committees are pushing the outer boundaries of congressional authority. Moreover, he says that requiring an express delegation, and ruling against the Committees because they lacked it, would allow the Court to avoid ruling on the underlying constitutional issues. President Trump contends that Resolution 507 did not provide express delegation, because it did not purport to amend House rules, did not expand the Committees’ authority, and acted retroactively “in violation of controlling precedent.” Finally, President Trump argues that interpreting Resolution 507 to expressly delegate power to the Committee to issue these subpoenas would only clear the way for every House Committee to issue its own subpoenas. According to the President, this, in turn, would “keep the President from fulfilling the obligations of his office.”
The government weighs in as amicus to support President Trump. The government lodges arguments similar to President Trump’s, but puts a finer point on the “heightened requirements” that it says Congress must meet in order to subpoena the President’s records. In particular, the government proposes this:
At the threshold, the full [House] chamber should unequivocally authorize a subpoena against the President. Moreover, the legislative purpose should be set forth with specificity. Courts should not presume that the purpose is legitimate, but instead should scrutinize it with care. And as with information protected by executive privilege, information sought from the President should be demonstrably critical to the legitimate legislative purpose. A congressional committee cannot evade those heightened requirements merely by directing the subpoenas to third-party custodians, for such agents generally assume the rights and privileges of their principal . . . .
For many of the same reasons raised by President Trump, the government says that the Committees’ subpoenas do not meet this heightened test.
The Committees counter that legislative subpoena power is an essential and time-tested part of congressional authority. (They rehearse in their merits brief the many similar congressional investigations that illustrate why their own investigations are hardly “unprecedented,” as the President contends.) They say that congressional authority’s “historical pedigree is too strong for it to be narrowed by the arguments” of the President and the government. They contend that instead of applying “heightened requirements” for these subpoenas (as the President and the government argue), the Court should defer to the Committees, so long as the subpoenas are related to a valid legislative purpose—one that “will inform Congress on a subject on which legislation could be had.”
The Committees argue next that they had “multiple legislative purposes” in issuing the subpoenas, as the courts below found. To illustrate this, they point to several pending bills, which are constitutionally permissible, that will be informed by these investigations. Moreover, the Committees contend that it doesn’t matter that they are investigating wrongdoing, so long as the investigations are related to a legitimate legislative purpose (which they are). And they say, contrary to the President and the government, these subpoenas (directed, as they are, to third parties) do not impair the President’s ability to perform his constitutional duties.
The Committees argue that the government’s “heightened standard” for subpoenas for material related to the President’s purely personal behavior conflicts with the Constitution. They say that the government’s proposed requirement that the full House authorize subpoenas concerning the President disregards the House’s constitutional power to determine its own rules. They contend that the proposed requirement that courts more closely scrutinize Congress’s stated purposes “invites inappropriate judicial micromanagement of Congressional oversight.” And they assert that the proposed requirement that a subpoena is “demonstrably critical” to congressional purposes “brazenly stacks the deck in favor of one Branch over another.” But the Committees contend that even if the Court applied the government’s test, their subpoenas would satisfy it.
Finally, the Committees argue that the House properly authorized them to conduct their investigations and issue their subpoenas. They contend that they have explicit authority to issue any subpoenas that they “consider necessary” to carry out “any of [their] functions and duties” under House Rule XI.2(m)(1). And they say that House Resolution 507 ratified and affirmed the specific subpoenas here.
This case, just like the companion case Trump v. Vance, testing whether President Trump has to comply with a state grand jury subpoena for his tax records, has obvious and much-discussed political significance. But the subpoenas in this case sweep more broadly than the subpoena in Vance: these subpoenas seek a variety of material related to President Trump and his business organizations, while the subpoena in Vance now only seeks his tax records. As a result, this case has potentially higher stakes. In particular, a ruling against President Trump could allow the Committees to obtain a trove of material relating to President Trump’s financial dealings and their bearing, if any, on his public duties. On the other hand, a ruling for President Trump could hamstring the Committees’ investigations, or even halt them altogether, and close off this avenue to public disclosure of this material. While President Trump’s taxes may get more play in our popular political debates, his broader financial dealings are likely far more significant.
As with Vance, however, it’s not clear how much any of this will matter. Given President Trump’s remarkably stable and durable base, and given his similarly remarkably stable and durable opposition, the Court’s ruling, whatever it is, will likely be interpreted by the general public in pure political terms (pro-Trump, or anti-Trump). That’s especially true coming on the heels of the impeachment proceedings, when relations between President Trump and House Democrats are already at a new low. In this highly strained political environment, it’s easy to see how partisans will put a political cast on these rulings, and on the justices behind them. It’s equally easy to see how the inevitable reactions to these cases, therefore, threaten to do lasting harm to our collective faith in a politically independent judiciary.
This case also threatens to do lasting harm to Congress. If adopted by the Court, President Trump’s arguments, echoed by the government, could substantially rein in Congress’s investigation and oversight authorities. In particular, if the Court were to adopt the argument that Congress lacked a legitimate legislative purpose—an argument that this administration has pressed hard in other congressional investigations not directly involving the President—this could seriously constrain Congress’s power to check the Executive Branch. In its strongest form, sometimes adopted by this administration, this argument could allow the Executive Branch to wholly ignore congressional oversight and investigations, leaving Congress little practical authority to coax the administration to cooperate. But even at the very least, this argument, if adopted by the Court, could open the door to active judicial intervention in congressional oversight and investigations. In short, this argument, if adopted by the Court, would shift power away from Congress to the Executive Branch and the courts, and thus significantly alter our current separation of powers.
Tuesday, May 5, 2020
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in these consolidated cases tomorrow, testing whether the Trump Administration had authority to grant a categorical exemption from the ACA's contraception guarantee for organizations with a religious or moral objection to contraception. Here's my Preivew, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
In 2010, Congress enacted the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) in order “to increase the number of Americans covered by health insurance and decrease the cost of health care.” To those ends, the ACA requires employers, with some exceptions (those with 50 or fewer employees, and those with grandfathered insurance plans), to offer their employees health insurance with certain “minimal essential coverage.” As relevant here, the ACA requires employers to offer insurance to female employees that includes “preventive care and screenings” without cost to the employees. The ACA delegates authority to determine the particular “preventive care and screenings” to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an office within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Pursuant to this authority, the HRSA and other implementing agencies (the Department of Labor and the Department of the Treasury) issued Interim Final Rules (IFRs) that required employers to provide insurance coverage for items in HRSA’s preventive-care guidelines. Those guidelines included all female contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The HRSA and other implementing agencies exempted certain religious employers (like churches), however, out of recognition that some individuals and organizations have faith-based objections to providing coverage for contraception.
The agencies then issued their final rule. The final rule maintained the exemption for certain religious employers (again, like churches), and added an accommodation for certain other religious non-profit employers that objected to the contraceptive guarantee. Under the accommodation, an employer would communicate its objection to its insurer or the third-party administrator (TPA) of its health plan. At that point, the federal government required or encouraged the insurer or TPA to provide contraceptive coverage directly to the employee, separate from the employer’s health-insurance plan, thus bypassing the objecting employer.
Numerous non-profit and for-profit religious organizations (including the Little Sisters) sued to halt the accommodation provision under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). They argued that the provision didn’t really accommodate their faith-based objections to providing contraceptive coverage to employees. Instead, they claimed that the requirement that they communicate their objections to their insurer or TPA triggered their insurer or TPA to provide contraceptive coverage. By this reckoning, the accommodation actually made them complicit in providing contraception to their employees.
Eight of nine circuit courts ruled against the plaintiffs in these cases. The Court stepped in to grant emergency relief in two of them, one brought by the Little Sisters, the other brought by Wheaton College, but the Court did not address the merits. Around the same time, in June 2014, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. 682 (2014), the Court ruled that the contraceptive guarantee violated the RFRA as to closely-held for-profit businesses. (The final rule did not include an accommodation for for-profits.) The Court held that the guarantee substantially burdened those businesses’ exercise of religion, and that there were other ways that the government could provide contraceptive coverage to female employees. As an example, the Court pointed to the accommodation for religious non-profits in the final rule; but it also specifically declined to say whether the accommodation itself violated the RFRA.
In response to the Court’s emergency relief in the non-profit cases and its ruling in Hobby Lobby, the implementing agencies modified the accommodation in two ways. First, they allowed objecting non-profits to notify HHS of their objections, instead of their insurers or TPAs. Next, they extended the accommodation to closely-held for-profits.
In 2016, in Zubick v. Burwell, 136 S. Ct. 1557, the Court finally took up the cases brought by religious non-profits. But rather than ruling on the merits, the Court vacated the lower courts’ rulings and ordered the parties to work out a solution. (The Court only had eight justices at the time. Justice Antonin Scalia had deceased, and the Senate refused to consider President Barak Obama’s nominee to replace him. As a result, the Court was probably evenly divided on the merits, and this solution allowed the Court avoid a four-four ruling on this important question.)
The parties could not work out a solution by the end of the Obama Administration. As a result, the implementing agencies retained the existing accommodation.
Then, in October 2017, the agencies issued IFRs that expanded the exemption for religious organizations. In particular, the IFRs categorically exempted for-profits and non-profits with a religious or moral objection from the contraceptive guarantee. (The agencies added organizations with a “moral” objection.) The agencies acknowledged that the rules would leave between 31,700 and 120,000 women without contraceptive coverage in one year.
Pennsylvania sued to halt these latest IFRs, arguing that the agencies violated the APA. The district court granted a nationwide preliminary injunction barring implementation of the IFRs. (Several other similar cases were also pending at the time, and at least one other court issued an injunction. California v. HHS, 281 F. Supp. 3d (N.D. Cal. 2017).) The court also declined to allow the Little Sisters to intervene in the case, although the Third Circuit later permitted the organization to defend “the portions of the [2017 religious rule] that applied to religious nonprofit entities.”
As the case was pending, the agencies adopted final rules nearly identical to the latest IFRs. In particular, the Final Rules exempted all private entities, including publicly-traded corporations, from the contraceptive guarantee (or allowed them to self-exempt) based on religious objections; exempted all but publicly-traded corporations based on moral objections; and made the accommodation option. The agencies acknowledged that the Final Rules would mean that between 70,500 and 126,400 women would lose access to contraception in one year.
Pennsylvania, now joined by New Jersey, filed an amended complaint. The district court granted another nationwide preliminary injunction. The Third Circuit affirmed, and this appeal followed.
The parties raise four different issues. Let’s take a look, one at a time.
The Little Sisters argue that they have appellate standing, because they have a direct stake in the outcome of this case. They claim that the Third Circuit was wrong when it held that they lacked standing based on the theory that a Colorado injunction in a similar case, also involving the Little Sisters, mooted the Little Sisters’ interests in this case. The organization says that the Colorado injunction is more limited than what the Little Sisters seek in this case, and so they continue to have an independent interest in this case. The Little Sisters contend that their standing is even stronger now that the case is at the Court. After all, they assert, the Court’s ruling will affect all similar cases.
Pennsylvania counters that the Little Sisters lack appellate standing. The state says that the agencies are now enjoined from enforcing the contraceptive guarantee against the organization, and that the district court expressly excluded the organization from the injunction now on appeal. Because the Little Sisters lack a direct stake in this injunction, Pennsylvania claims that the organization lacks appellate standing in this case.
Substantive Statutory Authority
The respondents argue that the agencies had statutory authority to issue the final rules. They claim that the plain text of the ACA delegates sufficiently broad authority to the HRSA to grant categorical exemptions from the preventive-services guarantee, and that the agencies, in issuing the final rules, merely drew on that broad authority. They point out that the agencies provided for a categorical exemption from the beginning (for religious organizations like churches), and claim that this only underscores their position that the ACA delegates authority to grant this categorical exemption.
The respondents argue next that the RFRA requires, or at least permits, the broader exemptions in the final rules. They point to the Court’s ruling in Hobby Lobby that the contraceptive guarantee, without an accommodation, violates the RFRA. And they contend that the accommodation doesn’t really change that calculus. That’s because at least some religious non-profits see the accommodation itself as triggering the contraceptive guarantee, in violation of their religious beliefs. In other words, for some, the accommodation itself violates the RFRA. As a result, the respondents contend that the RFRA required the agencies to adopt the categorical exemptions in the final rules. (The respondents say that even if the RFRA did not require the agencies to adopt the final rules, it at least permitted the agencies to adopt them. They contend that an agency can be more protective of religious rights than the RFRA requires, if it so chooses.)
On the other side, Pennsylvania argues that the ACA does not authorize the agencies to adopt the final rules. The state says that the ACA only delegates authority “to identify which preventive services for women must be covered,” and not to “grant non-health related exemptions to a sub-agency with narrow expertise in health care.” Pennsylvania contends that the original exemption for religious organizations is different, because it was “independently authorized by the well-established church autonomy doctrine,” and not the ACA itself.
Pennsylvania argues next that the RFRA does not authorize the final rules. The state says that the accommodation is consistent with the RFRA, because it does not substantially burden religious exercise. (The state claims that the accommodation simply requires a religious non-profit to report its objection. At that point, federal law, not the religious non-profit, is responsible for guaranteeing contraceptive coverage.) Because the accommodation doesn’t violate the RFRA, the state contends that the RFRA provides no basis for issuing a broader, categorical exemption. Moreover, Pennsylvania asserts that the RFRA doesn’t affirmatively grant federal agencies any rulemaking power, except to the extent that an agency regulates to resolve a RFRA violation in a program the agency administers. But the state says that this is not the case here.
Procedural Compliance with the APA
The respondents argue that the final rules comport with APA requirements. They contend that the final rules—the only rules at issue here—complied with APA notice-and-comment requirements. And they say that the earlier IFRs complied with the APA requirements for interim final rules. They point out that all of the agencies’ rules on the contraceptive guarantee started as interim final rules, and that the latest IFRs are no different.
Pennsylvania replies that the final rules violate the APA. The state contends that the 2017 IFRs violated the APA, because they failed to meet the APA standard for interim final rules, in particular, that they were not so urgent as to allow the agencies to bypass normal notice-and-comment procedures. The state contends that the 2018 final rules violate the APA, too, because the agencies did not allow for pre-publication notice and comment. (Instead, the agencies took comments on the 2017 IFRs, not the proposed 2018 final rules.) Pennsylvania argues that the APA does not permit the agencies to sidestep notice-and-comment requirements this way.
Finally, the respondents argue that the Court should reverse the district court’s nationwide injunction. They claim that the nationwide injunction grants relief far beyond the interests of the states, and thus exceeds the power of the district court. They claim that a nationwide injunction in this case is particularly inappropriate, because it could conflict with rulings in the many other similar cases pending around the country.
Pennsylvania argues in response that the nationwide injunction is consistent with the APA, which requires courts to set aside unlawful rules without limitation and grants courts authority to enter preliminary orders “to postpone the effective date of an agency action or to preserve status or rights.” The state also says that a nationwide injunction fully redresses its injuries, because the final rules would exempt out-of-state entities whose employees, students, or children might come to Pennsylvania and burden the state with the cost of their contraceptive coverage.
This case is the latest chapter, and probably the last one, in the long-running saga over the contraceptive guarantee. This regulatory provision has been under sustained attack from the beginning. While opponents of guaranteed contraception have lost overwhelmingly in the circuit courts, the Supreme Court has been a much friendlier venue. As mentioned above, the Court ruled in Hobby Lobby that the guarantee (without an accommodation) violated the RFRA as to closely-held corporations. Moreover, it granted interim relief in a pair of cases challenging the accommodation for religious non-profits. And while it dodged the underlying issue in Zubick, there’s reason to think that it ruled this way to avoid a four-four split on the eight-justice Court—in other words, that four of the eight justices would have struck the accommodation.
If that’s right, then we might expect that there are now five justices that would rule that the accommodation violates the RFRA. (Since Zubick, Justice Neil Gorsuch replaced Justice Scalia, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh replaced Justice Anthony Kennedy. If the Court would have split four-four on the merits in Zubick, Justice Gorsuch’s addition probably means that there are now five votes for striking the accommodation.)
But that doesn’t necessarily answer the questions in this case. In particular, even if the accommodation violates the RFRA, that alone doesn’t mean that the agencies had authority to issue the Final Rules, or that they issued them consistently with the APA. Remember that the Final Rules categorically exempt a much broader set of organizations than were covered by the accommodation. (Keep an eye on the categorical exemption for organizations with a moral objection to contraception. This opens a potentially gaping hole in the contraceptive guarantee.) Moreover, the government itself estimates that the Final Rules will result in lost contraceptive coverage for tens of thousands of women in one year—seemingly undermining the very purpose of the ACA to provide “minimal essential coverage.” The broad sweep of the Final Rules, and their procedural irregularities, could mean that the agencies lacked authority to adopt them, even if a majority on the Court might agree that the accommodation violated the RFRA.
On a different note entirely: This case raises a critically important question about the authority of district courts to issue nationwide injunctions. This practice is increasingly common, and increasingly controversial, as plaintiffs have sought more and more to halt administration policies across the board. The government invites the Court to address this issue, even if it doesn’t rule in favor of the government on the merits.
This question may seem like it has partisan overtones. But it doesn’t. If the Court rules that district courts lack authority to issue nationwide injunctions, that will take away a key tool that advocates can use—and have used—to challenge government policies in any administration.
Friday, May 1, 2020
The Seventh Circuit once again struck AG Barr's unilateral conditions on a federal law-enforcement grant to sanctuary cities, ruling that the conditions violated the separation of powers and upholding a nationwide injunction against their enforcement.
The ruling is yet another significant victory for sanctuary cities. Just one circuit, the Second Circuit, has upheld the conditions; four other circuits have overturned them. We last posted on the issue--on the Second Circuit ruling--here.
The court ruled that the AG lacked statutory authority to impose the notice, access, and compliance conditions on Chicago's Byrne JAG grant. The court also ruled that the AG lacked authority to impose two additional conditions, the harboring condition (which prohibits grant recipients from making any "public disclosure . . . of any federal law enforcement information" in order to conceal or harbor a fugitive from justice) and the additional certification condition (which requires recipients to certify that they don't have any law or policy that would impede federal immigration enforcement). (The AG added these last two conditions while the case was pending.)
The court affirmed the district court's nationwide injunction because of the nature of the AG's violations (in particular, the AG's constantly evolving claimed statutory authority, and the AG's imposition of new conditions, all seemingly designed to work around existing injunctions) and because of the nature of the grant (a formula grant, so that Chicago's portion depends on the portions awarded to other jurisdictions nationwide).
Judge Manion concurred in the court's ruling that the conditions violate the separation of powers, but dissented as to the nationwide injunction.
Thursday, March 26, 2020
The First Circuit this week became the latest appellate court to rule that the Administration lacked statutory authority to rein in and punish sanctuary cities. The court ruled that the Justice Department exceeded its statutory authority in imposing conditions on a DOJ law-enforcement grant program (the Byrne JAG program) for local jurisdictions.
The ruling was the latest victory for sanctuary jurisdictions. At the same time, it deepens a split: the First, Third, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits have all now struck DOJ's conditions; only the Second Circuit has upheld them. The ruling comes closely on the heels of the Trump Administration's announcement that it'll start withholding Byrne JAG funds from noncomplying jurisdictions based on the Second Circuit ruling.
The cases all involve three DOJ-imposed conditions on local jurisdictions' continued receipt of Byrne JAG funds: (1) a "notice" condition that requires grant recipients to provide notice to federal immigration authorities when they release particular (undocumented) individuals from custody; (2) an "access" condition that requires local authorities to grant access to prisons, jails, and the like to federal immigration enforcement officers; and (3) a "certification" condition that requires local authorities to certifiy compliance with 8 U.S.C. Sec. 1373, which prohibits state and local governments from restricting their officers from communicating with federal immigration enforcement officers. Under DOJ's order, if cities don't comply with the new conditions, they'll lose funding.
In each of the cases, sanctuary jurisdictions sued, arguing that DOJ lacked statutory authority to impose the conditions, that the conditions violated the Administrative Procedure Act, and that the conditions violated the Constitution (separation of powers, because Congress, not the Administration, gets to impose conditions; and federalism principles).
The First Circuit ruled that DOJ lacked statutory authority to impose the conditions, and therefore didnt' touch the APA or constitutional claims. In short, the court said that "DOJ's kitchen-sink-full of clever legal arguments" didn't cut it--that DOJ doesn't have statutory authority to unilaterally impose these conditions. The court took specific issue with the analysis by the Second Circuit, sharpening the points of dispute.
The ruling makes it even surer now (if that's possible) that this issue is headed to the Supreme Court--assuming, that is, that the Administration doesn't change in the 2020 election, or that this Administration doesn't change its position.