Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Judge Richard Leon (D.D.C.) this week tossed former Deputy National Security Advisor and Acting National Security Advisor Charles Kupperman's lawsuit asking the court to determine which prevailed: a congressional subpoena, or the White House's instruction not to testify under an absolute privilege theory.
The ruling ends the case. It also means that we don't get another district court say-so on the White House theory of absolute privilege for senior presidential advisors. That means that we now have (1) a district court ruling from late November rejecting absolute privilege with respect to former White House Counsel Don McGahn's compelled testimony and (2) a 2008 district court ruling rejecting absolute privilege with respect to White House Counsel Harriet Mier's compelled testimony. No circuit court has yet to weigh in. We also have a series of Office of Legal Counsel memos, starting with the 1971 memo through the most recent McGahn memo. The district courts have flatly rejected the reasoning in these memos.
Just a wee little bit of background (more on our earlier posted, link above): Kupperman, a former White House official, received a subpoena to testify in the impeachment inquiry from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; but the White House instructed him not to testify, claiming an absolute privilege against compelled congressional testimony. Kupperman sued, asking the court to resolve his dilemma. But the House moved forward with impeachment without his testimony, and the Committee argued that his case was moot.
Judge Leon agreed. The court said that there's no longer a case or controversy over the matter, that the matter isn't "capable or repetition but evading review" (because the House has said unequivocally that it won't re-issue a subpoena, ever), and that there's no chance of enforcement against Kupperman.
Tuesday, November 26, 2019
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson (D.D.C.) ruled yesterday that former White House Counsel Don McGahn must comply with a subpoena issued by the House Judiciary Committee and testify before the Committee. The ruling rejects the sweeping claim that high-level presidential advisors enjoy categorical testimonial immunity.
At the same time, the court held that McGahn could assert appropriate privileges (like executive privilege) to specific questions from the Committee.
The ruling deals a sharp blow to the Trump Administration and its attempts to categorically shield certain White House officials from testifying before Congress. It applies directly to McGahn, of course; but the reasoning applies equally, or even with greater force, to House testimony by senior presidential advisors in the impeachment inquiry. (Why "or even with greater force"? Because the House may be on even firmer ground in issuing any subpoenas in the course of an impeachment inquiry.)
The administration will surely appeal. (DOJ is representing McGahn and presented arguments on behalf of the executive branch.) As a result, we're unlikely to see McGahn testify anytime soon. If the parties continue to press the issue, it'll surely go to the Supreme Court. (The 2008 Miers case, which the court said was "on all fours" with this one, didn't go up on appeal, because the parties settled. That could happen here, too.)
The case arose when the Committee sued McGahn to enforce its subpoena against him to testify in its investigation into whether President Trump and his associates engaged in misconduct in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. DOJ, representing McGahn, argued that McGahn was a high-level presidential advisor who enjoyed absolute testimonial immunity before Congress.
The court ruled that it had jurisdiction over the case and then rejected DOJ's sweeping claim of immunity. In short, the court held that the issue was already decided by Judge Bates in 2008, in Committee on Judiciary v. Miers. Here's a nice summary (pp. 41-42 of the opinion):
Unfortunately for DOJ, and as explained fully below, these contentions about the relative power of the federal courts [as to lack of jurisdiction], congressional committee, and the President distort established separation-of-powers principles beyond all recognition. Thus, ultimately, the arguments that DOJ advances to support its claim of absolute testimonial immunity for senior-level presidential aides transgress core constitutional truths (notwithstanding OLC's persistent heralding of these and similar propositions). By contrast, textbook constitutional law readily reveals that, precisely because the Constitution bestows upon the Judiciary the power to demarcate the boundaries of lawful conduct by government officials, the federal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction to entertain subpoena-enforcement disputes concerning legislative subpoenas that have been issued to Executive branch officials. It is similarly well established that, because the Constitution vests the Legislature with the power to investigate potential abuses of official authority--when necessary to hold government officials (up to, and including, the President) accountable, as representatives of the People of the United States--then House committees have both Article III standing and a cause of action to pursue judicial enforcement of their duly authorized and legally enforceable requests for information. What is missing from the Constitution's framework as the Framers envisioned it is the President's purported power to kneecap House investigations that Executive branch operations by demanding that his senior-level aides breach their legal duty to respond to compelled congressional process.
Luckily for this Court, an existing precedent that is on all fours with the instant matter (Miers) already systematically dismantles the edifice that DOJ appears to have erected over the years to enshrine the proposition that a President's senior-level aides have absolute immunity with respect to legislative subpoenas that Congress issues in the course of its investigations . . . .
November 26, 2019 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, Executive Privilege, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, November 4, 2019
In a 28 page complaint filed in New York state courts opening the case Carroll v. Trump, E. Jean Carroll has sued the president for one count of defamation.
The argument is that the president is "sued here only in his personal capacity" and implicitly that there is no presidential immunity, noting cases in which President Trump has been a plaintiff in his personal capacity, and further citing "a related case" of Zervos v. Trump in which Trump is a defendant. Recall that a New York appellate court considering Zervos earlier this year held that Trump was not immunized from defending a lawsuit in state court.
Interestingly, this paragraph avers that Trump is a "resident" of New York; Trump announced a few days ago that he had filed a "declaration of domicile" in Florida. There are other aspects of personal jurisdiction and there is no amount in the complaint that might satisfy the threshold for removal to federal court for diversity purposes.
The complaint provides a compelling explanation of E. Jean Carroll's silence about the 1995 or 1996 event in which she alleges Trump raped her in a department store dressing room as well as the rationales for changing her mind, including the death of her mother and the burgeoning #MeToo movement response to Harvey Weinstein.
As to the substantive allegations, Carroll highlights three statements — made on June 21, 22, and 24 — that were widely disseminated and accused Carroll of lying about the incident, of inventing the incident for book sales, of inventing the incident for a "political agenda," of lying about incidents with other men, and stating that Trump did not know her, had never met her, and that she was "not his type." On reputational damages, the complaint avers that since the defamation she lost the "support and goodwill" of many of the readers of her advice column, resulting in "roughly 50% fewer letters" to which she could respond, noting that as an advice columnist she requires a "steady flood of compelling letters" seeking her advice.
Expect Trump's answer — or more probably motion to dismiss — to raise the same immunity defense as in Zervos despite the appellate court decision and perhaps a jurisdictional argument.
Second Circuit Rejects President Trump's Effort to Protect Taxes, Establish Categorical Immunity from Criminal Investigation
The Second Circuit today flatly rejected President Trump's attempt to halt a grand jury subpoena for the President's financial records directed at his accounting firm, Mazars, based on a claim of absolute presidential immunity from all criminal processes (including investigations).
The ruling deals a sharp blow to the President and his extraordinary efforts to conceal his taxes. Still, the President is sure to appeal. (Just last month, the President lost in the D.C. Circuit on a similar case, dealing with a House subpoena directed at Mazars.)
Recall that the President filed this federal case to stop a state criminal process, in particular, a state grand jury's subpoena to Mazars for the President's financial records, including his taxes. The district court ruled that the President's suit was barred by Younger abstention and, in the alternative, that the President was not likely to succeed on the merits of his immunity claim.
The Second Circuit reversed on the abstention question, but affirmed on the immunity question. The court noted that the subpoena was directed at Mazars, not President Trump, and therefore did not require the President to do anything that might interfere with his ability to faithfully execute the law. It noted moreover that the subpoena seeks information that has nothing to do with the President's official responsibilities, and is therefore not subject to any claim of executive privilege.
As to the President's claim of absolute privilege against any criminal process (including even an investigation), the court wrote that the scant authority on this question goes only against the President. In particular, it noted that the Court in United States v. Nixon held that executive privilege and separation-of-powers concerns did not preclude the enforcement of a subpoena for presidential records. (As to the separation of powers, the court noted, "That the Court [in Nixon] felt it unnecessary to devote extended discussion to the latter argument strongly suggests that the President may not resist compliance with an otherwise valid subpoena for private and non-privileged materials simply because he is the President.") Moreover, the court noted that even the two OLC memos that the President cited--the 1973 Dixon memo, and the 2000 Moss memo, only go so far as immunity from indictment, not mere investigation.
Although the ruling doesn't mean that we'll see the President's taxes soon--again, the President is sure to appeal, and that'll take some time--it is a sharp blow against his claim of absolute privilege from all criminal process.
Wednesday, October 9, 2019
The practice and the announcement of the White House that it will not cooperate with the House of Representatives Impeachment Inquiry as we discussed here, raises the question of the resources available to Congress to enforce its subpoenas. And as in so many cases about Congressional matters, there is a Congressional Research Service Report for that: Congressional Subpoenas: Enforcing Executive Branch Compliance, updated March 27, 2019.
The Report includes this overview:
Congress currently employs an ad hoc combination of methods to combat non-compliance with subpoenas. The two predominant methods rely on the authority and participation of another branch of government. First, the criminal contempt statute permits a single house of Congress to certify a contempt citation to the executive branch for the criminal prosecution of an individual who has willfully refused to comply with a committee subpoena. Once the contempt citation is received, any later prosecution lies within the control of the executive branch. Second, Congress may try to enforce a subpoena by seeking a civil judgment declaring that the recipient is legally obligated to comply. This process of civil enforcement relies on the help of the courts to enforce congressional demands.
Congress has only rarely resorted to either criminal contempt or civil enforcement to combat non- compliance with subpoenas . . . .
Of special note later in the Report is a discussion of "detention" of executive branch officials:
Although rare, the inherent contempt power has been used to detain executive branch officials, including for non-compliance with a congressional subpoena. During an 1879 investigation into allegations of maladministration by George F. Seward while a consul general in Shanghai, a House committee issued a subpoena to Seward for relevant documents and testimony.254 When Seward—then an ambassador to China—refused to comply, the House passed a resolution holding him in contempt and directing the Sergeant-at-Arms to take him into custody and bring him before the House. Seward was taken into custody and brought before the House, where he was ultimately released while the House considered impeachment articles.
In another example which gave rise to Marshall v. Gordon , the House adopted a contempt resolution directing the Sergeant-at-Arms to arrest U.S. Attorney Snowden Marshall for an insulting letter sent to a committee chair. The arrest was then made and quickly challenged in federal court, where ultimately the Supreme Court ordered Marshall released. In doing so, the Court reaffirmed the contempt power generally, but concluded that in Marshall’s case the contempt was invalid as “not intrinsic to the right of the House to preserve the means of discharging its legislative duties.” Notably, the Court was silent on whether Marshall’s status as an executive branch official had any impact on the House’s exercise of the power.
Given these examples, and the Supreme Court’s general statements on the reach of the inherent contempt power, it would appear to be within Congress’s power to use inherent contempt to compel executive branch compliance with congressional subpoenas, at least in certain circumstances. But neither the Seward nor Marshall example involved an assertion of executive privilege, meaning that the Court did not need to consider what, if any, constraints that privilege may impose upon Congress’s exercise of its inherent contempt authority.
Moreover, an attempt by Congress to arrest or detain an executive official may carry other risks. There would appear to be a possibility that, if the Sergeant-at-Arms attempted to arrest an executive official, a standoff might occur with executive branch law enforcement tasked with protecting that official. This concern is also applicable in the event that a judicial marshal enforces a judicial order of contempt against an executive official, and perhaps will always be “attendant in high-stakes separation-of-powers controversies.”
There's a great deal more worth reading in this 45 page Report as what some are calling a "constitutional crisis" unfolds.
Friday, September 27, 2019
The subpoena is significant because the committees twice previously requested the exact same information citing the commitees' oversight authority. The administration ignored those requests. The new impeachment subpoena takes away the administration's arguments for stonewalling congressional inquiries under its oversight authority and may test whether Congress has more power when it engages in an impeachment than when it engages in regular oversight.
The subpoena, issued by the chairs of the House Foreign Affairs, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform, is directed at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It seeks information related to President Trump's efforts to urge Ukraine to interfere with the 2020 election.
The subpoena letter begins, "Pursuant to the House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry . . . ."
The administration has now made a habit of ignoring congressional oversight requests, arguing that they (1) lack a legitimate legislative purpose, (2) violate its new and sweeping version of executive privilege, and (3) constitute law enforcement (not lawmaking) in violation of the separation of powers.
But by invoking the House's impeachment authority, the committee undermine those arguments (to the extent that they had any force in the first place). In an impeachment, there is no legislative purpose. Impeachment, as a significant constitutional check on the President, weighs stronger against a President's claim of executive privilege. And Congress is engaged in an impeachment inquiry, not law enforcement.
The administration will undoubtedly come up with constitutional arguments to ignore this latest subpoena, too. But the impeachment power seems to take away these three.
So: Does Congress have more authority when seeking information under its impeachment power? We don't know for sure. But Molly Reynolds and Margaret Taylor survey the arguments in this May 2019 piece over at Lawfare.
Wednesday, September 25, 2019
With the news that the House of Representatives has launched an impeachment inquiry, many of us could use some explainers or refreshers on the rarely-used constitutional process of impeachment.
First, the Constitutional text. The United States Constitution provides for impeachment and removal of office for the President and other Executive officers in Article II §4:
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
The Constitution divides the power to impeach and the power to adjudicate impeachment between the chambers of Congress, with the House of Representatives having the power to impeach and the Senate having the power to adjudicate the impeachment and effect removal from office.
Article I §2 provides:
The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.
Article I §3 provides:
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.
Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.
The Constitution does not further detail the processes, but there is the precedent of previous impeachment processes, including those against Presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and William Clinton which were resolved at various stages and none of which led to conviction and removal. There is also the more frequent experience with judicial impeachments.
The Congressional Research Service has two excellent explainers on impeachment. First and of immediate interest is the report entitled The Impeachment Process in the House of Representatives. It was updated August 2019, and although it is only 15 pages, it is an excellent and substantive discussion of the process and requirements. A somewhat longer report from 2015 entitled Impeachment and Removal provides an overview including grounds for impeachment and trial in the Senate. As this report also notes, the question of impeachment has been held to be a nonjusticiable political question by the United States Supreme Court in Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993), a case involving the impeachment of federal Judge Walter Nixon (not President Nixon, who resigned in 1974).
There have also been several good explainers in the media; here are a few:
Jennifer Haberkorn, Impeachment 101: How could Congress remove President Trump from office?, Los Angeles Times (May 30, 2019);
Ed Kilgore, The Impeachment Process Explained: What Happens to Trump Now?, New York Magazine (September 25, 2019);
Amber Phillips, What you need to know about the impeachment inquiry into Trump, Washington Post (September 25, 2019);
Charlie Savage, How the Impeachment Process Works, New York Times (September 24, 2019).
Monday, September 23, 2019
In her Order in Galicia v. Trump, Judge Doris Gonzalez has ordered that President Trump appear for a videotaped deposition prior to trial to provide testimony for use at trial in this tort case.
The plaintiffs brought an action against Donald Trump, Donald Trump for President, the Trump Organization, and Keith Schiller for events in September 2015 when plaintiffs were protesting Trump's views as he was beginning his campaign for President. Plaintiffs allege that "several of Defendant Trump's bodyguards, including his confidant and chief security officer Keith Schiller, stormed Plaintiffs, pushed some of them down the sidewalk, using excessive force grabbed the signs from Plaintiffs and converted them to their own use." The case is proceeding to trial on claims of assault and battery, and against Donald Trump on a theory of respondeat superior. In 2016, a state judge granted a protective order against a motion to compel Trump's deposition before trial. When the case became ready for trial, plaintiffs issued a subpoena ad testificandum to compel Trump's testimony; Trump moved to quash, arguing that under Clinton v. Jones (1997), a president can only be deposed before trial and at the White House.
Judge Gonzalez began her discussion with a resort to the framers and Marbury v. Madison:
More than 200 years ago our founders sought to escape an oppressive, tyrannical governance in which absolute power vested with a monarch. A fear of the recurrence of tyranny birthed our three-branch government adorned with checks and balances. Chief Justice John Marshall famously stated, [t]he government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men. It will certainly cease to be deserve this high appellation, if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right.” Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137 (1803). Put more plainly, no government official, including the Executive, is above the law.
Yet as Judge Gonzalez notes, the Court resolved the question of whether the President is absolved from legal responsibility for unofficial conduct in Clinton v. Jones. Further, the New York courts resolved the issue of whether the state courts could exercise jurisdiction over the President in Zervos v. Trump.
However, President Trump argued that his testimony could not be compelled for trial, but only at pretrial as some dicta in Clinton v. Jones indicated, and that in any event, the plaintiffs had waived the President's testimony by not appealing the earlier order finding a motion to compel premature. Further, Judge Gonzalez distinguished a Second Circuit case relied upon by Trump that depositions of "high-ranking officials" should only occur in exceptional circumstances by noting that this was the rule in litigation involving official action rather than the unofficial pre-Presidential action at issue in this case.
Judge Gonzalez ruled that "questions of fact exist" regarding Trump's "exercise of dominion and control over his employee defendants" and ordered President Trump to "appear for a videotaped deposition prior to the trial of this matter and provide testimony for the use at trial."
Tuesday, July 9, 2019
In its opinion in Knight First Amendment v. Trump, the Second Circuit ruled that the "First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees." The case arose from challenges to the President, Donald J. Trump, blocking users on Twitter. Recall that United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, Naomi Reice Buchwald, issued a 75 page opinion based on the parties motions for summary judgment (and stipulated facts) concluding that found that the President's Twitter account, @realdonaldtrump, is in violation of the First Amendment when it blocks other Twitter users based on their political views. A unanimous panel of the Second Circuit affirms that decision.
The Second Circuit opinion, authored by Judge Barrington Parker, first considered the state action threshold. The government attorneys interestingly represented the President to argue that his account is nongovernmental. The court rejected the government attorneys' position that while the @realdonaldtrump Twitter account is not independent of Trump's presidency, that the specific act of blocking should not be considered state action. Further, the Second Circuit rejected the argument that because the person of Donald Trump established the account before becoming President and will retain control after he leaves the presidency, the @realdonaldtrump account must be considered "private" and not subject to the First Amendment: "the fact that government control over property is temporary, or that the government does not 'own' the property in the sense that it holds title to the property, is not determinative." The court stated:
The government’s contention that the President’s use of the Account during his presidency is private founders in the face of the uncontested evidence in the record of substantial and pervasive government involvement with, and control over, the Account. First, the Account is presented by the President and the White House staff as belonging to, and operated by, the President. The Account is registered to “Donald J. Trump, ‘45th President of the United States of America, Washington, D.C.’” The President has described his use of the Account as “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” The White House social media director has described the Account as a channel through which “President Donald J. Trump . . . [c]ommunicat[es] directly with you, the American people!” The @WhiteHouse account, an undoubtedly official Twitter account run by the government, “directs Twitter users to ‘Follow for the latest from @POTUS @realDonaldTrump and his Administration.” Further, the @POTUS account frequently republishes tweets from the Account. As discussed earlier, according to the National Archives and Records Administration, the President’s tweets from the Account “are official records that must be preserved under the Presidential Records Act.”
Second, since becoming President he has used the Account on almost a daily basis “as a channel for communicating and interacting with the public about his administration.” The President utilizes White House staff to post tweets and to maintain the Account. He uses the Account to announce “matters related to official government business,” including high‐level White House and cabinet‐level staff changes as well as changes to major national policies. He uses the Account to engage with foreign leaders and to announce foreign policy decisions and initiatives. Finally, he uses the “like,” “retweet,” “reply,” and other functions of the Account to understand and to evaluate the public’s reaction to what he says and does. In sum, since he took office, the President has consistently used the Account as an important tool of governance and executive outreach. For these reasons, we conclude that the factors pointing to the public, non‐private nature of the Account and its interactive features are overwhelming.
The court then proceeded to the merits of the First Amendment claim, finding that viewpoint discrimination violates the First Amendment. Interestingly, it is for this proposition and only this one that the court cites the United States Supreme Court's closely divided case from last month, Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck. The Second Circuit easily finds the account creates a public forum. The Second Circuit noted that the government did not contest the district judge's conclusion that the plaintiffs were engaged in protected speech, but the government argued that the plaintiffs' speech was not burdened by being blocked. While the court stated that the government was correct that the plaintiffs did not have a First Amendment right to have the president listen to them,
the speech restrictions at issue burden the Individual Plaintiffs’ ability to converse on Twitter with others who may be speaking to or about the President. President Trump is only one of thousands of recipients of the messages the Individual Plaintiffs seek to communicate. While he is certainly not required to listen, once he opens up the interactive features of his account to the public at large he is not entitled to censor selected users because they express views with which he disagrees.
The court also rejected the government's position that the plaintiffs should employ "workarounds" such as creating new accounts, in large part because the government itself conceded that such workarounds burdened speech.
Finally, the Second Circuit rejected the argument that the Twitter account is government speech and thus not subject to the First Amendment. The court stated that while the president's initial tweets are government speech, the interactive features are decidedly not:
Considering the interactive features, the speech in question is that of multiple individuals, not just the President or that of the government. When a Twitter user posts a reply to one of the President’s tweets, the message is identified as coming from that user, not from the President. There is no record evidence, and the government does not argue, that the President has attempted to exercise any control over the messages of others, except to the extent he has blocked some persons expressing viewpoints he finds distasteful. The contents of retweets, replies, likes, and mentions are controlled by the user who generates them and not by the President, except to the extent he attempts to do so by blocking. Accordingly, while the President’s tweets can accurately be described as government speech, the retweets, replies, and likes of other users in response to his tweets are not government speech under any formulation.
The Second Circuit ends with what might be considered a chastisement:
The irony in all of this is that we write at a time in the history of this nation when the conduct of our government and its officials is subject to wide‐open, robust debate. This debate encompasses an extraordinarily broad range of ideas and viewpoints and generates a level of passion and intensity the likes of which have rarely been seen. This debate, as uncomfortable and as unpleasant as it frequently may be, is nonetheless a good thing. In resolving this appeal, we remind the litigants and the public that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that the best response to disfavored speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less.
Friday, June 21, 2019
House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler is preparing to sue former White House Counsel Don McGahn over McGahn's refusal to testify based on a White House invocation of absolute executive privilege, according to Politico.
According to Politico's story, Nadler says that Hope Hicks's "blanket refusal to tell lawmakers about her tenure in the West Wing is the real-life illustration Democrats needed to show a judge just how extreme the White House's blockade on witness testimony has become."
Cipollone asserted the same "absolute executive privilege" over Hicks's testimony this week. Cipollone wrote to Nadler in advance of Hicks's scheduled testimony:
Ms. Hicks is absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony with respect to matters occurring during her service as senior adviser to the President. . . . That immunity arises from the President's position as head of the Executive Branch and from Ms. Hicks's former position as a senior adviser to the President. "Subjecting a senior presidential advisor to the congressional subpoena power would be akin to requiring the President himself to appear before Congress on matters relating to the performance of his constitutionally assigned functions."
As the Department has recognized, "[w]hile a senior presidential adviser, like other executive officials, could rely on executive privilege to decline to answer specific questions at a hearing, the privilege is insufficient to ameliorate several threats that compelled testimony poses to the independence and candor of executive councils." . . .
Because of this constitutional immunity, and in order to protect the prerogatives of the Office of President, the President has directed Ms. Hicks not to answer questions before the Committee relating to the time of her service as a senior adviser to the President. . . .
Hicks nevertheless testified in a closed hearing this week. (The full transcript is here.) But White House attorneys repeatedly asserted absolute executive privilege in support of Hicks's refusal to answer a host of questions. Here's the first exchange between Nadler and a White House attorney:
Nadler: It's a matter of public record. Why would you object?
Purpura: Mr. Chairman, as we explained in Mr. Cipllone's letter yesterday, as a matter of longstanding executive branch precedent in the Department of Justice practice and advice, as a former senior adviser to the President, Ms. Hicks may not be compelled to speak about events that occurred during her service as a senior adviser to the President. That question touched upon that area.
Nadler: With all due respect, that is absolute nonsense as a matter of law. . . .
According to Politico, Nadler thinks that Hicks's refusal to answer such basic and silly questions as whether an Israel-Egypt war broke out while she worked in government vividly illustrates how extreme the White House's "absolute executive privilege" is--and provides good fodder for the House's lawsuit against McGahn.
Meanwhile, Republicans on the House Oversight Committee issued a Minority Report on the Committee's resolution recommending that the House find AG William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for failing to comply with a Committee subpoena for documents related to the addition of the citizenship question on the census. Among other points, the Report argues that the Committee wrongly inferred that the White House waived executive privilege:
As a "fundamental" privilege rooted in constitutional separation of powers, executive privilege ought to be afforded serious consideration. In addition, because an executive privilege waiver should not be lightly inferred, the Committee should be careful in imputing a waiver for failure to comply with Committee Rule 16(c). The Committee's contempt citation errs in concluding unilaterally that executive privilege can be waived when the President does not invoke executive privilege in accordance with Committee rules.
Wednesday, June 12, 2019
President Trump today formally asserted executive privilege over documents related to the Commerce Department's addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. The assertion, communicated by the Commerce Department, comes after the Justice Department informed House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings late yesterday that it would ask the President to assert executive privilege if the Committee proceeded with a contempt vote against AG William Bar and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
In yesterday's letter, Assistant AG Stephen Boyd wrote,
a limited subset of the documents is protected from disclosure by the deliberative process, attorney-client communications, or attorney work product components of executive privilege. These are the kind of materials that the Executive Branch regularly and appropriately withholds in connection with oversight matters, because the disclosure of such information would have a significant chilling effect on future deliberations among senior executive branch officials, and would compromise the confidentiality on which the Executive Branch's attorney-client relationships depend. . . .
The Committee has failed to abide by the constitutionally mandated accommodation process by declining to negotiate over the scope of the subpoenaed materials or to recognize legitimate executive branch interests, as well as by its premature decision to schedule a contempt vote. In the face of this threatened contempt vote, the Attorney General is now compelled to request that the President invoke executive privilege with respect to the materials . . . .
Accordingly, I hereby advise you that the President has asserted executive privilege over the specific subset of the documents identified by the Committee in its June 3, 2019 letter--documents that are clearly protected from disclosure by the deliberative process, attorney-client communications, or attorney work product components of executive privilege. In addition, I advise you that the President has asserted executive privilege over the balance of the Department's documents responsive to the Committee's April 2, 2019 subpoena. As the Attorney General indicated in his letter to you yesterday, this protective assertion of executive privilege ensures the President's ability to make a final decision whether to assert privilege following a full review of these materials.
Tuesday, June 4, 2019
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote to House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler today that the White House had instructed former staffers Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson not to comply with Committee subpoenas for documents related to their time in the White House. The instruction is categorical.
The reasons are all too familiar, even if ill defined. Cipollone wrote,
Th[e subpoenaed documents] include White House records that remain legally protected from disclosure under longstanding constitutional principles, because they implicate significant Executive Branch confidentiality interests and executive privilege.
It's not at all clear which documents Cipollone is referring to (all? some? which?), and it's not clear how "confidentiality interests" and executive privilege apply. Cipollone writes that this spaghetti-on-the-wall approach has DOJ's concurrence. He also writes that the White House and the Committee might be able to work something out.
Absent from this latest White House effort at frustrating congressional oversight is another familiar claim: that the Committee has no "legitimate legislative purpose" in the material. Perhaps that'll come out if and when this goes to litigation.
Wednesday, May 8, 2019
The House Judiciary Committee just voted to hold AG Barr in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a Committee subpoena and turn over the full (unredacted) Mueller report and related documents.
The move comes shortly after the White House asserted a protective executive privilege over the subpoenaed material.
The resolution now goes to the full House for a vote.
President Trump today asserted protective executive privilege to prevent the release of the full (unredacted) Mueller report to the House Judiciary Committee.
The assertion is only provisional and temporary, however, in order to give the White House time to make a final determination whether to assert the privilege. The move thus buys time for the White House against the Committee's subpoena and potentially against the Committee's markup on a resolution holding Barr in contempt of Congress.
AG Barr requested the move in this letter to the White House. As Barr explained, "In cases like this where a committee has declined to grant sufficient time to conduct full review, the President may make a protective assertion of the privilege to protect the interests of the Executive Branch pending a final determination about whether to assert the privilege." (Citing this 1996 OLC opinion.)
The Department made this request because, although the subpoenaed materials assuredly include categories of information within the scope of executive privilege, the Committee's abrupt resort to a contempt vote--notwithstanding ongoing negotiations about appropriate accommodations--has not allowed sufficient time for you to consider fully whether to make a conclusive assertion of executive privilege. The Chairman, however, has indicated that he intends to proceed with the markup session scheduled at 10 a.m. today on a resolution recommending a finding of contempt against me for failing to produce the requested materials.
In these circumstances, you may properly assert executive privilege with respect to the entirety of the Department of Justice materials that the Committee has demanded, pending a final decision on the matter.
Thursday, May 2, 2019
Trump Administration officials continue to thwart efforts at congressional oversight, citing separation-of-powers and congressional authority, among others, as the basis for refusing to comply with requests for testimony and documents. The particular reasons for declining to comply vary depending on the request, however, with one consistent theme: The Administration repeatedly claims that congressional requests exceed Congress's oversight authority. (It also claims that members of Congress previously adopted different positions with regard to congressional oversight of a different president, that the administration has already provided plenty of material, and that requests are politically motivated. These, of course, are not constitutional reasons not to comply.)
We posted here on the White House's arguments in support of its decision to decline to make Steve Miller available for testimony. We posted here on President Trump's lawsuit against his accountant to halt compliance with a congressional subpoena for his financial records.
Here are four new cases this week:
White House Security Clearance Process
Pat Cipollone, counsel to president, wrote to House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings that it would not comply with Committee requests for files related to the White House security clearance process. Cipollone argued that "the Committee's inquiry is also legally unsupportable for several reasons." First, the Committee's efforts to "investigat" "specific individuals" is outside the Committee's oversight authority. Next, the Committee's request for individual files "has no legitimate legislative purpose." Third, the Committee seeks documents that are "at the heart of executive privilege," that reflect internal executive branch deliberations, that, if disclosed, "would undermine the investigative process, expose sensitive information that could jeopardize the FBI's ability to conduct future investigations, and raise serious separation of powers concerns," and that "implicate sensitive information." Finally, "the Committee appears to be putting public servants at risk in order to advance a partisan political agenda."
The Full Mueller Report and Materials
Assistant AG Stephen Boyd wrote to House Judiciary Chairman Nadler that DOJ would not turn over the unredacted Mueller report and supporting materials. Boyd cited past Department practice, and concluded that
Against this backdrop of the Department's compelling need to protect the autonomy and effectiveness of its investigations, as well as the extraordinary steps the Attorney General has already taken to accommodate the Committee's needs, the Committee has not articulated any legitimate legislative purpose for its request for all of the Special Counsel's investigative files. The Committee has no legitimate role in demanding law enforcement materials with the aim of simply duplicating a criminal inquiry--which is, of course, a function that the Constitution entrusts exclusively to the Executive Branch.
Moreover, "disclosing grand-jury information in response to congressional oversight requests is prohibited by [Rule 6e of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure]."
Barr's Testimony Before the House
AG Barr refused to show up at his House Judiciary Committee hearing today, apparently because he didn't like Nadler's rule that Committee attorneys would also question him. Best we can tell, he apparently thinks this is a separation-of-powers problem, because only members should be able to question him.
Trump's Suit Against Deutsche Bank and Capital One
President Trump filed suit against Deutsche Bank and Capital One to stop them from complying with congressional subpoenas for his financial records. The suit is similar to the one he filed against his accountants. It argues that the subpoenas exceed Congress's oversight authority, because they lack a "legitimate legislative purpose," and violate the Right to Financial Privacy Act.
Monday, April 15, 2019
As many wait for the Mueller Report now promised for Thursday, questions regarding the redactions mount. Two articles are worth a read.
Jenessa Calvo-Friedman, writing from the ACLU perspective, argues that The American Public Deserves to See the Mueller Report With as Few Redactions as Possible and outlines the types of possible redactions and arguing that there should be as few redactions as possible. She concludes that in any event, Congress must see the report without any redaction.
Professor Rick Hasen provides a list for looking at the redacted report, The Seven Things to Look for When Reading the Redacted Mueller Report, with number seven being the ultimate and most difficult:
To what extent does it look like Barr is trying to protect Trump and Trump’s family, such as Donald Trump Jr.? Despite his expected redactions, has Barr made it possible to evaluate Mueller’s reasoning or the evidence collected?
Monday, March 18, 2019
Attorney General Barr invoked the state secrets privilege to protect material in Twitter's suit against the Justice Department for forbidding it from publishing information on National Security Letters and surveillance orders that it received from the government.
The case, Twitter v. Barr, arose when Twitter sought to publish a Transparency Report describing the amount of national security legal process that the firm received in the second half of 2013. Twitter sought to publish this information because it said that the government wasn't completely forthcoming in its public comments about the extent of national security legal process served on it. DOJ declined Twitter's request to publish the information, citing national security concerns, and Twitter sued under the First Amendment. Here's Twitter's Second Amended Complaint.
DOJ now asserts the state secrets privilege in order to protect certain information in the pending case. But there are two things that make the assertion a little unusual. First, DOJ asserts the privilege not against the Transparency Report itself or the information contained in it, but instead against a confidential submission (the "Steinbach Declaration") that explains why Twitter's request to publish this information could harm national security. In other words, DOJ says that the explanation why the underlying information could harm national security itself could harm national security.
Next, Twitter's attorney now has a security clearance to view the material, yet DOJ argues that the privilege should still protect the material--even from Twitter's security-cleared attorney. (DOJ's position has been that the court could review material in camera and ex parte and make a determination as to whether it could come in.) In fact, much of the government's submission is dedicated to arguing why privileged material can't be released to a security-cleared plaintiff's attorney. (In short: It would increase the risk of disclosure.)
The government argues that the privileged material is such an important part of Twitter's suit that, without it, the court must dismiss the case.
DOJ cites four categories of privilege-protected classified national security information that appear in the Steinbach Declaration: (1) information regarding national security legal process that has been served on Twitter; (2) information regarding how adversaries may seek to exploit information reflecting the government's use of national security legal process; (3) information regarding the government's investigative and intelligence collection capabilities; and (4) information concerning the FBI's investigation of adversaries and awareness of their activities.
The government's submission is supported by declarations of AG Barr and Acting Executive Assistant Director of the National Security Branch of the FBI Michael McGarrity. The government separately submitted a confidential version of McGarrity's declaration.
Importantly, AG Barr's declaration draws on the Attorney General's Policies and Procedures Governing Invocation of the State Secrets Privilege, adopted in the Obama Administration as a response to the widely regarded overly aggressive assertions of the privilege during the Bush Administration. AG Barr's references to this document suggest that the current DOJ will respect the principles stated in it.
Thursday, March 14, 2019
In its opinion in Zervos v. Trump, the Appellate Division, First Department of the New York State courts held that the lawsuit for defamation could proceed against the President while he is in office.
Recall that in March 2018, the New York state trial judge ruled the lawsuit for defamation by Summer Zervos against now-President Trump could proceed, denying a motion to dismiss or to stay by Trump based on his presidential status. The trial judge decided that the holding of the United States Supreme Court in its unanimous 1997 decision of Clinton v. Jones that then-President Clinton was subject to suit in federal court extended to state court. Recall also that soon thereafter, the appellate division in New York denied President Trump's motion for a stay, in a summary decision, and likewise soon thereafter, the New York Court of Appeals (NY's highest court) dismissed the appeal by Trump on the ground that the order appealed from does not finally determine the action.
In today's divided decision, the appellate division reached the merits of the trial judge's opinion with the majority affirming the decision regarding the President's amenability to suit, and all five judges agreeing that there was a claim for defamation.
Writing for the majority of three judges, Judge Dianne Renwick concluded that the Supremacy Clause, Article VI, does not bar a state court from exercising jurisdiction. She rejected Trump's argument that because he is the "ultimate repository of the Executive Branch's powers and is required by the Constitution to always be in function" as being without support in the constitutional text or case law and conflicting with the fundamental principle that the United States is a "government of laws and not of men." After a detailed discussion of Clinton v. Jones, she stated that in short, the decision "clearly and unequivocably demonstrates that the Presidency and the President are indeed separable." She continued that "aside from the forum, plaintiff's case is materially indistinguishable from Clinton v. Jones," and noted that Congress had not acted to afford the President more protection, interestingly citing and quoting an article by the most recent Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh.
The difference between the majority and the dissent is centered on footnote 13 of Clinton v. Jones:
Because the Supremacy Clause makes federal law "the supreme Law of the Land," Art. VI, cl. 2, any direct control by a state court over the President, who has principal responsibility to ensure that those laws are "faithfully executed," Art. II, § 3, may implicate concerns that are quite different from the interbranch separation-of-powers questions addressed here. Cf., e.g., Hancock v. Train, 426 U.S. 167, 178—179 (1976); Mayo v. United States, 319 U.S. 441, 445 (1943). See L. Tribe, American Constitutional Law 513 (2d ed.1988) ("[A]bsent explicit congressional consent no state may command federal officials ... to take action in derogation of their ... federal responsibilities")."
But as the majority opinion explains,
the cases cited in the footnote above suggest only that the Supreme Court was concerned with a state's exercise of control over the President in a way that would interfere with his execution of federal law (Hancock, 426 US at 167 [holding that the State of Kentucky could not force federal facilities in the State to obtain state permits to operate]; Mayo, 319 US at 441 [holding that a Florida state official could not order the cessation of a federal fertilizer distribution program]; but see Alabama v King & Boozer, 314 US 1  [holding that the State of Alabama could charge a tax on lumber that a federal government contractor purchased within the state for construction of an army base, where the federal government would ultimately pay the tax]).
The difference between the majority and dissent centers on the possibility that a state court could hold the President in contempt. For the majority, this is a "hypothetical concern" that is not presently before the court, noting also that contempt is unusual in all circumstances and state courts would be aware of the issue. For the dissent, on the other hand, although there is no reason to believe the President Defendant "would not cooperate in the litigation, there is no way to be absolutely certain that the court would not at some point have to take steps to protect its own legitimacy;" the contempt power would be a "sword of Damocles hanging over the President's head."
All judges agreed that Zervos stated a claim for defamation, rejecting Trump's claim that the statements were mere hyperbole and not pertaining to the plaintiff. Instead, he was clearly including Zervos in statements and his "flat-out denial of a provable, specific allegation against him concerning his own conduct, accompanied by a claim that the accuser was lying" is not rhetorical or a statement of opinion.
Presumably, the case will be heard on appeal by New York's highest court.
[image: Richard Westall, Sword of Damocles, 1812 via]
Monday, February 25, 2019
In a complaint filed in United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida against Donald Trump and the Donald Trump Campaign, former campaign staffer Alva Jones seeks relief on three counts: battery as against Trump in his individual capacity for a forcible kiss; unequal pay based on gender under the Unequal Pay Act against the Campaign organization; and unequal pay based on race under 42 USC §1981 against the Campaign organization.
The 39 page complaint in Jones v. Trump is filled with factual allegations, embedded tweets and photographs, and numerous footnotes. The allegations substantiating the battery claim include recitations regarding previous allegations and statements regarding similar actions.
Like the ongoing suit in New York state courts, Zervos v. Trump, for defamation linked to sexual harassment, one issue that defendant Trump could raise would be presidential immunity. But the argument for any immunity is exceedingly weak given the United States Supreme Court's unanimous 1997 decision of Clinton v. Jones holding that then-President Clinton was subject to suit in federal court. And any immunity does not extend to the campaign organization.
And as Ronan Farrow writes in the New Yorker:
The most legally significant aspect of Johnson’s suit may ultimately be something the complaint does not explicitly address: the pervasive use of nondisclosure agreements by Trump during his campaign and in his Administration. Johnson’s suit is at least the sixth legal case in which Trump campaign or Administration employees have defied their nondisclosure agreements.
This will definitely be a case to watch, even if the constitutional issues are not the primary ones it certainly has constitutional dimensions.
Thursday, June 14, 2018
On its own motion, the New York Court of Appeals (NY's highest court) dismissed the appeal by Donald Trump in Trump v. Zervos.
From its decision list, the court's entire "opinion" reads:
On the Court's own motion, appeal dismissed,without costs, upon the ground that the order appealed from does not finally determine the action within the meaning of the Constitution.
Motion for leave to appeal dismissed upon the ground that the order sought to be appealed from does not finally determine the action within the meaning of the Constitution.
Motion for a stay dismissed as academic.
Recall that in May, the appellate division in New York denied President Trump's motion for a stay, in a summary decision. Recall that in March, the state trial judge ruled the lawsuit for defamation by Summer Zervos against now-President Trump could proceed, denying a motion to dismiss or to stay by Trump based on his presidential status. The trial judge decided that the holding of the United States Supreme Court in its unanimous 1997 decision of Clinton v. Jones that then-President Clinton was subject to suit in federal court extended to state court.
Petitioning the United States Supreme Court for a stay would be the next step if the president wants to halt the defamation lawsuit against him for as long as he is president. Otherwise, the case will proceed including presumably discovery which would mean a deposition of the president.