Monday, October 2, 2023
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Tuesday in CFPB v. Community Financial Services Association, the case testing whether CFPB's funding mechanism violates the Appropriations Clause. Here's my preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases (with permission):
Does the CFPB’s funding mechanism violate the Appropriations Clause, and, if so, was the Fifth Circuit right to vacate the Payday Lending Rule?
In 2010, in response to the 2008 economic crisis, Congress enacted the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Among many other things, the Act created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and vested it with authority to enforce over 18 federal statutes that were previously overseen by seven different agencies. Under the Act, the CFPB is an “independent bureau” within the Federal Reserve System.
In contrast to most federal agencies, which receive direct annual appropriations from Congress, the CFPB receives its funding directly from the Federal Reserve. Each year, the CFPB asks the Federal Reserve for funding in an amount up to 12 percent of the Federal Reserve’s operating expenses. The Federal Reserve, in turn, generates its budget through the operations of the Federal Reserve Banks. The Banks “buy and sell bonds and securities, receive fees for services provided to banks, credit unions and other depository institutions, and generate interest on loans to depository institutions.”
As part of the Act, Congress specified that the funds transferred to the CFPB “shall not be subject to review by” the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. But at the same time, the CFPB director must submit regular reports to and appear before other congressional committees to “justif[y]” the CFPB’s “budget requests of the previous year.” 12 U.S.C. § 5496(c)(2). Moreover, the Comptroller General (a congressional officer) must conduct annual audits of the CFPB and submit reports to Congress.
This unique funding mechanism is designed to help ensure that the CFPB can operate independently of political influences.
In 2017, the CPFB issued a final rule entitled “Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans” (the Payday Lending Rule). The Rule came in two parts. The first part prohibited lenders from making payday loans “without reasonably determining that consumers have the ability to repay the loans according to their terms.” 12 C.F.R. § 1041.4 (2018). (This portion of the Rule is called “the Underwriting Provision.”) The second part limited a lender’s ability to collect repayments through a borrower’s preauthorized account access. In particular, it prohibited lenders from trying to withdraw payments for loans from a borrower’s account after two consecutive withdrawal attempts failed for lack of sufficient funds. 12 C.F.R. § 1041.7. (This portion of the Rule is called “the Payment Provision.”) The CFPB later rescinded the Underwriting Provision, but ratified the Payment Provision and left it intact.
Two associations of companies regulated by the Payday Lending Rule sued the CPFB, arguing that the Payments Provision violated the Administrative Procedure Act and that it was invalid because the CFPB’s funding mechanism itself was invalid under several constitutional principles and provisions, including the Appropriations Clause. (In other words, because the CFPB was invalid, it’s Rule was invalid.) The district court ruled against the plaintiffs on all counts. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed on the Appropriations Clause and vacated the Payday Lending Rule. (The Fifth Circuit ruled for the CFPB on the other counts.) This appeal followed.
As a general matter, Congress has the power to appropriate and spend federal funds. The Appropriations Clause, in Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution, says, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law . . . .” This case tests that Clause’s application to an executive agency that receives its funding from another executive agency, the Federal Reserve, which itself earns money through the operation of the Federal Reserve Banks (and not direct annual congressional appropriations).
The government argues first that the constitutional text, history, and precedent all support the CFPB’s funding mechanism. As to text, the government claims that the Appropriations Clause “does not limit Congress’s authority to determine the specificity, duration, and source of appropriations.” It contends that the Constitution’s “special restriction” on appropriations for the military—that “no Appropriation of Money” to raise and support an army “shall be for a longer Term than two Years,” Article I, Section 8, Clause 12—“confirms that the Constitution otherwise leaves it to Congress to determine the specificity, duration, and source of appropriations.” As to history, the government asserts that ever since the Founding the government has funded agencies through lump-sum appropriations and fees, assessments, investments, and similar mechanisms, particularly for financial regulatory agencies. As to precedent, the government says that “other than the Fifth Circuit below, no court has ever held that an Act of Congress violated the Appropriations Clause.”
The government argues next that the plaintiffs and the Fifth Circuit “fail[ed] to grapple with” these sources. The government contends that the plaintiffs and the Fifth Circuit rested their conclusion only on the argument that the CFPB’s funding mechanism is “unprecedented.” But the government says that this is wrong: “the CFPB’s funding mechanism accords with Congress’s longstanding practice of authorizing agencies to spend money indefinitely from sources other than annual appropriations.” Moreover, the government contends that the mechanism squares with statutes funding other financial regulators, like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Federal Reserve Board.
Finally, the government argues that even if the CFPB’s funding mechanism is flawed, the Fifth Circuit erred in vacating the Payday Lending Rule. Instead of vacating, the government says that the lower court should have “excised and severed any problematic provisions” in the CFPB’s funding mechanism, and ruled only that the CFPB couldn’t use those provisions to enforce the Payday Lending Rule going forward. (Under this approach, Congress could rewrite the CFPB’s funding mechanism, and the CFPB could then enforce the Payday Lending Rule.) The government claims that this would have been consistent with historical practices when courts rule that executive branch officials spend public money in excess of a congressional appropriation. And the government says that vacatur (as the Fifth Circuit ruled) could “inflict significant disruptions on the Nation’s economy and the consumers, financial institutions, regulators, and others who have reasonably relief on the CFPB’s past actions.”
The plaintiffs counter that the CFPB’s funding mechanism violates the Appropriations Clause, because Congress ceded away its power of the purse to the CFPB. “The CFPB’s funding . . . is not ‘drawn . . . in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law’ . . . but rather taken based on the agency’s say-so.” The plaintiffs contend that this is especially problematic, because it is hard-wired into federal law, and because this unique funding mechanism gives the CFPB both appropriations power and executive power—“combining the purse with the sword in the most dangerous manner.” The plaintiffs claim that the government offers no limit “that would prevent Congress from writing the President a blank check,” and that there there is no precedent in our history for such an agency. “Whether one looks back in time or down the slippery slope, the threat to separated powers and individual liberty is obvious.”
The plaintiffs argue next that the CFPB is wrong to say that text, history, and precedent support its funding mechanism. They claim that the CFPB’s funding mechanism isn’t a valid exercise of congressional authority; instead, “it is a void delegation of exclusive legislative power” to the executive branch. Moreover, the plaintiffs say, contrary to the CFPB’s examples, there is no precedent for “permanently eliminating all fiscal oversight from both the People’s Representatives and the People themselves.” The plaintiffs contend that the CFPB can only support its funding mechanism based on “out-of-context dicta” from the Court’s cases and deference to the political process. But as to deference, the plaintiffs assert that the CFPB’s structure itself has warped the political process.
Finally, the plaintiffs argue that the government is wrong to say that the Fifth Circuit shouldn’t have vacated the Payday Lending Rule. The plaintiffs claim that the government ignores the fact “that critical defects” in the CFPB’s funding mechanism “can be cured only through legislative revision.” Moreover, they say that the APA requires courts to “set aside” invalid rules. And they claim that the government is wrong to worry about any economic impacts of vacating the Payday Lending Rule, because the plaintiffs challenged the Rule before it went into effect.
Given the CFPB’s broad jurisdiction over consumer financial protection laws, and given the sweeping nature of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, this case could have enormous consequences. Just since the Fifth Circuit vacated the Payday Lending Rule, defendants in several other CFPB enforcement cases have moved to dismiss based on that decision. If the Court affirms the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, we can expect all defendants in CFPB enforcement actions to move to dismiss. Such a ruling could effectively decimate the CFPB, unless Congress creates a new funding mechanism, and quickly. (To state the obvious: this seems unlikely in the current political climate.)
Such a result would sharply curtail federal consumer financial protection. It could also shock or destabilize the entire financial industry. That’s because regulated corporations adjusted their activities based on CFPB regulations. If those regulations go away, regulated corporations will re-adjust, affecting consumers and the financial markets as a whole. The government provided this example in its petition for certiorari: “If . . . regulations [making adjustments and exceptions to certain mortgage-related disclosure requirements] were vacated, mortgage lenders would have to immediately modify the disclosures they give millions of consumers each year, and borrowers could seek to rescind certain mortgage transactions that had relied on regulatory disclosure exceptions.” Moreover, because the Fifth Circuit vacated a past agency action, a ruling upholding it could threaten other past actions by the CFPB, as well.
Outside the CFPB, a ruling for the plaintiffs could threaten the funding mechanisms for certain other federal agencies that regulate financial markets, even the Federal Reserve. While funding mechanisms for other agencies are not before the Court—and while the plaintiffs do not appear to challenge them in this case—a Court ruling that strikes the CFPB funding mechanism could reach downstream to other federal agencies in future cases.
This is not the first time that the CFPB’s structure has come before the Court. Just three years ago, the Court ruled that the Bureau’s structure—in particular, its single director, who could be fired by the President only for cause—impermissibly interfered with the president’s power as chief executive. Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 140 S. Ct. 2183 (2020). (The CFPB director’s “for cause” protection was another way that Congress sought to insulate the CFPB from political influences.) Moreover, this case and Seila Law are part of a larger trend by litigants and the Court to restrict the power of federal administrative agencies. (Indeed, there’s another important case on the Court’s docket this Term, Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, not yet set for argument, which could limit agencies’ discretion to interpret and apply federal law.)
That said, this move—vacating a CFPB regulation based on the Bureau’s funding mechanism—may be a bridge too far for this Court. In addition to the reasons described above, I’ll add this: The Fifth Circuit’s ruling is, in fact, an extreme outlier for both its reasoning and its result. The D.C. Circuit and at least six district courts—every other court that considered the issue—ruled the other way.
Still, we’ve seen the Roberts Court in a variety of cases move aggressively to alter existing law; to effect significant political, social, economic, and environmental change; and to upset settled expectations in politics, the markets, and society. A ruling for the plaintiffs—based on a full-throated endorsement of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, or based on some other more modest approach—shouldn’t be a surprise.
Wednesday, September 6, 2023
Six Colorado voters filed suit in state court to keep Trump off the ballot, arguing that he's disqualified under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The lengthy and detailed complaint preemptively addresses the several arguments against Section 3's application to Trump and state courts' authority to enforce Section 3. It asks the court to enjoin the state secretary of state from taking any action that would give Trump access to the ballot.
Saturday, July 1, 2023
The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the Biden Administration's student-debt relief plan exceeded authority under the HEROES Act. That is: the Court said that the plan's illegal.
The ruling means that the plan won't go into effect. But President Biden quickly announced that his Administration would move to implement a similar plan under the Higher Education Act (which gives the Administration greater authority than the HEROES Act). But that'll take some time to implement, because it requires rulemaking processes. President Biden announced short-term relief in the interim.
Even these moves won't end the story, however. Given the political opposition to student-debt relief, we'll certainly see a spate of new lawsuits challenging any action the Administration takes.
The case, Biden v. Nebraska, tested the Secretary of Education's 2022 plan to cancel student-loan debt up to $10,000 for any borrower with income less than $125,000 (or $250,000 for couples) and up to $20,000 for any Pell Grant borrowers. All told, the plan would cancel about $430 billion in federal student loan debt, with about 90 percent of the benefits going to borrowers with incomes under $75,000.
As authority for the plan, the Secretary pointed to the HEROES Act. Under that Act, the Secretary "may waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to the student financial assistance programs . . . as the Secretary deems necessary in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency" and "as may be necessary to ensure" that student debtors "are not placed in a worse position financially in relation to that financial assistance because of their status as affected individuals."
States and individuals sued, arguing that the Secretary exceeded his authority under the HEROES Act. In particular, the plaintiffs said that the plan wasn't a "waiver" or "modification," but instead was a top-to-bottom overhaul of the law, in violation of the separation of powers. (The president can enforce the law, not make it.)
The Court agreed. The Court parsed the phrase "waive or modify" and concluded that the plan far exceeded anything that the phrase could support. In sum,
The Secretary's comprehensive debt cancellation plan cannot fairly be called a waiver--it not only nullifies existing provisions, but augments and expands them dramatically. It cannot be mere modification, because it constitutes "effectively the introduction of a whole new regime." And it cannot be some combination of the two, because when the Secretary seeks to add to existing law, the fact that he has "waived" certain provisions does not give him a free pass to avoid the limits inherent in the power to "modify." However broad the meaning of "waive or modify," that language cannot authorize the kind of exhaustive rewriting of the statute that has taken place here.
The Court went on to apply the major questions doctrine from West Virginia v. EPA. The Court said that the plan was unprecedented, and had "staggering" "economic and political significance," and that Congress had not clearly authorized it. Importantly, the Court rejected the government's argument that the major questions doctrine applied only to government regulatory programs, not government benefit programs.
Justice Barrett concurred, arguing that the major questions doctrine squares with textualism ("The doctrine serves as an interpretive tool reflecting 'common sense as to the manner in which Congress is likely to delegate a policy decision of such economic and political magnitude to an administrative agency.'") and the Court's power ("the major questions doctrine is neither new nor a strong-form canon," from footnote 2), and arguing that the major questions doctrine "reinforces" the Court's holding "but is not necessary to it."
Justice Kagan dissented, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Jackson. She argued that "the Court today exceeds its proper, limited role in our Nation's governance," first by accepting the case at all (because the states lack standing) and next by rejecting the plan, which "fits comfortably within" the HEROES Act authority.
Friday, June 9, 2023
Here it is, alleging that former president Trump unlawfully retained documents related to the national defense and conspired to obstruct justice, among other things. There's quite a lot in it, but here are some highlights:
3. The classified documents TRUMP stored in his boxes included information regarding defense and weapons capabilities of both the United States and foreign countries; United States nuclear programs; potential vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies to military attack; and plans for possible retaliation in response to a foreign attack. The unauthorized disclosure of these classified documents could put at risk the national security of the United States, foreign relations, the safety of the United States military, and human sources and the continued viability of sensitive intelligence collection methods.
6. On two occasions in 2021, TRUMP showed classified documents to others, as follows:
a. In July 2021, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey ("The Bedminster Club"), during an audio-recorded meeting with a writer, a publisher, and two members of his staff, none of whom possessed a security clearance, TRUMP showed and described a "plan of attack" that TRUMP said was prepared for him by the Department of Defense and a senior military official. TRUMP told the individuals that the plan was "highly confidential" and "secret." TRUMP also said, "as president I could have declassified it," and, "Now I can't, you know, but this is still a secret."
b. In August or September 2021, at the Bedminster Club, TRUMP showed a representative of his political action committee who did not possess a security clearance a classified map related to a military operation and told the representative that he should not be showing it to the representative and that the representative should not get too close.
7. . . . TRUMP endeavored to obstruct the FBI and grand jury investigations and conceal his continued retention of classified documents by, among other things:
a. suggesting that his attorney falsely represent to the FBI and grand jury that TRUMP did not have documents called for by the grand jury subpoena;
b. directing defendant WALTINE NAUTA to move boxes of documents to conceal them from TRUMP's attorney, the FBI, and the grand jury;
c. suggesting that his attorney hide or destroy documents called for by the grand jury subpoena;
d. providing to the FBI and grand jury just some of the documents called for by the grand jury subpoena, while claiming that he was cooperating fully; and
e. causing a certification to be submitted to the FBI and grand jury falsely representing that all documents called for by the grand jury subpoena had been produced--while knowing that, in fact, not all such documents had been produced.
The D.C. District ruled that a securities firm failed to show that the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority was likely unconstitutional. The court denied the firm's motion for a temporary restraining order against FINRA enforcement action.
The arguments against FINRA play on familiar separation-of-powers themes that the Supreme Court has developed and used in recent Terms to limit the power of administrative agencies. But those arguments haven't gained traction in challenges to FINRA, and the D.C. District's ruling in Scottsdale Capital Advisors v. FINRA aligns with other federal courts that have ruled FINRA constitutional.
FINRA is a private corporation that's responsible for regulating broker-dealers in the securities industry. Under the Securities and Exchange Act, FINRA enforcement actions are subject to internal review and appeal, and de novo appeal to the SEC. If the SEC rules against a firm, the firm can seek judicial review.
In this case, FINRA initiated enforcement action against Alpine Securities Corporation. Alpine moved for a TRO, arguing that FINRA was unconstitutional on several grounds. In particular, Alpine claimed that FINRA's double-insulation structure impermissibly encroached on executive authority, that FINRA board members are "officers" who haven't been validly appointed, that the Exchange Act improperly delegates lawmaking power to FINRA, that FINRA's proceedings violate due process and the right to a jury, and that forced association with FINRA violates the First Amendment.
The district court rejected all but the First Amendment claim on the ground that FINRA's not a state actor. (As to private non-delegation, the court said that the Act didn't impermissibly delegate lawmaking power to a private entity, because FINRA is subject to SEC control. But even assuming FINRA were a state actor, the court said that the Exchange Act didn't delegate lawmaking authority in violation of the non-delegation doctrine, because the Act gave FINRA "intelligible principles" to act.)
As to Alpine's First Amendment claim, the court said that the government had "a significantly compelling government interest embodied in the Exchange Act to justify mandatory FINRA membership": "to 'prevent fraudulent and manipulative acts and practices, promote just and equitable principles of trade, foster cooperation and coordination' among all industry players, 'remove impediments to and perfect the mechanism of a free and open market and a national market system, and, in general, to protect investors and the public interest."
Friday, May 26, 2023
Former President Trump's lawyers wrote to House Intel Committee Chair Mike Turner to complain about DOJ's investigation into Trump's unlawful retention and mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.
In a typo-ridden, ten-page letter, the lawyers argue, in short, that classified documents ended up at Mar-a-Lago because of a rushed document-review process at the end of the Trump presidency (and not because of any illegal behavior), that DOJ botched the investigation from its inception, and that the investigation is politically motivated. They argue that Turner's committee should take over (after an investigation and report by "the intelligence community") and seek "a legislative solution" to document-handling procedures for the White House and former presidents.
Then the lawyers write that "DOJ should be ordered to stand down." The letter doesn't specify who should do the ordering. But certainly the lawyers know this most basic separation of powers principle: A congressional committee cannot order DOJ stand down.
Thursday, May 25, 2023
The Supreme Court today curtailed EPA's authority to regulate wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The sharply divided ruling is a victory for property owners and a blow to federal regulatory authority over certain wetlands.
The case, Sackett v. EPA, tested whether and how EPA could regulate wetlands that aren't connected on the surface to "waters of the United States." Five justices said that EPA could only regulate wetlands that are connected on the surface to "waters of the United States." (Two of the five would've limited the Act even further, so that EPA couldn't regulate any wetlands, unless they were actually navigable waters of the United States.) Four justices disagreed and argued that the CWA authorized EPA to regulate wetlands that were connected to waters of the United States, even if that connection wasn't on the surface.
All nine agreed that the lower court applied the wrong test.
The CWA prohibits the discharge of pollutants into "navigable waters," defined as "the waters of the United States" and waters that are "adjacent" to them. EPA regulations provide that "adjacent wetlands are covered by the Act if they 'possess a "significant nexus" to' traditional navigable waters." This means that wetlands are "adjacent" when they "neighbor" covered waters, even if the wetlands and the covered waters are separated by dry land.
The plaintiffs, Michael and Chantell Sackett argued that EPA's regulation violated the CWA when EPA ordered them "to restore the Site," including wetlands, after they backfilled their property to build a home.
The Court ruled for the Sacketts and agreed that EPA's regulation violated the CWA. The court held that the CWA authorizes EPA to regulate only those wetlands that are "as a practical matter indistinguishable from waters of the United States," such that it is "difficult to determine where the 'water' ends and the 'wetland' begins." This means that the CWA covers only those wetlands that have "a continuous surface connection to bodies that are 'waters of the United States' in their own right, so that there is no clear demarcation between 'waters' and wetlands."
The Court said that EPA needs "clear [statutory] language" if it seeks "to significantly alter the balance between federal and state power and the power of the Government over private property." The Court said that the CWA (even its use of "adjacent") didn't provide this clear authority. The Court also said that EPA's interpretation "gives rise to serious vagueness concerns in light of the CWA's criminal penalties," because the EPA's interpretation may not define the statute "with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited" and "in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement."
Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, argued that the CWA is even narrower, extending only to actually navigable waters of the United States--those that are "capable of being used as a highly for interstate or foreign commerce." Under this approach, the CWA probably wouldn't apply to any wetlands. He tied this standard to Congress's Commerce Clause power, and then took aim at the Court's Commerce Clause jurisprudence, arguing that today it "significantly depart[s] from the original meaning of the Constitution."
Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh, and Jackson argued (in separate concurrences) that the Court's approach erroneously narrowed the CWA. They argued that "adjacent" waters under the CWA include not just "adjoining" wetlands (as the majority would have it) but also "wetlands separated from a covered water only by a man-made dike or barrier, natural river, berm, beach dune, or the like." Justice Kavanaugh (joined by Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Jackson) argued for this more expansive reading. Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Jackson, went further, arguing that the Court erred in creating and applying the plain statement rule and that the Court (once again) mangled an environmental statute in order to achieve its preferred policy objectives.
Tuesday, May 23, 2023
Gibson Dunn, the firm that represents Harlan Crow, wrote to Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin that the Committee lacked authority to investigate Justice Thomas's relationship with Crow and to impose an ethics code on the Supreme Court.
That's some chutzpah.
The firm wrote that Crow wouldn't comply with the Committee's effort to investigate Crow's relationship with Justice Thomas. According to the firm, the Committee's investigation lacks a legitimate legislative purpose, because ultimately Congress cannot impose an ethics code on the Supreme Court--and therefore can't investigate in order to impose such a code. Again according to the firm, a congressional ethics code for the Court would impermissibly encroach on the singular constitutional role and standing of the Supreme Court.
The letter engages with the Necessary and Proper Clause--in particular, the argument that the Necessary and Proper Clause authorizes Congress to impose an ethics code on the Court. But it seems to engage only with the first part of the Clause. According to the letter, the Necessary and Proper Clause doesn't provide Congress with authority to impose an ethics code, because Congress doesn't have the underlying power to impose a code.
But even if that's right--and it's not at all clear that it is--it ignores the second part of the Clause: "The Congress shall have the power . . . [t]o make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof." (Emphasis added.)
The move seems to put the ball back in the Senate Judiciary Committee's court, to subpoena Crow and then move to enforce the subpoena in the courts. That comes with some risk, of course: the Court (which is both a highly interested player and umpire in this separation-of-powers dispute) seems likely to side with Crow, based on its signals.
U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns (D. Mass.) set a May 31 hearing date in the case brought by a public employee union challenging the constitutionality of the Debt Limit Statute.
The complaint in National Association of Government Employees v. Yellin alleges that
[t]he Debt Limit Statute is unconstitutional because it puts the President in a quandary to exercise discretion to continue borrowing to pay for the programs which Congress has heretofore duly authorized and for which Congress has appropriated funds or to stop borrowing and to determine which of these programs the President, and not the Congress, will suspend, curtail, or cancel altogether.
The plaintiffs argue that under the Anti-Deficiency Act, "the President does not have authority to suspend or cancel any laws or any programs that are, in fact, funded by Congress." Yet "the Debt Limit Statute has a retroactive effect and requires a reduction of operations of government approved by Congress, with no legislative direction as to which obligations to cancel."
In plain English, under the Anti-Deficiency Act and the Constitution the President must spend money validly appropriated by Congress, but the Debt Limit Statute (without raising the debt ceiling) prohibits the President from spending money appropriated by Congress. Given this reality, and given that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits any person from questioning the validity of the public debt, "the Debt Limit Statute necessarily confers upon the Defendant President the unlawful discretion to cancel, suspend, or refuse to carry out spending approved by Congress, without the consent or approval of Congress as to how the President may do so, in order to pay the bondholders."
This approach doesn't hang its hat on the Fourteenth Amendment, at least not alone. Instead, it draws principally on the separation of powers--Congress's power to appropriate public funds, and the President's responsibility to spend those funds. The complaint say that if the Debt Limit Statute interferes with the President's duty to enforce congressional spending measures, then it's unconstitutional.
Thursday, May 18, 2023
The Supreme Court this week agreed to hear a case testing whether minority members on a congressional committee can sue to enforce their statutory right to obtain material from an agency.
But this isn't just any minority, and it's not just any agency material. The dispute arises out of congressional Democrats' efforts to obtain material from the General Services Administration about the Trump organization's lease with the Old Post Office for the Trump International Hotel.
In February 2017, the then-House Oversight Committee ranking member and seven other Democrats (but not a majority of the Committee, because Dems were in the minority) asked GSA for material related to GSA's 2013 lease of the Old Post Office building to Trump Old Post Office LLC. The members cited 5 U.S.C. Sec. 2954, which provides
An Executive agency, on request of the [Committee on Oversight and Reform] of the House of Representatives, or of any seven members thereof, or on request of the Committee on [Homeland Security and] Governmental Affairs of the Senate, or any five members thereof, shall submit any information requested of it relating to any matter within the jurisdiction of the committee.
GSA declined; the members sued; and GSA argued that the members lacked standing.
The case, Maloney v. Murphy, now pits two theories of standing against each other. On the one hand, the members say that they have standing based on an informational harm--that they have a right to information (under Section 2954), and that the GSA denied them that information. This is a little like you or me seeking to enforce a FOIA request in court: a statute grants us a right to information, an agency declines to provide it, and we can sue. But the theory depends on members suffering an informational harm that is personal and individual to them (even if as members of Congress), and not a harm on behalf of Congress (or a committee of Congress) as a body. They point to Powell v. McCormack, among other cases, where the Court has held that a member of Congress has standing based on an injury that is particular to them as a legislator. The D.C. Circuit adopted this theory when it ruled that the members have standing.
On the other hand, GSA (then and now) says that individual members lack standing based on a harm to Congress, the House, or their committee. GSA points to Raines v. Byrd, where the Court held that individual members of Congress can't sue to challenge the Line Item Veto Act, because the harm went to Congress, not to the individual members.
The difference will likely turn on how the Court interprets Section 2954. If the Court reads the statute to authorize individual members to obtain agency material as individual legislators, to serve their individual legislative functions, then the Court will likely say that the members have standing. But if the Court reads the statute to protect the right of the committees to obtain information, it'll likely say they don't.
Wednesday, December 28, 2022
The Supreme Court stayed a district court ruling that vacated the Trump Administration's Title 42 policy and set states' motion for intervention in the case for oral argument in the February sitting.
The ruling means that the Title 42 policy can stay in place, and that the Court will rule later this year whether twelve states led by Republican attorneys general can intervene in the case on the merits.
The case arises out of the Trump Administration's Title 42 policy, which turned away immigrants--including immigrants who were entitled to apply for asylum--because the Administration determined under federal law that immigration posed a "serious danger" of "introduc[ing]" a "communicable disease." A district court ruled the policy invalid, however, and halted it. States then moved to intervene, arguing that the Biden Administration wouldn't sufficiently defend it on appeal. (The Biden Administration, in fact, is appealing the district court ruling. But it also moved to halt the policy earlier this year, saying that it's no longer justified. In other words, the government is saying that the Trump Administration had authority to implement Title 42 in the first place, and that it has authority to revoke it now that it's no longer necessary and justified. The states take all this as evidence that the Biden Administration won't sufficient defend the policy on appeal.) But they moved quite late, and the D.C. Circuit rejected their motion. They then applied to the Supreme Court for expedited review of the D.C. Circuit's denial, and a stay of the district court's ruling striking the policy.
The Court granted both requests. It stayed the district court's ruling (which allows Title 42 to remain in place) and set the states' motion for intervention for oral argument in its February sitting. The Court ordered the parties to brief this single question: Whether the State applicants may intervene to challenge the District Court's summary judgment order.
Justices Sotomayor and Kagan noted without comment that they'd deny the application. Justice Gorsuch dissented, joined by Justice Jackson, arguing that the Court need not, and should not, get involved in this dispute, at least on an expedited basis. He wrote that there's no rush to determine whether the states can intervene in this dispute over a policy that everyone agrees has "outlived its shelf life" (because it's no longer justified by COVID).
The Court's ruling specifically says that it "does not prevent the federal government from taking any action with respect to [the Title 42 policy]." But another case does, at least for now: A different federal district court ruled in an entirely different case that the Biden Administration's revocation of the Title 42 policy was unlawful. The Administration appealed that ruling to the Fifth Circuit (where the case is pending). In the meantime, the Administration considers itself barred from revoking Title 42.
All this means that Title 42 remains in place, even though everyone seems to agree that it's no longer justified by COVID.
Monday, December 19, 2022
The January 6 Committee today made criminal referrals to the Department of Justice for former President Trump and others who were involved in the insurrection. The move is the first time that Congress has referred a former president for criminal prosecution.
But remember: the Committee's action doesn't have any formal legal significance, and it doesn't compel the Justice Department to act. Congress lacks that power. The Committee can simply make the referrals, turn over its findings . . . and hope that DOJ will move.
So why would the Committee go to the trouble of referring to DOJ? Most obviously, to pressure DOJ to move, and to highlight the significance of its own findings.
The DOJ is already investigating. The Committee's referrals might only light a fire under that investigation. The referrals have no formal legal significance.
The Committee's "introductory material" to its final report is here.
Chief Justice Roberts issued an order today halting a district court ruling that struck the Trump Administration's Title 42 policy. The administrative stay means that the Title 42 policy will remain in place, notwithstanding the district court's ruling, until the Chief Justice or the full Supreme Court has a chance to consider the issue more thoroughly.
That could be soon. Chief Justice Roberts ordered that the government respond tomorrow, Tuesday.
The Title 42 policy orders U.S. immigration officials to turn away covered noncitizens from any country who try to enter through the Mexican or Canadian borders. This means that the U.S. government turns away asylum seekers from any country who enter through those borders. The Trump Administration adopted the policy in the putative interest of public health--reducing transmission of COVID-19--and purported to use CDC's authority to implement it. But the policy was widely seen as an effort simply to reduce and deter immigration through the Mexican border. Absent the policy, an individual who enters the U.S. even without authorization is entitled to apply for asylum in the U.S.
Today's moves started with a November 15 decision of the U.S. District Court for D.C. that the Title 42 policy violated the Administrative Procedure Act and set a deadline for Wednesday for the government to halt the program. A group of states sought to intervene in the appeal, but the D.C. Circuit said on Friday that they were too late. The states then applied to Chief Justice Roberts for a stay of the district court ruling. Chief Justice Roberts granted the stay, but put the case on a super-fast briefing schedule, suggesting that the Court could rule quickly on whether to stay the district court's ruling pending appeal and possibly take up the case itself.
Thursday, December 1, 2022
The Supreme Court today agreed to hear a case challenging the Biden Administration's federal student loan forgiveness program. The case comes to the Court on the government's application to vacate the injunction halting the program entered by the Eighth Circuit. We last posted here.
The Court will hear oral argument on the program in February. In the meantime, the Eighth Circuit's injunction stays in place. The Court gave no clue as to its thinking on the merits in its brief order.
Judge Emmet G. Sullivan (D.D.C.) ruled this week that former President Donald Trump does not have absolute immunity from a civil-damage lawsuit for his behavior related to the insurrection on January 6. The ruling came in an order granting the plaintiffs' motion to file a second amended complaint in a lawsuit against Trump and others for interfering with the electoral count. In other words, it's not a final ruling on the merits; it just means that portions of the case against Trump can move forward.
The court held that Trump's activities leading up to and on January 6 in an effort to disrupt the electoral count were not within the "outer perimeter" of his official duties as president, and therefore, under Nixon v. Fitzgerald, he did not enjoy absolute immunity from civil-damage claims based upon those activities. The court held that Trump's activities were political, not official, because they "entirely concern his efforts to remain in office for a second term."
The this is now the third time that the D.C. district held that Trump's January 6-related activities were outside the scope of his official duties. See Thompson v. Trump (also denying absolute immunity) and United States v. Chrestman (rejecting a defense in a criminal case against a January 6 insurrectionist).
Monday, November 28, 2022
The Supreme Court will hear oral argument tomorrow in United States v. Texas, the case testing whether the Biden Administration's guidelines that prioritize immigration enforcement violate federal law. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Case at a Glance
In September 2021, the Department of Homeland Security issued Guidelines that set priorities for the enforcement of federal immigration law. In particular, the Guidelines prioritized three classes of noncitizens for “apprehension and removal”: (1) noncitizens who pose “a danger to national security,” for example, suspected terrorists; (2) noncitizens who pose a “threat to public safety, typically because of serious criminal conduct”; and (3) noncitizens who pose a “threat to border security,” that is, noncitizens who arrived in the United States after November 1, 2020. DHS set these priorities because Congress has not allocated sufficient resources for the agency to apprehend and remove all removable noncitizens. Texas and Louisiana sued to halt the Guidelines. The district court ruled in their favor and vacated the Guidelines nationwide. The Fifth Circuit and the Supreme Court both declined to stay that ruling pending appeal.
Federal immigration law, by its plain terms, requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to apprehend and remove removable noncitizens in certain circumstances. But given limited resources, DHS must exercise judgment in complying with those requirements. Moreover, the law generally grants executive officers some discretion in how they enforce the law. This case pits federal immigration law against those enforcement realities. But before we even get to the merits, this case raises significant questions over the states’ standing to sue, and whether the district court had authority to vacate the Guidelines nationwide.
- Do states have standing to challenge government Guidelines that set priorities for the enforcement of federal immigration law?
- Do the federal Guidelines violate the substantive provisions of immigration law?
- Did the district court have authority to vacate the Guidelines?
In September 2021, the Secretary of Homeland Security issued Guidelines for the Enforcement of Civil Immigration Law (Guidelines). The Guidelines set priorities for the “apprehension and removal” of noncitizens by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Secretary explained in an accompanying memo (the Considerations Memo) that the Guidelines were necessary because “there are more than 11 million undocumented or otherwise removable noncitizens in the United States,” yet DHS lacked “the resources to apprehend and seek the removal of every one of these noncitizens.” (We refer to the Guidelines and the Considerations Memo together as the “Guidelines” below.) In other words, Congress has allocated just a fraction of the resources that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would need to apprehend and remove every noncitizen who is deportable under the law, and the agency therefore needs to make choices in how it prioritizes enforcement. (The Guidelines apply only to “apprehension and removal.” They do not apply to “detention and release determinations” for noncitizens already in DHS custody.)
The Guidelines prioritize three classes of noncitizens for “apprehension and removal”: (1) noncitizens who pose “a danger to national security,” for example, suspected terrorists; (2) noncitizens who pose a “threat to public safety, typically because of serious criminal conduct”; and (3) noncitizens who pose a “threat to border security,” that is, noncitizens who arrived in the United States after November 1, 2020. In determining whether a noncitizen poses a threat to public safety, the Guidelines call for an assessment based on “the totality of the circumstances,” and not “bright lines or categories.” The Guidelines set “aggravating factors” that weigh in favor of enforcement, including “the gravity of the offense” and the “use of a firearm.” They also set “mitigating factors,” including “tender age” and military service.
The Guidelines, by their own terms, are discretionary. The Guidelines do “not compel an action to be taken or not taken in any particular case.” Instead, they leave “the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to the judgment of” ICE officers. And while they provide for supervisory review of a line-officer’s enforcement decision, the Guidelines do not “create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law by any party in any administrative, civil, or criminal matter.” The Secretary’s Considerations Memo explained that the Guidelines are “consistent with” and “do not purport to override” two statutory provisions that require that certain noncitizens remain in detention during removal proceedings or while awaiting removal.
Texas and Louisiana sued to halt the Guidelines. (The states previously sued to halt earlier versions of the Guidelines. But that case was dismissed when the Secretary issued the final version of the Guidelines in September 2021.) The district court ruled for the states and vacated the Guidelines nationwide. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied a stay of the district court’s order pending appeal. The Court also denied a stay pending appeal, and agreed to hear the case.
This case raises three distinct issues. Let’s examine them one at a time.
Before we even get to the merits, the government argues that the states lack standing to sue, because the states have not suffered a sufficiently direct harm. The government says that the states have alleged only that the Guidelines will require them to spend more on law enforcement and social services. But the government claims that these kinds of indirect harms are never enough for states to sue the government. (If they were, states could sue the government over any number of federal policies and programs.) Moreover, the government asserts that the states lack standing, because, as a general matter, a third party that is not subject to prosecution itself lacks standing to sue the government over its prosecutorial decisions. Finally, the government contends that the Guidelines will not necessarily lead to increased costs for the states, because they only prioritize enforcement given limited resources (and do not cut overall enforcement under limited resources).
The states counter that they have standing, because the Guidelines caused them to “bear costs related to law enforcement, recidivism, healthcare, and education,” as the district court concluded. The states say that this position is not unbounded, as the government contends. Instead, they assert that their position requires states to demonstrate the same standing requirements as other litigants, “albeit with some amount of special solicitude under certain circumstances owing to their unique place in the federal system.” The states contend that the government’s position would upend the Court’s longstanding approach to state standing by making states “disfavored litigants.”
The Guidelines’ Legality
In testing the legality of the Guidelines, two provisions of federal immigration law are principally in play. The first, at 8 U.S.C. § 1226(c), says that DHS “shall take into custody” noncitizens convicted of certain offenses when they are released from criminal custody and “may release” them “only” in limited circumstances. According to DHS, this means that these noncitizens “generally must remain in custody during the pendency of their removal proceedings,” unless their release is authorized by law or court order. But at the same time, DHS and its predecessor agency have consistently interpreted Section 1226(c) to retain the agencies’ “general prosecutorial discretion” to “choose not to pursue removal of such an individual in the first place.”
The second provision, at 8 U.S.C. § 1231(a)(1), says that DHS “shall remove” a noncitizen within 90 days after a final order of removal or other triggering event. Moreover, DHS “shall detain” such noncitizens during the 90-day removal period. “Under no circumstance” shall DHS release a noncitizen who is removable on certain criminal and national-security grounds. According to DHS, such a noncitizen “must remain detained for the duration of the removal period unless release is required to comply with a court order.”
The government argues that the Guidelines do not violate these statutory provisions. As an initial matter, it says that Section 1226(e) bars judicial review of the Guidelines. (Section 1226(e) prohibits review of the Secretary’s “discretionary judgment regarding the application of” Section 1226 and prohibits courts from “set[ting] aside any action or decision . . . regarding the detention or release of any” noncitizen.) It also says that Section 1231(h) precludes courts from requiring the government to comply with Section 1231. (Section 1231(h) reads, “Nothing in [Section 1231] shall be construed to create any substantive or procedural right or benefit that is legally enforceable by any party against the United States . . . .”)
Going to the merits, the government argues that the mandatory language in Sections 1226 and 1231 (“shall take into custody” and “shall detain”) do not override the general principal of law-enforcement discretion. The government says that this conclusion is supported by the context and history of those provisions and by the “longstanding practice spanning multiple Administrations.” According to the government, this conclusion especially holds when, as here, the government faces “perennial constraints on detention capacity.” Moreover, the government asserts that its prioritization was reasonable, and that the government sufficiently explained its reasons (and, contrary to the district court’s findings, adequately considered countervailing factors, like the risk of recidivism by non-prioritized noncitizens and the states’ interests).
Finally, the government argues that the Guidelines do not violate the requirements for notice-and-comment rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The government contends that the Guidelines meet the exceptions for “general statements of policy” and rules of agency “practice” or “procedure” under the APA, and therefore do not require notice-and-comment procedures.
The states counter that Sections 1226 and 1231 contain mandatory language that requires the government to detain nonimmigrants. They say that the Guidelines violate these plain requirements. Moreover, the states contend that the Guidelines are arbitrary and capricious in violation of the APA, because they fail “to consider important aspects of the problems that criminal aliens create, including recidivism and States’ reliance interests” on federal enforcement of immigration law. Finally, they assert that the government failed to comply with notice-and-comment procedures under the APA in issuing the Guidelines. They contend that these procedures are required, because the Guidelines “substantively changed a regulatory regime.”
The District Court’s Vacatur
The government argues first that the district court’s vacatur was improper under 5 U.S.C. § 706(2), a part of the APA that authorizes courts only to “hold unlawful and set aside” agency action. The government says that this provision “merely directs a court to disregard an unlawful agency action in resolving the case before it,” not to nullify or render it void. According to the government, this means that the district court only had authority to grant relief (like an injunction and declaratory relief) to the parties before it, and not to vacate the Guidelines nationwide.
The government argues that even if Section 706(2) authorized the district court’s nationwide vacatur, a provision in federal immigration law, 8 U.S.C. § 1252(f)(1), prohibits that relief in this context. Section 1252(f)(1) prevents courts (except the Supreme Court) from “enjoin[ing] or restrain[ing]” government immigration policies, except as they apply “to an individual alien against whom proceedings . . . have been initiated.” The government claims that the district court’s vacatur violates the plain terms of this provision, because it is not limited to the case of “an individual alien.”
The states counter that neither the APA nor Section 1252(f)(1) prevented the district court from vacating the Guidelines. As to the APA, the states say that the government’s position “that the APA does not authorize vacatur at all ignores text, context, and decades of practice and precedent.” Moreover, they say that Section 1252(f)(1)’s prohibition on court orders that “enjoin or restrain” government policies does not apply to vacatur. They contend that injunctive relief and vacatur “are different remedies with different consequences that require different showings.” For these reasons, the states say that the district court had full authority to vacate the Guidelines.
On its face, this case tests whether the mandatory immigration enforcement provisions in federal law are, in fact, mandatory. The plain language of the law, read quite narrowly, seems to require DHS to apprehend and detain noncitizens in certain circumstances. But the broader context and history of the law, along with DHS’s limited resources and the reality of executive discretion in enforcing the law, allow for significant leeway in how DHS implements those provisions. This case tests the former against the latter.
Telescoping out, the case also tests a decades-long history of executive exercise of discretion in the enforcement of immigration law, including the apprehension and detention of deportable noncitizens. Administrations under presidents of both parties have long issued guidelines and priorities for immigration enforcement similar to the Guidelines at issue here. For very practical and immediate reasons, the government has issued guidelines and priorities in order to channel limited resources, which have been perpetually insufficient to apprehend and detain all deportable noncitizens. For only slightly less direct reasons, the government has issued guidelines and priorities in order to ensure fairness in immigration enforcement and to reflect important national interests, sometimes related to foreign affairs and national security. Reading the precise provisions narrowly and literally, and ignoring the broader context and history, as the states would have it, could dispense with the long-running and bipartisan exercise of discretion in immigration enforcement.
Telescoping out once more, this case is just one front in the increasingly partisan battles over immigration. In particular, the case is one among the several efforts that border states and certain Republican state officials are lodging, or have lodged, against immigration policies and practices by Democrats. As an effort in the courts (and not just in ordinary politics), this case raises important questions about the authority and role of the courts in this increasingly partisan arena. For example: Should the courts hear the states’ challenge to federal enforcement priorities when the states’ only harms are secondary, and may not be remedied by judicial relief, anyway? Is it appropriate for a single district court, hand-selected by the plaintiffs, to vacate the Guidelines nationwide?
Notwithstanding the multi-layered underlying issues, however, the case gives the Court several easy exit ramps. For one, the Court could rule that the states lack standing. For another, the Court could rule that the district court lacked authority to vacate the Guidelines nationwide. For a third, the Court could rule that the immigration provisions cited by the states themselves bar courts from halting government policy. Look for those justices who would prefer to stay out of this hot-button political dispute to lean heavily into these issues at oral argument.
Monday, November 21, 2022
Now that Trump has formally announced his candidacy in the 2024 presidential election, there's renewed buzz about the application of the Disqualification Clause. Here's a very brief explainer, along with some resources to help sort out what it is, and how it works.
First, the easy part: what it is. The Disqualification Clause disqualifies certain individuals from holding state and federal offices. The Clause, in Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, was enacted shortly after the Civil War in order to bar confederate officers from holding public office. But its terms continue to apply today. It reads,
No Person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may be a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
Next, the harder part: how it works. The Clause itself raises several questions. For one, the Clause doesn't say how it's enforced, or who can enforce it. We do have some clues, though. We know that Congress can enact legislation "to enforce . . . the provisions" of the Fourteenth Amendment (under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment). We know that "[e]ach House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members . . . ." (Art. I, Sec. 5.) And we know that state officials and even private individuals in some cases have authority to challenge the qualifications of candidates for state and federal offices by filing quo warranto lawsuits.
For another, the Clause doesn't specifically say whether it applies to the president. But there are clues: the weight of historical scholarship says that it does.
For a third, the Clause doesn't define "insurrection or rebellion" or "aid or comfort to the enemies thereof," and it doesn't say how to determine whether a person "engaged" in the former or "g[a]v[e]" the latter. Again, we have clues. We know that Congress can call forth the militia "to suppress Insurrection." And we know that Congress enacted the Insurrection Act, which authorizes the President to call up the armed forces and militia in response to "unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States [that] make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings." Another part of the Insurrection Act authorizes the use of armed forces when insurrectionists "oppose or obstruct the execution of the laws of the United States or impede the course of justice under those laws." The Act holds accountable anyone who "incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages" in those acts.
As to "giv[ing] aid or comfort to the enemies," this may require some connection to a foreign and opposing government, not just a U.S. citizen opposing the U.S. government.
It seems clear that the January 6 insurrection was, indeed, an "insurrection or rebellion" under the Clause. And those who "incite[d], set on foot, assist[ed], or engage[d]" in that insurrection probably "engaged" in it for the purpose of the Clause.
But given the dearth of recent judicial precedent, we don't have a ton of contemporary judicial interpretation on enforcement. The Fourth Circuit earlier this year ruled that the 1872 Amnesty Act, which removed disqualification for confederate officers, did not remove disqualification for Madison Cawthorn in his bid for reelection to the House. The Eleventh Circuit ruled more recently that Marjorie Taylor Greene's case challenging a state process to determination disqualification was moot, because the process concluded in her favor. The best we have comes from a New Mexico state court that removed a county commissioner and prohibited him from seeking or holding any future office. That analysis is good, but it's just one court.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) indicated last week that he's looking to introduce federal legislation that would ban Trump from the presidency. Other legislation is currently pending. In particular, H.R. 7906 authorizes the AG to investigate Section 3 disqualifications and pursue them in court.
CREW, which indicated earlier that it'd file to challenge Trump under the Disqualification Clause, issued letters to state AGs urging them to pursue quo warranto actions in their states. And FreeSpeechforPeople.org and Mi Familia Vota seek to garner public support for state AG actions to enforce the Disqualification Clause.
For more, here's a Congressional Research Service Legal Sidebar on the Clause.
Friday, November 18, 2022
AG Merrick Garland today appointed John L. Smith as special prosecutor in the investigations into efforts to interfere with the lawful transfer of power after the 2020 election and Trump's illegal retention of government documents at Mar-A-Lago. Smith is a former head of DOJ's Public Integrity Section and former chief prosecutor for the special court at the Hague.
The appointment means that the investigation and any criminal charges will now come from the special counsel, operating independently of ordinary DOJ channels. AG Garland likely made the appointment to avoid even the appearance of a conflict now that Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency in 2024. We don't know how quickly the special counsel will move, and we likely won't know that for some time. But the office isn't starting from scratch: it can pick up where DOJ left off its own investigations into these matters.
The appointment authorizes the special counsel to investigate these matters and to prosecute federal crimes that arose out of them. Neither investigation nor prosecution is limited to Trump (or anyone else). But the "authorization does not apply to prosecutions that are currently pending in the District of Columbia, as well as future investigations and prosecutions of individuals for offenses they committed while physically present on the Capitol grounds on January 6, 2021." As the appointment explains, those matters "remain under the authority of the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia."
In addition to investigation the insurrection and document retention, AG Garland's appointment letter and the regs authorize the special counsel to investigate "any matters that arose or might arise directly" from those investigations, including obstruction and perjury.
The special counsel will operate almost entirely outside the DOJ's chain of command. But that doesn't mean that AG Garland is necessarily bound to all the special counsel's decisions. 28 C.F.R Sec. 600.7(b) provides:
The Special Counsel shall not be subject to the day-to-day supervision of any official of the Department. However, the Attorney General may request that the Special Counsel provide an explanation for any investigative or procedural step, and may after review conclude that the action is so inappropriate or unwarranted under established Department practices that it should not be pursued. In conducting that review, the Attorney General will give great weight to the views of the Special Counsel. If the Attorney General concludes that a proposed action by a Special Counsel should not be pursued, the Attorney General shall notify Congress . . . .
Moreover, special counsel staff are "subject to disciplinary action for misconduct and breach of ethical duties," and the AG can remove the special counsel "for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies."
Monday, November 14, 2022
The Eighth Circuit granted a motion to stop the Biden Administration from implementing its student-debt forgiveness program pending appeal. The court just a few weeks ago granted an emergency motion for an administrative stay, to the same effect.
The ruling halts implementation of the program nationwide during the state's appeal. It's another setback for the loan-forgiveness program in the courts.
The court said, contrary to the district court, that the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority had standing as a state agency, or, if not, because of "MOHELA's financial obligations to the State treasury, the challenged student loan debt cancellation presents a threatened financial harm to the State of Missouri." Moreover, "the equities strongly favor an injunction considering the irreversible impact the Secretary's debt forgiveness action would have as compared to the lack of harm an injunction would presently impose."
The court said that it couldn't limit an injunction to the plaintiff states, however, because MOHELA services loans nationwide, and because "tailoring an injunction to address the alleged harms to the remaining States would entail delving into complex issues and contested facts that would make any limits uncertain in their application and effectiveness."
Friday, November 11, 2022
Trump objects to the subpoena on several grounds:
[T]he Committee did not issue the Subpoena to further a valid legislative purpose; the Subpoena is unwarranted because other sources can provide the information the Subpoena seeks; the Subpoena is broader than reasonably necessary; the Subpoena infringes on executive privilege; the Subpoena infringes President Trump's First Amendment rights; the Committee is not duly authorized; and the Committee lacks authority to issue subpoenas.
Just to be clear: These grounds are entirely spurious. Some are flat wrong, factually or legally or both. Others have been roundly rejected in the courts. Again and again. Still, Trump raises them.
For example, Trump argues that a former president is absolutely immune from compelled testimony. But his best source for this is a letter that President Truman wrote in response to a subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Every other authority he cites speaks to current, not former, presidents. The difference matters: the reason for the president's absolute immunity (if such immunity exists) is that Congress, by compelling testimony, could frustrate the current president's exercise of their Article II responsibilities (by taking the president away from their job), and thus undermine the separation of powers. This reason applies with far less force, if at all, to a former president. The reason's simple: a former president is no longer exercising Article II responsibilities. In any event, neither OLC nor the Supreme Court has definitively extended absolute immunity from compelled congressional testimony to a former president. And Congress obviously thinks it has the power. That counts for something.
Trump also argues that the subpoena doesn't serve a legitimate legislative purpose. This is a familiar trope in Trump team litigation. And it's failed consistently in the courts, including in court challenges to the January 6 Committee's authority.
The strategy--the same as always--is clear: Trump's trying to run the clock in hopes that the subpoena (and the entire Committee) go away with a new Republican Congress. Or, if not, stall in the courts as long as possible.