Wednesday, December 28, 2022

SCOTUS Stays District Court Title 42 Ruling, Sets State Intervention for Argument

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.

We last posted here.

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.

December 28, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 19, 2022

January 6 Committee Makes Criminal Referrals for Trump and Others

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.

December 19, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

CJ Roberts Allows Title 42 Policy to Stay in Place . . . For Now

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.

December 19, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 1, 2022

SCOTUS to Hear Biden Loan Forgiveness Case

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.

December 1, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

No Absolute Immunity for Trump for January 6 Activities

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).

December 1, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 28, 2022

Can the Biden Administration Issue Guidelines that Prioritize Immigration Enforcement?

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.

INTRODUCTION

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.

ISSUES

  1. Do states have standing to challenge government Guidelines that set priorities for the enforcement of federal immigration law?
  2. Do the federal Guidelines violate the substantive provisions of immigration law?
  3. Did the district court have authority to vacate the Guidelines?

FACTS

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.

CASE ANALYSIS

This case raises three distinct issues. Let’s examine them one at a time.

Standing

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.

SIGNIFICANCE

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.

 

November 28, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 21, 2022

The Disqualification Clause Clause: What is it? How does it work?

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.

November 21, 2022 in Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 18, 2022

AG Garland Appoints Special Counsel in 2020 Transfer-of-Power, Document Retention Investigations

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."

Here's AG Garland's announcement; here's the actual appointment. Here's a link to the DOJ regs authorizing the appointment of a special counsel, and outlining their powers and processes.

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."

November 18, 2022 in Appointment and Removal Powers, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 14, 2022

Eighth Circuit Halts Education Debt Forgiveness Program Pending Appeal

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."

November 14, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 11, 2022

Trump Sues to Halt January 6 Committee Subpoena, surprising nobody

As expected, former President Trump sued on Friday to stop the January 6's Committee's subpoena for his testimony and documents.

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.

November 11, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Judge Strikes Biden Student Loan Forgiveness

Judge Mark T. Pittman (N.D. Tex.) ruled that the Biden Administration's student-loan forgiveness program is unconstitutional. The Administration already said that it'd appeal.

Recall that the Eighth Circuit previously temporarily halted the program pending an appeal. At the same time, the Supreme Court declined to temporarily halt the program in a different case.

Judge Pittman's ruling is different than these, in that it isn't temporary. Instead, it "vacates" the program in its entirety.

The court ruled that the program violated the newly discovered major questions doctrine. The court said that the program involved a matter of "vast 'economic and political significance'" (because it'll "cost more than $400 billion"), yet Congress hadn't clearly authorized it in the HEROES Act. Under West Virginia v. EPA's major questions doctrine, the court said that the program is therefore unconstitutional.

That's striking, given that the HEROES Act plainly authorizes the Secretary of Education to "waive or modify" federal student loans "as the Secretary deems necessary in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency." ("The term 'national emergency' means a national emergency declared by the President of the United States.") It's striking, too, because, unlike the West Virginia case, the Administration's action here doesn't impose a regulatory scheme. If the major questions doctrine reaches this program, it'll likely reach a whole lot of other programs that we might not necessarily have expected under West Virginia, too--programs where the president has statutory authority to declare an "emergency," or where an administration takes non-regulatory action. (And remember: the Court hasn't defined "economic and political significance." So we don't know how or whether that limiting principle would apply.)

The ruling is striking at an even more basic level, on standing. Under the standing rule, a plaintiff, in order to get into federal court, has to plausibly plead (1) that they've suffered a harm, (2) that the defendant's action caused the harm, and (3) that the plaintiff's requested relief will redress the harm. Here, the plaintiffs in the case didn't qualify for the full forgiveness. That was their "harm" for standing purposes. And they connected that harm to the forgiveness program, demonstrating causation.

Yet they asked the court to vacate the entire program (as opposed to remand to the Department to fix it so that they'd qualify). The court obliged, and, as a result, they (still) don't get forgiveness (and neither does anyone else). This seems counterproductive, at best, as a practical matter. But it also seems to play fast and loose with the third standing requirement, that the requested relief must redress the harm.

November 11, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Government, House File Arguments in Trump Tax Case

The solicitor general and the House today filed separate oppositions to former President Trump's emergency application to the Supreme Court for a stay of the lower court's ruling that Treasury must turn over Trump's taxes to the House Committee on Ways and Means.

The filings follow the Court's temporary stay and super-fast briefing schedule in the case. (The Court's temporary stay prevents Treasury from turning over the taxes until it resolves Trump's emergency application.)

Both briefs argued that the lower court got it right--that the Committee has a legitimate legislative purpose for requesting the taxes, and that the Committee's request doesn't violate the separation of powers.

The Committee brief added that the Court should rule quickly, because time's running out on this Congress, and (implicitly) that delays will simply play into Trump's run-the-clock strategy, should the Republicans take the House: "Delaying Treasury from providing the requested tax information would leave the Committee and Congress as a whole little or no time to complete their legislative work during this Congress, which is quickly approaching its end."

The Committee also added that a ruling for Trump would undermine Congress's authority more generally:

The "power of inquiry--with process to enforce it--is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function." And more recently, this Court in Mazars confirmed that "[l]egislative inquiries might involve the President in appropriate cases" and rejected an approach that gave "short shrift to Congress's important interests in conducting inquiries to obtain the information it needs to legislative effectively." To rule for the Trump parties on the merits would disregard those important Congressional interests and "risk seriously impeding Congress in carrying out its responsibilities" by preventing Congress from completing any investigation involving a former President whenever there are allegations that the investigation was politically motivated.

Next move's for the Court.

November 10, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

SCOTUS Temporarily Blocks Committee Access to Trump Taxes

Chief Justice Roberts issued an order temporarily blocking the House Committee on Ways and Means from obtaining former President Trump's tax returns from Treasury. The D.C. Circuit previously rebuffed Trump's various claims and ruled that the Committee could obtain the returns under a federal law that requires Treasury to turn over tax returns "[u]pon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means." Chief Justice Roberts's order (as D.C. Circuit justice) temporarily stays that ruling and blocks the Committee from receiving the returns, pending Court consideration.

At the same time, Chief Justice Roberts ordered the Committee to respond to Trump's application by November 10, indicating that the Court intends to move quickly on this.

We previously posted here.

November 2, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Full D.C. Circuit Allows Committee To Get Trump Tax Returns

The full D.C. Circuit, with no noted dissent, declined to review a panel ruling that held that the House Committee on Ways and Means could obtain former President Trump's tax returns from Treasury. This isn't really a surprise: the panel ruling in favor of the Committee was thorough and sound.

But this doesn't mean that the Committee will actually get the returns anytime soon. That's because Trump is sure to seek review at the Supreme Court. Even if the Court declines review quickly, Trump'll certainly drag this out until the next Congress moves in. If Republicans take the House, the whole thing'll become moot.

October 27, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 24, 2022

Why Did the Eighth Circuit Halt Educational Debt Cancellation (after Justice Barrett allowed it)?

Justice Barrett last week denied an emergency request by a Wisconsin taxpayer association to halt the Biden Administration's program to cancel qualifying student debt. The ruling meant that the Administration could continue to operate the program pending the association's appeal.

Then the Eighth Circuit granted the same emergency relief to Missouri in a parallel case. This ruling halted the program pending appeal.

The two cases raise the same legal claims. District courts in both cases dismissed the cases because the plaintiffs lacked standing. (The Seventh Circuit refused to halt the program while the Wisconsin group appealed.)

So why the difference? Neither Justice Barrett's order nor the Eighth Circuit order contains any legal analysis. So we don't know for sure. But here's a take:

In order to establish standing, a plaintiff has to plausibly allege that they've suffered, or will imminently suffer, a concrete and personal harm, caused by the defendant's actions, and redressible in federal court. Because the harm must be concrete and personal (to the plaintiff), a person or organization cannot establish standing simply because they don't like the way the government is using their taxes. This kind of "generalized taxpayer" harm is too diffuse, and the Court has rejected it as a basis for standing.

The plaintiff in the Wisconsin case is a taxpayer association that unashamedly pleads generalized taxpayer standing. The district court easily rejected standing in that case, and the Seventh Circuit easily declined to halt the Administration's program pending the plaintiff's appeal. Justice Barrett then easily denied the plaintiff's request for emergency relief.

The plaintiff in the Missouri case, in contrast, is the state itself. It asserted standing on behalf of an organization that the state established to service federal loans. The district court ruled that the state didn't have authority to sue on the organization's behalf, and therefore lacked standing. While this seems right (or at least not obviously wrong), it's a closer case than the Wisconsin plaintiff.

That difference may explain the difference in the two preliminary rulings. The Eighth Circuit might've thought that Missouri could establish standing, where Justice Barrett might've seen that the Wisconsin organization couldn't.

But the key word there is "preliminary." No court has yet ruled on the merits. The Administration justifies the debt-cancellation program under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act of 2003, which authorizes the Secretary of Education to "waive or modify" terms of federal student loans in an emergency, here COVID-19. The plaintiffs claim in short that the Administration's debt cancellation exceeds the statutory authority, or, if it doesn't, that the statute grants too much discretion in violation of the recently discovered major questions doctrine. Here's the Office of Legal Counsel's opinion on the issue.

October 24, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fifth Circuit Says CFPB Funding Violates Appropriations Clause, Separation of Powers

The Fifth Circuit ruled last week that funding mechanism for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau violates the Appropriations Clause and the separation of powers. While the ruling itself only strikes the CFPB's Payday Lending Rule, the logic of the opinion threatens all CFPB actions and the CFPB itself.

The case is just the latest attack on the CFPB under separation-of-powers principles (and, more generally, attacks on all agencies with any independence under separation-of-powers principles). The Court previously ruled in Seila Law v. CFPB that the for-cause tenure protection for the Director impermissibly intruded on the President's Article II authority over the executive branch, in violation of the separation of powers. This case tests agency independence under a different principle, though, the Appropriations Clause and Congress's power of the purse. The argument--and the court's ruling--says that the CFPB's funding mechanism is unconstitutional, because the CFPB doesn't get its funds through the ordinary congressional appropriations process, as required by the Appropriations Clause; instead, it gets its funds from the Federal Reserve, which, in turn, gets its funds from bank assessments.

While the ruling only applies to the Payday Lending Rule, its logic extends to all things CFPB. Indeed, the ruling will invite other cases challenging all manner of CFPB actions. If the ruling gains traction in other circuits or sticks on appeal, it'll likely ultimately end the agency as we know it.

The case, Community Financial Services Association of America v. CFPB, arose out of a challenge to the CFPB's Payday Lending Rule. That Rule prohibits lenders from making covered loans "without reasonably determining that consumers have the ability to repay the loans according to their terms," and limits a lender's ability to obtain loan repayments by pre-authorized account access. Community Financial Services argued that the Rule was invalid because (1) the Director enjoyed unconstitutional insulation from removal at the time of its adoption, (2) the Rule violated the non-delegation doctrine, and (3) the CFPB, in issuing the rule, violated the Appropriations Clause and the separation of powers.

The Fifth Circuit rejected the first two arguments, but accepted the third. The court noted that the CFPB gets its funding from the Federal Reserve, which gets its own funding from bank assessments (and not congressional appropriations). The CFPB then holds its funds in a separate account maintained by the Fed, and not an account at Treasury (like other agencies). This allows the CFPB to roll-over funding from year to year (unlike most other agencies). 

The court said that this structure "double-insulated" the CFPB from the ordinary congressional appropriations process, and that the structure therefore violated the Appropriations Clause and the separation of powers. "An expansive executive agency insulated (no, double-insulated) from Congress's purse strings, expressly exempt from budgetary review, and headed by a single Director removable at the President's pleasure is the epitome of the unification of the purse and the sword in the executive . . . ."

The court was unconcerned that Congress itself created the CFPB's funding structure. It said that Congress created the funding structure through ordinary legislation, not "in consequence of appropriations made by law," as required by the Appropriations Clause. Moreover, it said that Congress can't cede away its authority in violation of the separation of powers.

The court acknowledged that several other courts upheld the CFPB's funding structure. But it disagreed as to the reasoning. The court said that these other courts focused on the fact that some other federal agencies are self-funded, but that in contrast to these agencies the CFPB is "double-insulated" because it receives its funding from the Fed.

The court "vacate[d] the Payday Lending Rule as the product of the Bureau's unconstitutional funding scheme."

October 24, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

UPDATE: Senator Graham Asks SCOTUS to Block Subpoena Pending Appeal in GA Election Investigation

Senator Lindsey Graham on Friday asked Justice Thomas (as Eleventh Circuit Justice) and the Supreme Court to stay a district court order requiring him to comply with a subpoena issued by Fulton County Prosecutor Fani Willis to testify before a special grand jury in the investigation into attempts to disrupt the 2020 elections in Georgia.

Senator Graham argues that the subpoena violates the Speech and Debate Clause and sovereign immunity.

UPDATE: Justice Thomas stayed the district court order without referring the matter to the full Court, "pending further order of the undersigned or of the Court." The ruling means that Senator Graham won't have to testify, at least yet, while his appeal of the district court order moves forward.

The case started when Senator Graham called Georgia election officials after the 2020 elections. Willis subpoenaed Graham to testify before the special grand jury about the calls, and Graham sought to quash the subpoena in federal court, arguing that the subpoena violated the Speech and Debate Clause. (That Clause says that members of Congress "shall not be questioned in any other place" for "any Speech or Debate in either House.") After some back and forth, the district court partially quashed the subpoena: it ruled that the Clause protected Graham against compelled testimony over legitimate inquiries he made about the election related to his decision "to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election," but that the Clause did not protect him from testimony over any non-investigatory conduct. (In so ruling, the court said that Graham's investigations into the election were part of his "Speech or Debate in either House," that is, part of his job as a senator, but that his non-investigatory conduct was not.) The Eleventh Circuit denied Graham's emergency application to halt the district court's order.

Graham then filed for emergency relief at the Supreme Court. As to the Speech and Debate Clause, Graham argues that his phone calls were protected, because they were part of his investigation as a senator to determine whether to certify the 2020 election. He also says that the calls led to his co-sponsoring legislation to amend the Electoral Count Act. He argues that the district court's order requires courts to assess his motives in making the calls in order to determine whether they're protected by the Speech and Debate Clause, but that the Clause "forbids inquiry into acts which are purportedly or apparently legislative, even to determine if they are legislative in fact."

In other words, he says that the courts have to take his word for it that his "apparently legislative" acts are, in fact, legislative acts. (He claims that there's a circuit split on the question, and that the D.C. Circuit most recently ruled that courts lack authority to inquire into a member's motives.)

(For more on the Speech and Debate Clause, check out this Congressional Research Service report.)

As to sovereign immunity, Graham argues that he is immune because the subpoena was issued to him as a senator (and representative of the U.S. government), not a citizen.

Graham contends that if the Court doesn't stay the district court order pending appeal, he'll be forced to testify in violation of the Speech and Debate Clause and sovereign immunity--an irreparable harm.

Justice Thomas asked for a response by Thursday. The Court's ruling should follow shortly.

October 24, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 6 Committee Subpoenas Trump

The January 6 Committee last week issued a subpoena for documents and testimony to former President Donald Trump. The move was expected (after an earlier Committee vote in support of a subpoena), although the Committee itself recognized that it was "significant and historic." (Compelled testimony by a former president could raise separation-of-powers issues, because the threat of future compelled testimony could chill a current president's exercise of authority under Article II. The Committee was careful to sidestep this concern, however, by requesting documents and testimony related to former President Trump's behavior outside of Article II (that is, trying to reverse a valid election, which, of course, is the exact opposite of executing Article II authority).) But at the same time, this isn't the first congressional subpoena directed at a former president, or the first time a former president testified before Congress. (For more on this, see the Senate's page on testimony by former presidents before congressional committees and this Congressional Research Service report on Congress's Contempt Power and the Enforcement of Congressional Subpoenas.)

In support of the subpoena, the Committee wrote:

Because of your central role in [various efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election], the Select Committee unanimously directed the issuance of a subpoena seeking your testimony and relevant documents in your possession on these and related topics. This subpoena calls for testimony regarding your dealings with multiple individuals who have now themselves invoked their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination regarding their communications with you, including Roger Stone, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, U.S. Army (Retired), John Eastman, Jeffrey Clark, and Kelli Ward. These Fifth Amendment assertions--made by persons with whom you interacted--related directly to you and your conduct. They provide specific examples where your truthful testimony under oath will be important.

In addition, as is likely obvious from the topics identified in the bullets above, we are considering multiple legislative recommendations intended to provide further assistance that no future President could succeed at anything even remotely similar to the unlawful steps you took to overturn the election. Your testimony and documentary evidence would further inform the Select Committee's ongoing work.

This last paragraph is designed to short-circuit former President Trump's inevitable argument that the Committee's subpoena lacks a legitimate legislative purpose, and is therefore invalid. Former President Trump and his supporters have lodged this claim against most every congressional inquiry into significant actions of former President Trump and his administration. The claims are spurious and designed only to delay compliance, force litigation on the question, and run the clock.

Still, look for former President Trump to make this claim, among others, in response to the Committee's subpoena. If Republicans win the House in November (and shut down the Committee when they take their seats next year), this kind of foot-dragging will pay off for him.

October 24, 2022 in Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 1, 2022

Court, Under Guise of Major Questions Doctrine, Slashes EPA Authority to Regulate Power Plants

The Supreme Court ruled this week in West Virginia v. EPA that EPA lacked authority to adopt generation-shifting measures to regulate power-plant emissions, because Congress didn't grant EPA that authority with sufficient clarity in the authorizing legislation.

The ruling strikes the Clean Power Plan, a regulatory scheme that is no longer in use, anyway. (More on that below.)

Bigger picture, the ruling creates a new separation-of-powers rule--the major questions doctrine--that says that if Congress wants to delegate regulatory authority over a significant policy question to an administrative agency, it must do so with clarity.

Because of lingering questions--What is a "major question"? What does it mean for Congress to legislative with sufficient specificity?--and because Congress often delegates authority in broad terms, this new doctrine threatens to take down a wide array of federal agency regulations, across the regulatory board. In short: The ruling is a potentially sweeping setback to the administrative state.

The case challenged EPA's authority to adopt the Clean Power Plan, a complex regulatory scheme that, in short, set emissions standards for existing power plants based on generation-shifting, that is, a power-plant's shift to cleaner sources. EPA claimed authority under the Clean Air Act, which authorizes EPA to select the "best system of emission reduction" for regulating power plants.

This didn't sit well with several States. They claimed that this provision authorized EPA to regulate only emissions from within power plants ("inside the fenceline" regulations), and not to force power plants to shift to new sources of energy or to engage in cap-and-trade ("outside the fenceline" regulations). In other words, they claimed that the generation-shifting standard in the Plan was not a "system of emission reduction," because it forced plants to make changes outside their existing facilities.

The Trump Administration later disavowed the Plan, and the Biden Administration put it on ice, because by then it was obsolete. (Market forces drove shifts to cleaner power since its original adoption.) The Biden Administration announced that it'd consider new rules, but continued to defend the Plan in court.

The Court first ruled that the case wasn't moot: it fell under the "voluntary cessation" exception, because the Biden Administration could re-adopt the Plan, or something like it.

The Court ruled next that the Plan violated the major questions doctrine. The Court held that EPA, in adopting the Plan, "assert[ed] highly consequential power" without "clear congressional authorization." In other words, the Plan effects Big Policy, but the Clean Air Act only authorized EPA to select the "best system of emission reduction." The statutory text was too vague to support EPA's regulatory regime.

Justice Gorsuch concurred, joined by Justice Alito, and set out a full-throated articulation of the major questions doctrine and his view of its basis in constitutional law.

Justice Kagan dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor. She argued that the Clean Power Plan fits well within valid congressional authorization, and that the Court has no business second-guessing the judgments of Congress and EPA on something as important as greenhouse gas regulation.

July 1, 2022 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 8, 2021

Court to Hear State Secrets, FISA Case

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this morning in a case testing the interplay between the state secrets privilege and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Here's my argument preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:

Does Section 1806(f) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires certain judicial procedures when the government seeks to protect evidence in certain cases in the national security, displace the state-secrets privilege?

Case at a Glance

For at least 14 months between 2006 and 2007, the FBI operated a surveillance program within the Muslim community in Southern California in order to identify potential terrorists. Members of the community sued, arguing that the program and its agents engaged in illegal searches, and that the program and its agents illegally targeted members of the community because of their religion. The government moved to dismiss the claims under the state-secrets privilege.

INTRODUCTION

The state-secrets privilege is an evidentiary privilege with constitutional underpinnings that allows the government to move to block certain evidence that could threaten the national security. At the same time, Section 1806(f) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act prescribes a judicial process in certain circumstances for determining whether evidence could threaten the national security. This case tests the interplay of the state-secrets privilege and Section 1806(f).

ISSUE

Does Section 1806(f) displace the state-secrets privilege?

FACTS

For at least 14 months between 2006 and 2007, the FBI operated a surveillance program in Southern California called Operation Flex. According to the FBI, the purpose of the program “was to determine whether particular individuals were involved in the recruitment and training of individuals in the United States or overseas for possible terrorist activity.” According to the plaintiffs, the “central feature” of the program was to “gather information on Muslims.”

As part of the program, the FBI engaged Craig Monteilh to be a confidential informant. Monteilh’s supervisors, FBI Special Agents Kevin Armstrong and Paul Allen, instructed him to gather information on Muslims, particularly religious Muslims and individuals who might influence young Muslims.

In July 2006, Monteilh started attending the Islamic Center of Irvine (ICOI) in order to gather information. Monteilh attended daily prayers, classes, and special events; declared his desire to convert to Islam; and adopted the name Farouk al-Aziz. He also visited at least seven other mosques in Orange County, and infiltrated the local Muslim community in other ways, too.

On instructions from Armstrong and Allen, Monteilh secretly recorded nearly all of his interactions and took extensive hand-written notes. Monteilh ultimately gave the FBI “hundreds of phone numbers; thousands of email addresses; background information on hundreds of individuals; hundreds of hours of video recordings of the interiors of mosques, homes, businesses, and associations; and thousands of hours of audio recordings of conversations, public discussion groups, classes, and lectures.”

In early 2007, Armstrong and Allen instructed Monteilh to start asking more direct questions about the community’s willingness to engage in violence. Monteilh told several members of the community that he believed that he had a duty as a Muslim to take violent action and that he had access to weapons.

Several IOCI members reported Monteilh to community leaders, and one of them, in turn, called the FBI and instructed concerned members to call the Irvine Police Department. The IOCI sought and received a restraining order against Monteilh.

In October 2007, the FBI released Monteilh. His identity as an informant was revealed in February 2009, as part of a criminal prosecution for naturalization fraud of one of the IOCI member who initially reported Monteilh. The FBI, Monteilh, and others subsequently confirmed that Monteilh worked for the FBI. While the FBI disclosed some information about Monteilh’s activities, it maintains that “certain specific information” must remain secret in the interest of national security.

In September 2011, three members of the local Muslim community sued as a putative class. (Plaintiff Sheikh Yassir Fazaga was an imam at the Orange County Islamic Foundation; plaintiffs Ali Uddin Malik and Yasser AbdelRahim are practicing Muslims who regularly attend services at the ICOI.) They alleged that the FBI and its agents violated a variety of constitutional and statutory provisions, falling into two broad categories: unconstitutional search claims and religious-freedom claims. The plaintiffs’ religion claims allege that the defendants violated the First Amendment Religion Clauses, equal protection, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).

The government moved to dismiss the case on a variety of grounds. As relevant here, the government invoked the state-secrets privilege and moved to dismiss the religion claims (but not the search claims) on that ground. (The state-secrets privilege protects evidence that, if revealed, could threaten the national security.) The government argued that the religion claims could not proceed without risking disclosure of certain evidence protected by the privilege. In support of its claim, the government submitted public and classified declarations by Department of Justice leaders.

The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ FISA claim against the government on other grounds, and allowed the plaintiffs’ FISA claim against individual agents to go forward.

In a separate order addressing the government’s motion to dismiss under the state-secrets privilege, the court dismissed all of the plaintiffs’ remaining religion claims and the Fourth Amendment search claim (even though the government did not seek dismissal of the search claim under the state-secrets privilege). In so ruling, the court relied “heavily” on the government’s classified declarations and supplemental memorandum.

The court did not use the procedure for review of the evidence set out in Section 1806(f) of the FISA, which prescribes an in camera, ex parte process for courts to use when the government claims that “disclosure [of particular evidence] in a case or an adversary hearing would harm the national security of the United States.”  The court said that Section 1806(f) did not apply to non-FISA claims. (Remember that the government moved to dismiss only the non-FISA religion claims based on the state-secrets privilege. The court addressed the FISA claims separately.)

The Ninth Circuit reversed. The appellate court held that the Section 1806(f) procedure “displaces the dismissal remedy of the common law state secrets privilege as applied to electronic surveillance generally.” It ruled that the district court therefore should have used the Section 1806(f) procedures to evaluate the evidence and determine whether the state-secrets privilege applied. It directed the lower court, on remand, to apply Section 1806(f)’s ex parte and in camera procedures to “review any ‘materials relating to the surveillance as may be necessary,’ including material over which the Attorney General asserted the state secrets privilege, to determine whether the electronic surveillance was lawfully authorized and conducted.” The Ninth Circuit wrote that the lower court, in making this determination under Section 1806(f), could disclose to the plaintiffs “portions of the application, order, or other materials relating to the surveillance” if disclosure was “necessary to make an accurate determination.”

The FBI then brought this appeal.

CASE ANALYSIS

Section 1806(f) of the FISA directs a court to apply certain procedures whenever the government claims that disclosure of evidence in certain types of cases could threaten the national security. In particular, the Section requires the court to “review in camera and ex parte the application, order, and such other materials relating to the surveillance as may be necessary to determine whether the surveillance of the aggrieved person was lawfully authorized and conducted.” The Section goes on to say that “the court may disclose to the aggrieved person, under appropriate security procedures and protective orders, portions of the application, order or other materials relating to the surveillance only where such disclosure is necessary to make an accurate determination of the legality of the surveillance.”

The state-secrets privilege, in contrast, is an evidentiary privilege, with constitutional, separation-of-powers roots, that allows the government to protect evidence in proceedings when the government certifies that the evidence, if revealed, could threaten the national security. At the outside, the privilege allows the government to move to dismiss an entire case, if the putatively protected evidence is so central to the case that the case cannot move forward without it.

The case asks whether the Section 1806(f) process “displaces” the state-secrets privilege. This question, in turn, depends on the scope and operation of the state-secrets privilege and the interplay between the two.

The government argues first that the Ninth Circuit erred in ordering the district court to apply the Section 1806(f) procedure in the first place. The government points out that Section 1806(f) is available in only three limited situations defined in the Section itself, and that none of these includes a civil action like the plaintiffs’ case. The government says that the Ninth Circuit wrongly shoehorned this case into two of those three situations. First, the government contends that the Ninth Circuit erroneously considered the government’s motion to dismiss the case as notice of the government’s intent “to enter into evidence or otherwise use or disclose” the privileged information “against an aggrieved person,” thus satisfying one of the three situations that trigger a Section 1806(f) process. The government says that this misconstrues the state-secrets privilege, which is designed to protect information, not signal its disclosure and use. Second, the government asserts that the Ninth Circuit wrongly considered the plaintiffs’ request for relief in its civil suit as a “motion or request * * * to discover, obtain, or suppress evidence or information obtained or derived from electronic surveillance,” another of the three situations that trigger a Section 1806(f) process. The government contends that the plaintiffs’ prayer for relief in their civil case is simply not a “motion.”

Moreover, the government argues that the Ninth Circuit erred in applying the Section 1806(f) procedure. The government claims that the Ninth Circuit “reasoned that Section 1806(f) provides a mechanism for litigating a civil plaintiff’s claims to final judgment.” (Remember that the Ninth Circuit’s remand order directed the district court to “review any ‘materials relating to the surveillance as may be necessary,’ including material over which the Attorney General asserted the state secrets privilege, to determine whether the electronic surveillance was lawfully authorized and conducted.”) But the government says that “nothing in Section 1806(f) suggests that it was intended to be used to litigate, ex parte and in camera, the merits of a case.” Instead, the government contends that a Section 1806(f) proceeding culminates only in a grant or denial of a motion related to the admissibility of evidence, not a “review any ‘materials relating to the surveillance as may be necessary,’ including material over which the Attorney General asserted the state secrets privilege, to determine whether the electronic surveillance was lawfully authorized and conducted.”

The government argues next that Section 1806(f) does not displace the state-secrets privilege. It says that nothing in FISA even mentions the state-secrets privilege, much less suggests that FISA displaces it. And it says that Section 1806(f) is perfectly compatible “with the continued vitality of the privilege.” The government contends that even if there were any doubt, the government should interpret Section 1806(f) as not displacing the privilege.

Finally, the government argues that the state-secrets privilege has constitutional roots and is an essential aspect of presidential power. It claims that any congressional effort to displace or abrogate the privilege must therefore include a clear statement, and neither Section 1806(f) nor any other provision of FISA does.

The plaintiffs counter first that the state-secrets privilege does not support dismissal of their case. They contend that the state-secrets privilege, like other evidentiary privileges, supports the exclusion of evidence from a case so that no party can use it. But the plaintiffs say their religion claims don’t depend on secret evidence. And in any event, they contend that the government seeks both to exclude secret evidence and to use that evidence in its own defense in support of dismissal. They claim that the government’s effort both to exclude and to use the evidence is inconsistent with the very nature of a privilege (which is designed to entirely exclude evidence from a case).

Moreover, they assert that the government, in so arguing, improperly conflates the state-secrets evidentiary privilege with a categorical bar to litigation, which the Court has only applied in “government-contracting lawsuits where the “very subject matter’ of the suit is secret.” The plaintiffs say that they never contracted with the government, and never assumed the risk that they would forfeit judicial review of any contract, and so the categorical bar does not apply. The plaintiffs contend that the district court improperly dismissed their case, and that it should have simply excluded any privileged evidence and allowed the case to move forward.

The plaintiffs argue next that even if the state-secrets privilege would support dismissal, Section 1806(f) displaced it in cases involving electronic surveillance. They contend that Section 1806(f) applies here, because the government seeks to “use” secret information in its defense to the plaintiffs’ religion claims, and because the plaintiffs are “aggrieved persons” who asked, through their prayer for relief in their complaint, to “obtain” information that the government illegally gathered. Contrary to the government, they say that they therefore satisfy the threshold requirements for Section 1806(f).

The plaintiffs claim that the government’s arguments to the contrary are not supported by Section 1806(f)’s plain text, which, they say, is not limited to procedural motions. Moreover, they contend that the government’s reading would render meaningless Section 1810 of FISA, which creates a civil damages remedy for victims of unlawful electronic surveillance. They explain: “Defendants’ argument would leave the government free to win dismissal of virtually any Section 1810 suit simply by asserting that the underlying conduct was secret—whether or not it was lawful—thus nullifying the civil damages remedy Congress created to ensure surveillance remains constrained by law.”

The plaintiffs argue, contrary to the government, that FISA does, in fact, clearly displace the state-secrets privilege. They say that while FISA does not use the phrase “state secrets privilege,” it nevertheless refers to the privilege when it uses the phrase “national security,” which raises exactly the same concerns. The plaintiffs contend that this poses no constitutional problem, as the government argues, because Congress has clear authority to displace the state-secrets privilege as part of its authority to regulate surveillance and establish evidentiary rules for civil litigation over that surveillance. Moreover, the plaintiffs assert that displacement raises no constitutional problem for individual government agents, because FISA itself, in Section 1806(g), requires that any remedies must be “in accordance with the requirements of law,” including the Constitution.

Finally, the plaintiffs argue that the government’s position raises serious constitutional problems. They say that the government, by seeking both to protect secret information and to use that information in its own defense, effectively deprives the plaintiffs of “any judicial determination of whether the Government broke the law.” This aggrandizes the power of the executive at the expense of the judiciary and Congress, and leaves the plaintiffs without a judicial remedy.

SIGNIFICANCE

On the face of it, this case asks an extremely narrow and hyper-technical question—whether Section 1806(f) of the FISA displaces the state-secrets privilege. But in order to answer that question, the Court will likely have to address a much bigger issue, that is, the scope and operation of the state-secrets privilege.

In particular: How should courts treat and evaluate the government’s assertion of the state-secrets privilege over information that the government obtained through surveillance?

The government adopts a muscular view of the privilege. It emphasizes the privilege’s constitutional roots; argues that Congress cannot displace it or channel its operation through ordinary legislation like Section 1806(f); and contends that the courts must broadly defer to the government’s assertion of the privilege, and even dismiss cases when the government claims that they cannot be litigated without revealing privileged information that could threaten the national security. In other words, the government claims that courts must take the government’s say-so when it invokes the privilege, based only on the government’s affidavits in support, and without independently assessing—even ex parte and even in camera—the putatively protected material. And because of the privilege’s constitutional roots, the government claims that Congress cannot displace, or even channel, this deference through ordinary legislation. At risk of stating the obvious, the government’s interpretation of the privilege puts a tremendous amount of power in the hands of the executive branch to conceal particular evidence and even shut down cases entirely. (The government doesn’t have a particularly reassuring track record in this regard. In the very case where the Court established the modern privilege, United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1 (1953), the government turned out to have misled the courts about its need to invoke the privilege to protect the national security.)

The plaintiffs, for their part, proffer a much narrower view of the privilege. They emphasize the privilege’s common-law roots, and argue that Congress can, and did, displace it through Section 1806(f). But this approach could lead to the disclosure of secret information, even if only to a judge, alone in chambers, exercising discretion in a Section 1806(f) process, and thus threaten national security. This approach could also lead to the disclosure of secret information to other parties, as a judge might determine necessary, even further threatening national security.

The Court may have to decide between these approaches (or a third, middle way) and address the scope of the privilege for the first time since Reynolds.

I say “may” because the Court has an off ramp, maybe even two, and could dodge harder questions about the scope of the state-secrets privilege, at least for now. For one, the Court could simply rule that the plaintiffs’ case does not qualify for the Section 1806(f) process, as the government argues, and dodge the harder question whether Section 1806(f) displaces the state-secrets privilege. If so, the Court could simply reverse the Ninth Circuit and remand for further proceedings (which would presumably include consideration of the government’s assertion of the state-secrets privilege). For a second, the Court could rule on the displacement question without fully expounding the state-secrets privilege. If so, the Court could rule on the merits and, if it ruled for the government, remand the case for further proceedings (which again would presumably include consideration of the government’s assertion of the state-secrets privilege). Either way, the Court could avoid the harder questions about the scope of the state-secrets privilege. But either way, the case would almost certainly come back to the Court.

One final note. This is one of two cases this Term to raise issues related to the state-secrets privilege. (That’s extraordinary, by the way. But it’s also much needed, given that the Court hasn’t said anything serious about the privilege since Reynolds.) The other case is United States v. Zubaydah, argued on October 6, and previewed in the last issue of Preview. Zubaydah raises different questions about the privilege. But between the two cases, the Court this Term has a singular opportunity to define the scope of the privilege and state determinatively how it shall operate in the courts.

November 8, 2021 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)