Category Archives: politics

Probe the effort to sink Kavanaugh

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End the Media’s Campaign Privilege

The Trump era has seen an erosion of the distinction between journalism and partisan politics, with much of the mainstream media in open opposition to the president. “Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator . . . to announce his candidacy,” New York Times columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote in August 2016.

Three years later, the holiday continues. Slate last month published a leaked transcript of a staff “town hall” at the Times. “We built our newsroom to cover one story,” executive editor Dean Baquet told employees, explaining that the paper’s narrative “went from being a story about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia and obstruction of justice to being a more head-on story about the president’s character.” The new story, he said, “requires deep investigation into people who peddle hatred.”

Mr. Baquet makes the Times sound like an advocacy organization working against Mr. Trump’s re-election. Such organizations are regulated by campaign-finance statutes. So are other corporations, for-profit or nonprofit, that engage in electioneering speech. But those laws exempt media organizations, provided they are not owned by a political party, committee or candidate.

The justification for this favored treatment is the media’s “unique” role in public discourse and debate. But that has changed—and not only because the media have become more partisan. “With the advent of the Internet and the decline of print and broadcast media,” the Supreme Court observed in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), “the line between the media and others who wish to comment on political and social issues becomes far more blurred.”

Like the prerevolutionary French aristocracy, media institutions enjoy legal privileges whose rationale expired long ago. As a result, their exemption from campaign-finance law is vulnerable to constitutional challenge. “We have consistently rejected the proposition that the institutional press has any constitutional privilege beyond that of other speakers,” the Citizens United court declared.

The justices also indicated that a statutory privilege would be difficult to uphold. “The Government may commit a constitutional wrong when by law it identifies certain preferred speakers,” they wrote. “The First Amendment protects speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.”

The court could resolve the problem by declaring the exemption unconstitutional and applying campaign-finance laws to media organizations. But that would make journalism untenable.

Consider the ban on “coordinated communications.” Under current law, corporations and other independent organizations have the right to speak for or against a candidate, but they are forbidden to develop messages “in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, a candidate’s authorized committee, or their agents, or a political party committee or its agents.”

After the Times town-hall transcript was published last month, lawyer and author James Hasson noted that, in emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee in 2016, “major journalists were revealed to be explicitly coordinating with the [Hillary] Clinton campaign.” Among them was a Times writer who “told HRC aide Jennifer Palmieri she could ‘veto whatever [she] didn’t want,’ ” then “cut parts she objected to” from a story about Mrs. Clinton. A Politico reporter sent the DNC an entire story before publication.

News executives would argue that it is their role, not the government’s, to police such ethical transgressions. They’d be right. But the rule against coordinated communication would prohibit a vast amount of ordinary journalistic behavior, too—from interviewing candidates and campaign staffers to editing and publishing opinion articles under their bylines.

Moreover, any justification for that rule—such as the fear of promoting corruption—is equally applicable to media and nonmedia speakers, and becomes very weak when pure speech, such as news and commentary, is the issue.

The justices could protect everyone’s right to speak and gather news by declaring the coordination rule unconstitutional as applied against anyone, as they invalidated the rule against independent corporate campaign expenditures in Citizens United. Most newspapers—The Wall Street Journal is a notable exception—editorialized in bitter opposition to that ruling. They may end up grateful they didn’t get what they wished for.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/end-the-medias-campaign-privilege-11567551611

An originalist libel defense

By David B. Rivking Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

31 July 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

A federal judge in Kentucky dismissed high-school student Nicholas Sandmann’s libel suit against the Washington Post last week. That’s no vindication of the newspaper’s skewed reporting on the teen’s run-in with American Indian activist Nathan Phillips on the National Mall in January. But it’s a vindication of the First Amendment’s limitations on state libel law, which have come under scrutiny of late, including from President Trump and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Mr. Sandmann and his peers were targeted by a Twitter mob, and the Post joined in portraying him as the villain in a “white privilege” morality play. Mr. Sandmann claimed the Post had defamed him by repeating Mr. Phillips’s claim that Mr. Sandmann had physically “blocked” him. That judge held that was an opinion, not a factual claim, and therefore shielded by the First Amendment.

That conclusion may be debatable, but the First Amendment’s protection of opinion shouldn’t be. It is the legal expression of America’s “national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” as Justice William Brennan put it in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which established that the Constitution imposes limits on state libel law.

Mr. Trump said in 2016 that he wanted to “open up” libel laws, and in February Justice Thomas wrote a solo opinion arguing that Sullivan departs from the Constitution’s original meaning. He has a point: Brennan’s reasoning is all policy. For decades, originalists like Justice Antonin Scalia have criticized it as an exercise of raw judicial power. Yet there’s a good originalist case for limits on libel law.

Sullivan established that government officials suing for defamation must demonstrate that the defendant either knew that the defamatory statements were false or acted with “reckless disregard” for their accuracy—a standard confusingly known as “actual malice.” Later decisions extended the requirement to all “public figures,” whether or not they hold office.

Sullivan made it far more difficult for plaintiffs to win libel suits, even for statements that are false and seriously damaging. That price is worth paying, the justices reasoned, to provide breathing room for “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” debate of public issues, given that inadvertent falsehoods are inevitable. Critics blame Sullivan for declining journalistic standards—including the Post’s mobbing of Mr. Sandmann and his classmates.

But that’s all policy. What about the law?

Sullivan was right to recognize the Constitution’s relevance in libel cases. It doesn’t matter that libel suits are brought by private parties, rather than the state, because it is the state’s law that imposes the liability. If the First Amendment precludes a statute imposing fines for speech criticizing government officials, why would the constitutional analysis be different for a law that awards money to a plaintiff?

And while it may be that “the freedom of speech” recognized by the First Amendment does not protect defamatory speech—which was Scalia’s view and apparently is Justice Thomas’s—no one seriously argues that a state can punish any speech it wants, free from constitutional scrutiny, merely by labeling it “defamation.” That means the court has to define the term somehow.

For all Justice Thomas’s criticism of Sullivan, he doesn’t take issue with its conclusion that the Constitution limits the reach of libel law. His beef is with the actual-malice standard. And that’s where things get complicated.

To begin with, he doesn’t say what he thinks the proper constitutional standard should be. He observes that judge-made common law provides the “backdrop” for understanding the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, and he cites cases showing that the adoption of the First and 14th amendments “did not abrogate the common law of libel.” That suggests he would have courts scrutinize libel claims for whether they comport with the historical understanding of defamation—if so, the speech would be unprotected. As he notes, it was black-letter law at the time of the framing that a libel plaintiff didn’t have to assert actual malice at the outset of the case.

But plaintiffs often did have to prove actual malice to prevail. The law recognized circumstances in which a libel defendant could assert a “qualified” or “defeasible” immunity from damages and thereby put the plaintiff to the burden of proving “express” or “actual” malice under more or less the same standard Sullivan prescribed. One musty treatise, published in 1877, reports such immunity applies whenever the speaker has a “legal, social, or moral” duty to comment on another’s character, fitness or conduct, including in matters of business, crime, morality or religion. Moreover, libel claims concerning government officials’ conduct were often subject to the actual-malice standard, as were claims for punitive damages. Sullivan’s reasoning was loose, but it didn’t fashion actual malice out of whole cloth.

And it may be that Justice Thomas’s understanding of the First Amendment is wrong. What if “the freedom of speech” does protect defamation? There was no reason for it to be excluded. James Madison’s view was that freedom of speech should be understood as a broad natural right, not a specialized legal concept. The only other appearance of “speech” in the Constitution is the Speech or Debate Clause, which completely immunizes members of Congress from liability for legislative speech. The federal government had no general authority to punish or regulate libel. No one expected in 1789 that the First Amendment would apply to state law, and it didn’t until it was incorporated under the 14th Amendment.

Yet this poses a conundrum: Imposing so strict a rule on the states would abolish libel laws altogether. Among the ways a court might reconcile the First and 14th amendments, actual malice has the benefits of historical pedigree, practical experience, and balancing vigorous public debate with at least some compensation and deterrence.

Modern originalism is young, and answers to these questions of original meaning often involve some doubt. Yet the Sullivan court might have stumbled onto a standard that comports with the Constitution.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/an-originalist-libel-defense-11564613833

How to put citizenship back in the census

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Gilson B. Gray

5 July 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration said Wednesday it will attempt to add a citizenship question on the 2020 census while complying with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Department of Commerce v. New York. Five justices held that the Census Act allows the question, but a separate five-justice majority found the rulemaking that added the question was procedurally deficient. There is a way forward. The Constitution itself requires the collection of citizenship information.

Section 2 of the 14th Amendment provides that if a state denies the franchise to anyone eligible to vote, its allotment of House seats shall be “reduced in the proportion which the number of such . . . citizens shall bear to the whole number of . . . citizens . . . in such state.” This language is absolute and mandatory. Compliance is impossible without counting how many citizens live in each state.

The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868, and this provision meant to secure the voting rights of newly freed slaves. But it wasn’t limited to that purpose. An earlier version of Section 2, introduced in 1865, specifically referred to limits on suffrage based on “race or color,” but the Senate rejected that limitation. The amendment forbids state interference with the rights of all eligible voters (then limited to males over 21).

Section 2 also applies to every state, a point Rep. John Bingham, the amendment’s principal drafter, emphasized during the floor debate: “The second section . . . simply provides for the equalization of representation among all the States in the Union, North, South, East, and West. It makes no discrimination.”

Congress has dealt with suffrage-abridgement problems through other constitutional and statutory means, especially the Voting Rights Act. But that doesn’t change the constitutional obligation to obtain citizenship data. A future Congress could decide to rely on Section 2 to enforce voting rights, particularly as the VRA’s core provision, requiring Justice Department approval when certain states change voting procedures, becomes irrelevant because of changing attitudes and Supreme Court precedent.

Significantly, the last time the Supreme Court addressed Section 2, it emphasized the need to give effect to both Section 1, which includes the Equal Protection Clause, and 2 of the 14th Amendment. That case, Richardson v. Ramirez (1974), involved an equal protection challenge to California’s policy of disfranchising felons.

The president should issue an executive order stating that, to comply with the requirements of Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, the citizenship question will be added to the 2020 census. In addition, he can order the Commerce Department to undertake, on an emergency basis, a new Census Act rulemaking.

That would trigger another round of litigation. Opponents would choose a federal district court likely to block it again, and the Justice Department would have to seek the Supreme Court’s intervention during its summer recess. While rare, such an emergency review has happened before. With the justification for the citizenship question being clear and compelling, the administration should prevail.

Messrs. Rivkin and Gray are lawyers, based in Washington and New York respectively.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-put-citizenship-back-in-the-census-11562264430

Alito Teases a Judicial Revolution

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

23 June 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

The Supreme Court’s decision last week in Gundy v. U.S. was deceptively anticlimactic. The vote was 5-3, but there was no majority opinion and the decision made no new law. Justice Samuel Alito’s lone concurrence, however, suggested that a major break with precedent—and a return to the Constitution’s original meaning—will soon be in the offing.

The Constitution’s first clause after the Preamble states: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Since 1935 the justices have ignored that provision and permitted lawmakers to delegate their authority to the executive branch. At issue in this case was a provision of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 2006, or Sorna, that directed the attorney general to “specify the applicability” of the law’s registration requirements to offenders, like Herman Gundy, whose crimes predated the act. Mr. Gundy, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to register, claimed this delegation was illegitimate.

The case was heard four days before Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Had Justice Alito dissented, the resulting 4-4 split would have upheld the lower court’s ruling against Mr. Gundy without any opinion being issued. Instead, Justice Alito joined his four liberal colleagues in rejecting Mr. Gundy’s appeal but said he was prepared to switch sides: “If a majority of this Court were willing to reconsider the approach we have taken for the past 84 years, I would support that effort.” A dissent from Justice Neil Gorsuch, meanwhile, set forth the case for nondelegation.

In their quest to control governmental power and protect individual liberty, the Framers separated federal power among three branches of government. As Justice Gorsuch notes, they also “went to great lengths to make lawmaking difficult,” requiring consent of both houses of Congress and the president, or legislative supermajorities. The veto was the executive branch’s only role in the legislative process.

That was deliberate. Justice Gorsuch quotes Montesquieu, who was quoted by James Madison in Federalist No. 47: “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates.”

For more than a century after its creation, the high court actively policed the separation of executive and legislative powers, requiring Congress to make the hard, politically risky policy decisions and permitting only limited delegation of operational details. But in the 1930s, under pressure to uphold the vast delegations of the New Deal, the justices changed course and held that delegation was permissible so long as an “intelligible principle” could be discerned to govern how that power was exercised.

Gundy offered an excellent opportunity to begin reasserting the original constitutional design. Sorna’s delegation of power was extreme. While setting up an elaborate registration system for sex offenders convicted after its enactment, the law granted the attorney general “authority to specify the applicability of the requirements of this subchapter to sex offenders convicted before the enactment of this chapter.” A single official in the executive branch was given the power to impose requirements carrying severe criminal penalties on more than 500,000 Americans, and then to carry them out.

Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the plurality opinion, struggled mightily to find an intelligible principle. She wrote that the court had interpreted Sorna as requiring applicability “to all pre-Act offenders as soon as feasible.” But as Justice Gorsuch noted, that language appears neither in the statute nor in the Justice Department’s implementing regulations.

Justices Gorsuch’s and Alito’s opinions, together with Justice Kavanaugh’s strong separation-of-powers jurisprudence as an appellate judge, suggest that a majority of justices are prepared to reimpose proper constitutional restraints on congressional delegations. All they need is a suitable case.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/alito-teases-a-judicial-revolution-11561317002

Congress can’t outsource impeachment

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Elizabeth Price Foley

31 May 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

It’s as if nothing happened. Special counsel Robert Mueller and the Justice Department found no wrongdoing by President Trump, so House Democrats stepped up their calls for impeachment. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler issued a subpoena for millions of pages of evidence gathered by Mr. Mueller, including grand-jury material, which is secret under the law. When the department didn’t comply, Democrats said there was a “constitutional crisis,” and the committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt.

Yet if there is a constitutional crisis, its source is the Democrats. They are abusing the powers of investigation and impeachment in an illegitimate effort to unseat a president they despise.

Congressional Democrats claim they have the power to investigate the president to conduct “oversight” and hold him “accountable.” That elides an important constitutional distinction. As the Supreme Court said in Watkins v. U.S. (1957), Congress may “inquire into and publicize corruption, maladministration or inefficiency in agencies of the Government.” Executive departments and agencies are created by Congress and therefore accountable to it. The president, by contrast, is not a creature of lawmakers. He is Congress’s coequal, accountable to Congress only via impeachment.

To commence impeachment, the House has a constitutional obligation to articulate clear evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” A two-year Justice Department investigation did not find that Mr. Trump had committed crimes. On the Russian collusion issue, Mr. Mueller reported that his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Regarding obstruction of justice, Mr. Mueller “did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President’s conduct,” so the duty to do so fell on his boss, Mr. Barr—who, with senior Justice Department officials, concluded that the evidence was “not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”

House Democrats claim they’re entitled to see Mr. Mueller’s underlying materials. But Congress may not use its subpoena power for a prosecutorial do-over. The Constitution gives law-enforcement authority to the executive, not the legislative, branch. In Quinn v. U.S. (1955), the Supreme Court said that Congress’s “power to investigate must not be confused with any of the powers of law enforcement; those powers are assigned under our Constitution to the Executive and the Judiciary.”

Impeachment isn’t a law-enforcement function, but demanding Mr. Mueller’s documents to search for impeachable offenses is still unconstitutional. The Constitution gives the House the “sole power” of impeachment. Outsourcing aspects of the process to the other branches of government violates separation of powers.

Unfortunately, there is a precedent for such outsourcing, though it is one that ought to give Democrats pause: the impeachment of President Clinton. The offenses for which Mr. Clinton was impeached—perjury before a grand jury and obstruction of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation—were established by Mr. Starr, who informed Congress that “the evidence of wrongdoing is substantial and credible, and that the wrongdoing is of sufficient gravity that it warrants referral to Congress.” Mr. Starr issued a report and turned his materials over to the House because the now-defunct statute under which he operated required it. The Justice Department’s special-counsel regulations, which govern Mr. Mueller’s investigation, do not.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the independent counsel in Morrison v. Olson (1988). It did not address the constitutionality of the requirement that independent counsels turn over evidence of impeachable offenses to the House. If it had, there would be deep concerns about separation of powers. In addition to the textual declaration that the House has the “sole power” of impeachment, the debate over impeachment at the Constitutional Convention supports an outsourcing prohibition.

Delegates were deeply divided on whether the president should be subject to impeachment at all—and if so, which institution should have this great power. They considered vesting the impeachment power in state legislatures but rejected the idea. The concern was that it would make the president too dependent on the states, endangering the vertical separation of powers. They also pondered entrusting impeachment authority to the judiciary—essentially, to the Supreme Court—but concluded that would give the judiciary too much power and enable it to impeach its own members.

Eventually and with misgivings, the Framers settled on vesting impeachment authority in the House, with trial by the Senate. Their greatest fear was that this arrangement would destroy separation of powers by rendering the president perpetually dependent on legislative approval. Charles Pinckney believed congressional impeachment power would chill the president’s exercise of his core constitutional powers (such as vetoing legislation) and encourage Congress to hold impeachment “as a rod over the Executive and by that means effectually destroy his independence.” Rufus King opined that “under no circumstances ought [the president] to be impeachable by the Legislature,” because such power would be “destructive of his independence.”

The Framers took pains to devise meaningful limits on the impeachment power. When George Mason proposed to add “maladministration” to treason and bribery as a basis for impeachment, James Madison demurred: “So vague a term will be equivalent to a tenure during the pleasure of the Senate.” In Federalist No. 65, Alexander Hamilton argued that “the greatest danger” of giving Congress the impeachment power is that its “decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of the parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.” To allay these concerns, the Framers limited impeachment to “high crimes and misdemeanors”—not mere political disagreements.

In addition, by resting the entire impeachment power in Congress, the Framers constrained it. Congress was to have limited investigatory power and to conduct its proceedings in a transparent, politically accountable manner. That effectively meant presidential misconduct would have to be open and notorious to be impeachable.

In that regard, at least, the 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson was exemplary. His firing of War Secretary Edwin Stanton was in open defiance of the Tenure in Office Act, although the Supreme Court eventually concluded the law itself was unconstitutional. Republicans who pushed Johnson’s impeachment were held politically accountable, with Democrats gaining 20 House seats out of 243 in the 1868 elections.

If the House can outsource impeachment, the deepest concerns of the Framers will become reality. Impeachment would have few limits and no political accountability. As a federal prosecutor, Mr. Mueller legitimately obtained information from a grand jury, wiretaps and other forms of surveillance unavailable to Congress. If Congress can secure these materials by simply commanding the executive branch to turn them over, it would tremendously augment its power.

Turnover of prosecutorial materials would allow Congress to hide behind the fact-finding and legal determinations of the other branches, thereby diminishing its own political accountability. Because the nation’s law-enforcement officials have concluded Mr. Trump has not committed any crimes, Democratic representatives cannot legitimately draft articles of impeachment accusing him of criminal conduct involving the same offenses of which he was cleared by the Mueller investigation. The House could impeach him for misconduct that doesn’t violate criminal statutes—say, abuse of power or inappropriate behavior. But lawmakers must be candid about what exactly the charge is.

Proceeding in such a fashion—not hiding behind criminal accusations that prosecutors have rejected—would require House Democrats to assume the full political risk for their impeachment efforts. Instead, they are pressing Mr. Mueller to testify, hoping he will say something beyond what is contained in his report, and to obtain his investigatory materials. By second-guessing the prosecutors and recasting Mr. Trump’s conduct as criminal-law violations, Democrats seek cover for their raw political push to unseat a president.

Outsourcing impeachment also fundamentally deforms the executive branch. In Federalist No. 51, Madison explained that each branch must possess “the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. . . . The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” When executive-branch officials see themselves as working for Congress, there is severe constitutional dislocation.

Mr. Mueller’s team, for example, embraced the proposition that a president can obstruct justice by exercising his constitutional powers, such as firing the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, if his decisions have a corrupt motive. That position runs roughshod over opinions of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which has consistently concluded that, to protect separation of powers, laws should not be construed to apply to the president’s performance of his official duties, absent a clear statement otherwise.

The obstruction statutes contain no such clear statement. And while Mr. Mueller refrained from ascribing corrupt motives to Mr. Trump, his legal view that the president can obstruct justice while discharging his constitutional powers is at odds with constitutional principles and would have never been adopted by the Justice Department in the normal course of business.

Allowing executive branch officials to investigate a sitting president all but invites a coup. Former Justice Department attorney Neal Katyal recently admitted that “the special counsel regulations I had the privilege of drafting in 1998-99 say that such inquiries have one ultimate destination: Congress.” Mr. Mueller hinted at the same idea in a public statement Wednesday: “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal-justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”

To Mr. Katyal and others now proclaiming a “constitutional crisis,” the special counsel works for Congress, not the president. Similarly, House Democrats claim it was illegitimate for Mr. Barr and other senior Justice Department officials to reach a prosecutorial judgment on obstruction of justice. In their view, that determination should have been made by Congress—which has no power to make prosecutorial judgments.

These views reflect a deep constitutional rot. While executive-branch officials must abide by legitimate oversight requests from lawmakers, they work for the president, not for Congress. Investigations of a sitting president by the executive branch threaten the separation of powers by encouraging insubordination to the president. Executive officials may be willing to help grease the wheels of impeachment. That’s no way to run a government of separated powers.

America’s experience with special prosecutors, independent counsels and special counsels has left a trail of partisan-fueled destruction. These investigations are inherently harmful to national unity and a stain on the constitutional fabric. The only way to restore the separation of powers and prevent further damage is to ensure that Congress cannot outsource any aspect of its impeachment powers.

Existing opinions from the Office of Legal Counsel already hold that no sitting president should be indicted or criminally prosecuted, because such actions would debilitate the presidency. The same is true of criminal or counterintelligence investigations. Thus the OLC logic should extend those opinions and conclude formally that a sitting president cannot be investigated by the executive branch.

If the U.S. is led one day by a truly corrupt president, the proposed cure of executive-branch investigation to aid impeachment would still be far worse than the disease. A president who openly violates the law or otherwise betrays the public trust can be voted out of office or impeached by Congress—using, as the OLC has noted, “its own investigative powers” in an open, politically accountable way.

Mr. Rivkin and Ms. Foley practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. She is a professor of constitutional law at Florida International University College of Law.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/congress-cant-outsource-impeachment-11559341259

Demanding Trump’s tax returns is congressional overreach

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

17 May 2019 in The Hill

Democrats in Congress long have demanded that President Trump make his tax returns public. Many promised voters that, if given the House majority in the 2018 elections, they would force public disclosure of Trump’s returns. Indeed, they’ve demanded access to the president’s returns, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has refused to give Congress that access. He was right to refuse. His action is firmly grounded in federal statute and the Constitution.

In April, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) demanded Trump’s tax returns from 2013 to 2018, invoking a federal statute (26 U.S.C. § 6103) that makes federal tax returns confidential. Other statutory sections, including 26 U.S.C. § 7213, make it a felony to disclose information in federal tax returns without proper authorization.

There are narrowly drawn exceptions to the general rule of confidentiality, including one that allows congressional tax committees to demand copies of individual tax returns. That information, however, cannot be made public without the taxpayer’s written consent. Secretary Mnuchin must have a well-grounded fear that one or more members of Congress would make the president’s returns public, hiding behind the Constitution’s speech or debate clause to escape prosecution. This factor alone can preclude the release of tax information.

There are, however, even more fundamental problems with the request. The committee’s stated purpose is to investigate how the IRS enforces tax laws against sitting presidents. That is an obvious pretext. Even if the Democrats’ posturing could be ignored, the fact that only Trump’s returns are sought — and not those of former presidents — makes the game clear.

Former presidents have disclosed some tax information, but their full returns and all supporting documents were not released. And since the ostensible oversight focus is how the IRS audits tax returns of sitting presidents, that type of information is not publicly available. In addition, even if Secretary Mnuchin were to ignore the politics involved, he would be justified in withholding the president’s tax returns on constitutional grounds.

Congressional demands for information must be grounded in proper constitutional powers. Congress does not have general investigative authority, let alone a mandate to enforce federal law, both of which are vested in the president. Nor does it have adjudicative power, which is reserved to the judiciary. Its proper investigative power is broad but limited to the purposes of legislation or oversight. And Congress’s oversight powers can be exerted only over matters that plausibly can be reached through the exercise of congressional legislative powers.

As the Supreme Court stated in Watkins v. United States (1957), with respect to a McCarthy-era demand by the House Un-American Activities Committee for information from a private citizen, “there is no general authority to expose the private affairs of individuals without justification in terms of the functions of the Congress,” and “investigations conducted solely for the personal aggrandizement of the investigators or to ‘punish’ those investigated are indefensible.”

With this in mind, the proper tailoring of tax information-related requests by Congress is essential. For example, it may well be that looking at how the IRS audits tax returns of sitting presidents is a worthwhile legislative pursuit; however, assembling all available tax returns of former presidents and arranging the information so that the congressional review does not include ascertaining the identity of the president to whom a given set of tax returns belongs and then ensuring that even this randomized information cannot be publicly disclosed would serve all legitimate legislative needs. Everything else is simple harassment.

To ascribe to Congress greater authority in this area would produce a situation where, under the guise of enacting tax laws, congressional committees could gain access to the tax information of individual Americans, including those regarded by specific members of Congress as political or ideological enemies. This would result in unprecedented abuses of the most sensitive personal information about U.S. citizens that would render Nixon-era IRS abuses tame by comparison.

And, even putting aside partisanship, enabling Congress to snoop on Americans at will is not to be countenanced. What seemingly has eluded Chairman Neal’s supporters is that due process requirements operate with equal vigor on all branches of government, including Congress. Basic due process requirements prevent the executive branch from obtaining private information on U.S. citizens merely because it wants this data.

Instead, when seeking access to financial and other information, law enforcement agencies must demonstrate, usually to a judge, why such information can be legitimately obtained. Improperly gained information is routinely suppressed, and executive branch officials who have obtained it often are reprimanded and even prosecuted. The congressional statute in issue has to be construed with these constitutional imperatives in mind.

There is an additional consideration: Although Congress has oversight authority over the executive branch generally, it has no such authority over the president himself — any more than the president has oversight authority over Congress or the judiciary. Each branch of the federal government is constitutionally equal; none is subordinate. Trump’s business activities before he entered office, and his refusal to make public his tax returns, are not proper subjects of congressional investigation. Although presidential candidates usually release their tax returns as a matter of campaign strategy, Congress could not compel such a release by statute. The Constitution sets qualifications for the presidency, and Congress cannot alter that list.

The fact that Trump’s tax returns are being sought pursuant to a statute that ordinarily would require the Treasury secretary to provide the returns, does not alter the constitutional balance involved. Indeed, the use of Congress’s oversight powers and legislative powers are cabined by the same constitutional principles. The request is based upon an unconstitutional application of a statute — unconstitutional as applied to the situation.

Even if Congress were acting within its constitutional authority, an effort to use its legitimate powers to force disclosure of the president’s tax returns — with the clear goal of debilitating the presidency — would have to be balanced by the courts against the stated congressional need. In balancing otherwise legitimate, but conflicting, assertions of power by the two political branches, courts have looked at their respective needs and the harm that would be inflicted on their respective institutional authorities if one branch were to give way. If Congress does need President Trump’s tax returns for some legitimate legislative purpose, that need will be equally served by providing his returns after he leaves office.

Congress has many powers that can thwart a president’s policy or personnel choices, but only impeachment can personally hold a president responsible for his actions. Even here, it is not clear what relevance a president’s pre-inauguration personal tax returns could have to the question whether he has committed high crimes and misdemeanors while in office.

What Chairman Neal seeks cannot be granted. What is really at stake are not President Trump’s political fortunes but the preservation of the constitutionally required balance of powers between two political branches. Secretary Mnuchin is defending the ability of presidents to function without fear of congressionally driven debilitation. There is every reason to believe that he will prevail in the courts of law as well as in the court of public opinion.

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice under former Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/444231-demanding-trumps-tax-returns-is-congressional-overreach