Tag Archives: Congress

Can a President obstruct Justice?

Speculation about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has turned toward obstruction of justice—specifically, whether President Trump can be criminally prosecuted for firing James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or for earlier asking Mr. Comey to go easy on onetime national security adviser Mike Flynn. The answer is no. The Constitution forbids Congress to criminalize such conduct by a president, and applying existing statutes in such a manner would violate the separation of powers.

The Constitution creates three coequal branches of government, and no branch may exercise its authority in a manner that would negate or fundamentally undercut the power of another. The power to appoint and remove high-level executive-branch officers, such as the FBI director, is a core aspect of the president’s executive authority. It is the principal means by which a president disciplines the exercise of the executive power the Constitution vests in him.

The same is true of Mr. Trump’s request, as purported by Mr. Comey: “I hope you can see your way clear . . . to letting Flynn go.” The FBI director wields core presidential powers when conducting an investigation, and the president is entirely within his rights to inquire about, and to direct, such investigations. The director is free to ignore the president’s inquiries or directions and risk dismissal, or to resign if he believes the president is wrong. Such officials serve at the president’s pleasure and have no right to be free of such dilemmas.

A law criminalizing the president’s removal of an officer for a nefarious motive, or the application of a general law in that way, would be unconstitutional even if the president’s action interferes with a criminal investigation. Such a constraint would subject every exercise of presidential discretion to congressional sanction and judicial review. That would vitiate the executive branch’s coequal status and, when combined with Congress’s impeachment power, establish legislative supremacy—a result the Framers particularly feared.

Mr. Trump’s critics claim that subjecting the president’s actions to scrutiny as potential obstructions of justice is simply a matter of asking judges to do what they do every day in other contexts—determine the purpose or intent behind an action. That is also wrong. The president is not only an individual, but head of the executive branch. Separating his motives between public interests and personal ones—partisan, financial or otherwise—would require the courts to delve into matters that are inherently political. Under Supreme Court precedent stretching back to Marbury v. Madison (1803), the judiciary has no power to do so. And lawmakers enjoy an analogous immunity under the Speech and Debate Clause.

The president’s independence from the other branches does not merely support “energy” in the chief executive, as the Framers intended. It also ensures that he, and he alone, is politically accountable for his subordinates’ conduct. If officials as critical to the executive branch’s core functions as the FBI director could determine whom and how to investigate free from presidential supervision, they would wield the most awesome powers of government with no political accountability. History has demonstrated that even when subject to presidential authority, the FBI director can become a power unto himself—as J. Edgar Hoover was for decades, severely damaging civil liberties.

There are limits to presidential power. The Constitution requires the Senate’s consent for appointment of the highest-level executive-branch officers—a critical check on presidential power. The Supreme Court has upheld statutory limits—although never involving criminal sanction—on the removal of certain kinds of officials. But the decision to fire principal executive-branch officers like the FBI director remains within the president’s discretion. A sitting president can also be subjected to civil lawsuits—but only in a carefully circumscribed fashion, to avoid impeding his ability to discharge the powers of his office.

The ultimate check on presidential power is impeachment. Even though Mr. Trump cannot have violated criminal law in dismissing Mr. Comey, if a majority of representatives believe he acted improperly or corruptly, they are free to impeach him. If two-thirds of senators agree, they can remove him from office. Congress would then be politically accountable for its action. Such is the genius of our Constitution’s checks and balances.

None of this is to suggest the president has absolute immunity from criminal obstruction-of-justice laws. He simply cannot be prosecuted for an otherwise lawful exercise of his constitutional powers. The cases of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton —the latter impeached, and the former nearly so, for obstruction of justice—have contributed to today’s confusion. These were not criminal charges but articulations of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the constitutional standard for impeachment.

And in neither case was the accusation based on the president’s exercise of his lawful constitutional powers. If a president authorizes the bribery of a witness to suppress truthful testimony, as Nixon was accused of doing, he can be said to have obstructed justice. Likewise if a president asks a potential witness to commit perjury in a judicial action having nothing to do with the exercise of his office, as Mr. Clinton was accused of doing.

Although neither man could have been prosecuted while in office without his consent, either could have been after leaving office. That’s why President Ford pardoned Nixon—to avoid the spectacle and poisonous political atmosphere of a criminal trial. In Mr. Trump’s case, by contrast, the president exercised the power to fire an executive-branch official whom he may dismiss for any reason, good or bad, or for no reason at all. To construe that as a crime would unravel America’s entire constitutional structure.

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

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/can-a-president-obstruct-justice-1512938781

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Mulvaney Can Undo Cordray’s Legacy

When Richard Cordray attempted to install his chief of staff as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, his evident aim was to buy enough time to cement his legacy—particularly a just-finalized rule that the agency expects will wipe out half or more of the short-term lending industry. On Tuesday a federal judge thwarted Mr. Cordray, holding that President Trump acted within his authority by appointing Mick Mulvaney to moonlight as acting CFPB director while continuing to lead the Office of Management and Budget.

On his first day at the bureau, Mr. Mulvaney put a freeze on new rules and guidance. But that doesn’t solve the problem of the payday-lender rule. Mr. Mulvaney acknowledged that he cannot simply recall rules that have already gone out the door. Repealing a final rule typically requires restarting the rule-making process, which can take years to complete.

But Mr. Mulvaney can stop the payday-lender rule by putting on his OMB hat and invoking the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980. That law is generally thought of as—actually, strike that. Nobody ever thinks about the Paperwork Reduction Act. It has about as much currency in Washington as the Filled Cheese Act of 1896.

The PRA, which was purportedly strengthened in 1995, was an effort to address a real problem. Federal agencies are eager to impose paperwork burdens on citizens and businesses. It costs an agency almost nothing to impose a new record-keeping requirement or reporting mandate. The expense falls on those required to carry it out.

The obvious solution was to put agencies on a paperwork budget and force them to internalize the costs they foist on the public. To ensure that agencies don’t evade that responsibility, the PRA established robust centralized oversight in the Office of Management and Budget, which is part of the White House. Every “information collection request” issued or imposed by a federal agency must be approved by OMB. That includes government forms as well as requirements that private parties collect information. If OMB disapproves a request, the agency cannot enforce it.

In practice, however, the PRA doesn’t have much effect. Disapprovals from OMB are exceedingly rare. In part, that’s because most agencies are subject to presidential control, rendering the act superfluous—if the White House opposes a regulatory proposal, it can simply instruct the agency to drop or amend it. By the time PRA review rolls around, the White House has already had its say.

Then there are the independent agencies insulated from presidential control, such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and most other financial regulators. The PRA empowers them to overrule a disapproval by majority vote. The CFPB was designed to be an independent agency, but unlike the others it has a single director. The PRA limits the ability to overrule to “an independent regulatory agency which is administered by two or more members.” So OMB can disapprove any action by the bureau that imposes unnecessary or excessive paperwork burdens, without fear of being overruled.

Mr. Mulvaney should exercise that power. Every single provision of the short-term lending rule is structured around information collection requests subject to the PRA. The rule’s central requirement is that lenders determine a borrower’s ability to repay by demanding financial information from the borrower, verifying it, and then recording the result of various calculations. Each step is its own paperwork burden.

Whether or not the agency can ultimately justify its regulatory approach—and we have our doubts—it has to do its homework under the PRA. That includes accurately assessing costs, considering the need for and utility of each individual paperwork requirement, balancing the costs and benefits, and minimizing collection burdens. The bureau’s final rule differs substantially from its initial proposal, but the agency made little attempt to account for changes in paperwork burden, as the PRA requires it to do. Nor did it engage with the detailed criticisms of its analysis of the proposal’s costs. The three-page analysis published with the final rule can only be described as Mr. Cordray—perhaps unaware of the bureau’s unique status under the PRA—thumbing his nose at OMB and the White House.

That is reason enough to disapprove the rule and send the CFPB back to the drawing board. It would also signal that the Trump administration actually intends to enforce the PRA—to the point that it will halt a major regulation to ensure compliance. That should prompt other agencies to pay attention to paperwork burdens.

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 at the Cato Institute.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/mulvaney-can-unravel-cordrays-legacy-1512086936

Begging Your Pardon, Mr. President

The Trump presidency has been consumed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s efforts to uncover collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Mr. Mueller reportedly has secured one or more indictments that he will announce Monday. Some Republicans now seek a new special counsel to investigate if the Clinton Campaign “colluded” with Russians to smear Candidate Trump, along with other aspects of the Clintons’ relationship with Russia and Russian nationals. But one special counsel already is one too many.

During the 1980s and ’90s, American politics was repeatedly distorted, and lives devastated, through the appointment of independent counsels under the post-Watergate Ethics in Government Act. These constitutionally anomalous prosecutors were given unlimited time and resources to investigate officials, including President Clinton, and scandals, such as Iran-Contra. Once appointed, almost all independent counsels built little Justice Departments of their own and set out to find something—anything—to prosecute. Hardly anyone lamented the expiration of this pernicious law in 1999.
But special counsels, appointed by the attorney general and in theory subject to Justice Department oversight, haven’t proved any better in practice. Mr. Mueller’s investigation has already morphed into an open-ended inquiry. It is examining issues—like Donald Trump’s private business transactions—that are far removed from the Russian question. It also has expanded its focus beyond the original question of collusion with the Russians to whether anyone involved in the Russia investigation has committed some related offense. That is evident from investigators’ efforts to interview White House aides who were not involved in the 2016 campaign, and from leaks suggesting that Mr. Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey might have “obstructed” justice.

That claim is frivolous, and it damages America’s constitutional fabric even to consider it. A president cannot obstruct justice through the exercise of his constitutional and discretionary authority over executive-branch officials like Mr. Comey. If a president can be held to account for “obstruction of justice” by ending an investigation or firing a prosecutor or law-enforcement official—an authority the constitution vests in him as chief executive—then one of the presidency’s most formidable powers is transferred from an elected, accountable official to unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats and judges.

Mr. Mueller’s investigation has been widely interpreted as partisan from the start. Mr. Trump’s opponents instantaneously started talking of impeachment—never mind that a special counsel, unlike an independent counsel, has no authority to release a report to Congress or the public. Mr. Trump’s supporters count the number of Democratic donors on the special-counsel staff. The Mueller investigation is fostering tremendous bitterness among Trump voters, who see it as an effort by Washington mandarins to nullify their votes.

Mr. Trump can end this madness by immediately issuing a blanket presidential pardon to anyone involved in supposed collusion with Russia or Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign, to anyone involved with Russian acquisition of an American uranium company during the Obama administration, and to anyone for any offense that has been investigated by Mr. Mueller’s office. Political weaponization of criminal law should give way to a politically accountable democratic process. Nefarious Russian activities, including possible interference in U.S. elections, can and should be investigated by Congress.

Partisan bitterness will not evaporate if lawmakers take up the investigation. But at least those conducting the inquiry will be legitimate and politically accountable. And the question of whether Russia intervened in the 2016 election, and of whether it made efforts to influence U.S. policy makers in previous administrations, is first and foremost one of policy and national security, not criminal law.

The president himself would be covered by the blanket pardon we recommend, but the pardon power does not extend to impeachment. If Congress finds evidence that he was somehow involved in collusion with Russia, the House can determine whether to begin impeachment proceedings. Congress also is better equipped, as part of its oversight role, to determine whether and how the FBI, Justice Department and intelligence agencies might have been involved in the whole affair, including possible misuse of surveillance and mishandling of criminal investigations.

There is ample precedent for using the presidential pardon authority to address matters of political importance. Certainly it is what the framers expected. As Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist 69, the pardon power was to “resemble . . . that of the king of Great Britain.” In Federalist 74, he observed that “there are often critical moments, when a well-timed offer of pardon to . . . insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquility of the commonwealth.”

Securing harmony in the body politic was President Washington’s motivation when he offered amnesty to participants in the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s, and it was President Lincoln’s motivation when he issued an amnesty during the Civil War for Confederates who would return their allegiance to the Union. Similar reasons motivated President Ford to pardon Richard Nixon, and President Carter when he offered amnesty to Vietnam-era draft evaders.

Lincoln’s proclamation of Dec. 8, 1863, is an excellent model of a broadly drafted and complete amnesty: “I . . . do proclaim, declare and make known to all persons who have directly or by implication participated in the existing rebellion, except as hereinafter excepted, that a full pardon is granted to them . . . upon condition that every such person shall take and subscribe an oath” of loyalty to the U.S. A similar pardon can be issued with respect to the Russian affair, ending the criminal investigations and leaving the business to Congress.

Permitting the criminal law again to become a regular weapon in politics is more destructive of democratic government than ham-handed efforts by a foreign power to embarrass one or more presidential candidates. It is true that Washington’s Augean stables need periodic cleaning, but it is Congress that should wield the shovels.

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

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/begging-your-pardon-mr-president-1509302308

‘You’re Fired,’ Trump Should Tell Richard Cordray

Under a dubious statute, the CFPB head can be dismissed only for cause—but there’s plenty of it.

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

April 13, 2017, in the Wall Street Journal

The greatest mystery in Washington involves not Russian spies or wiretaps but Richard Cordray’s continued employment as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In the face of President Trump’s mandate for change, Mr. Cordray continues the Obama administration’s regulatory crusade against lenders, blocking access to the credit that supports so many small businesses and so much consumer spending.

Why would a president who made a TV show out of firing underlings now suffer a subordinate who refuses to get with the pro-growth agenda he campaigned on? If reports from the West Wing are to be believed, Mr. Trump’s unusual timidity is the result of overcautious legal and political advice.

Mr. Cordray is insulated from presidential control by a New Deal-era innovation: a statutory clause that allows the president to fire an independent agency head only “for cause,” meaning “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” In October a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down that restriction an infringement of the president’s constitutional authority to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

When Congress created the CFPB by passing the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, Judge Brett Kavanaugh explained, it broke with decades of historical practice. Generally the power of independent agencies is diffused among multiple commissioners or directors so as to reduce the risk of abuse. Unless he can be fired, Mr. Cordray, as the sole director of the CFPB, wields more unilateral power than any government official save the president.

The panel’s decision, however, was set aside in February when the full 11-judge court voted to rehear the case. White House lawyers are reportedly waiting to see how the litigation unfolds—a process that could go well past the end of Mr. Cordray’s term in mid-2018.

But it is a mistake to regard the twists and turns of that appeal as a reason to give Mr. Cordray a reprieve. Whatever the D.C. Circuit ultimately decides, no one disputes that the president may dismiss the CFPB director for cause. And the evidence is ample to support firing Mr. Cordray, on all three grounds permitted under law:

Inefficiency. Regulation, the Supreme Court has recognized, should seek to maximize economic efficiency through cost-benefit analysis. Yet the CFPB has pursued an agenda at odds with any clear-eyed view of economic growth and efficiency.

Its rules have made community banks and credit unions more reluctant to issue mortgages, particularly in rural areas, and accelerated consolidation of the industry, reducing competition. Its regulations have limited access to checking accounts, credit cards and other financial products, driving vulnerable Americans to depend on riskier sources of financial services and credit. The agency has even worse policies in the works, such as limits on consumer arbitration and payday lending.

Taken as a whole, the CFPB’s heavy-handed approach to regulation and enforcement has driven up the cost of borrowing, to the detriment of consumers and small businesses.

More prosaically, Mr. Cordray’s CFPB has botched basic administrative procedures meant to ensure efficiency in regulation. About a third of its rules were finalized before being published in the agency’s Unified Agenda, depriving the public of valuable notice and frustrating the regulatory review process. That haste has also led to serious errors: About a quarter of the CFPB’s rules have required correction after being finalized. Further, Mr. Cordray has specifically embraced “regulation through enforcement,” which forgoes orderly rule making entirely in favor of imposing penalties for newly contrived “violations.” This is no way to run a financial watchdog.

• Neglect of duty. Mr. Cordray allowed tens of millions of dollars in cost overruns to pile up for a lavish renovation of the CFPB’s Washington headquarters.

The agency also missed the major consumer-finance scandal of the past decade. It ignored years of complaints about an epidemic of unauthorized customer accounts at Wells Fargo . The CFPB galloped in to exact a penalty only after an investigation by California officials and other regulators was complete.

Malfeasance. What was the CFPB doing all that time? The bureau, it turns out, had spread its resources too thin, focusing on alleged discrimination in auto-dealer lending—an area that Congress specifically excluded from its purview. Not only did the agency run roughshod over that limitation, but its statistical analysis relied on dubious methods such as guessing borrowers’ race based on their surnames.

No such guesswork was required for the Merit Systems Protection Board and Government Accountability Office to find that the CFPB itself had become a hotbed of race and sex discrimination. As early as 2013, a report by Deloitte Consulting revealed that the agency’s internal performance reviews were biased against minority employees, many of whom also reported discrimination at the agency. Years later, claims of discrimination persist, particularly among black employees. Mr. Cordray failed to resolve these issues even years after initial reports.

Any of these things would be sufficient to dismiss Mr. Cordray for cause. All of them together make it necessary to do so.

If Mr. Cordray were to challenge his firing, we have little doubt the courts would support Mr. Trump. Assuming the courts even agreed that they have the power to review a presidential finding of cause for dismissal—which is far from established—they would still grant it substantial deference. The president would prevail, so long as he has documented his findings, explained his reasoning, and satisfied any due-process concerns by affording Mr. Cordray an opportunity to respond.

As far as Mr. Cordray is concerned, no further caution is required. What the president needs is resolve, and his famous TV catchphrase.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/youre-fired-trump-should-tell-richard-cordray-1492124207

The Ninth Circuit Ignores Precedent and Threatens National Security

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals violated both judicial precedent and the Constitution’s separation of powers in its ruling against President Trump’s executive order on immigration. If the ruling stands, it will pose a danger to national security.

Under normal rules of standing, the states of Washington and Minnesota should never have been allowed to bring this suit. All litigants, including states, must meet fundamental standing requirements: an injury to a legally protected interest, caused by the challenged action, that can be remedied by a federal court acting within its constitutional power. This suit fails on every count.

The plaintiff states assert that their public universities are injured because the order affects travel by certain foreign students and faculty. But that claim involved no legally protected interest. The granting of visas and the decision to admit aliens into the country are discretionary powers of the federal government. Unadmitted aliens have no constitutional right to enter the U.S. In hiring or admitting foreigners, universities were essentially gambling that these noncitizens could make it to America and be admitted. Under the theory of standing applied in this case, universities would be able to sponsor any alien, anywhere in the world, then go to court to challenge a decision to exclude him.

It is also settled law that a state can seek to vindicate only its own rights, not those of third parties, against the national government. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Massachusetts v. Mellon (1923) that it is not within a state’s duty or power to protect its citizens’ “rights in respect of their relations with the Federal Government.” Thus the plaintiffs’ claims that the executive order violates various constitutional rights, such as equal protection, due process and religious freedom, are insufficient because these are individual and not states’ rights.

Even if states could articulate a concrete injury, this is not a case in which the courts ultimately can offer redress. The Constitution grants Congress plenary power over immigration, and Congress has vested the president by statute with broad, nonreviewable discretionary authority to “suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens . . . he may deem to be appropriate” to protect “the interest of the United States.” Numerous presidents have used this authority to suspend entry of aliens from specific countries.

Further, as the Supreme Court explained in Knauff v. Shaughnessy (1950), the authority to exclude aliens “stems not alone from the legislative power but is inherent in the executive power to control the foreign affairs of the nation.” In issuing the order, the president was acting at the apex of his authority. As Justice Robert Jackson noted in Youngstown v. Sawyer (1952): “When the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum, for it includes all that he possesses in his own right plus all that Congress can delegate.” That point the Ninth Circuit ignored entirely.

The order, frequently mischaracterized as a “Muslim ban,” is actually directed at seven countries that the president believes present a particular threat to U.S. security—a view with which Congress agreed in 2015. All are beset by terrorists and so uncertain and chaotic that proper vetting of potential refugees and immigrants is virtually impossible.

President Obama chose to toughen vetting standards for these countries’ nationals rather than bar their entry completely. But if Mr. Trump has a different view of the threat, it is not up to the courts to decide who is right. This is a classic example of a nonjusticiable “political question,” involving matters constitutionally vested in the president and Congress.

Judges—were they adjudicating a suit brought by a party with standing—could overturn the president’s order if it entailed clear violations of due process or equal protection. But attempting to discern Mr. Trump’s motivation in selecting these countries exceeds the judiciary’s proper constitutional role. Judges scrutinize government motives in the domestic context, if presented with allegations that facially neutral governmental action is motivated by invidious discrimination. That inquiry is inappropriate in the foreign-policy sphere.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision represents an unprecedented judicial intrusion into the foreign-affairs authority of Congress and the president. The stakes transcend this particular executive order and even immigration issues generally. By removing restrictions on standing and other limitations on the exercise of judicial power, the Ninth Circuit would make the courts the ultimate arbiters of American foreign policy. The ruling risks creating both a constitutional and a security crisis. It must be reversed.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice constitutional and appellate law in Washington and served in the White House Counsel’s Office and U.S. Justice Department during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-ninth-circuit-ignores-precedent-and-threatens-national-security-1486748840

What Kind of a Judge Is Neil Gorsuch?

By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. and ANDREW M. GROSSMAN

The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 31, 2017 

Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump ’s nominee to succeed Justice Antonin Scalia, is a native Coloradan and avid outdoorsman. He clerked for a federal appellate judge and two Supreme Court justices and spent a decade practicing law before his appointment in 2006, at age 39, to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the decade since, he has written some 850 opinions.

The way to take a judge’s measure is to read his opinions, and so we set out to review Judge Gorsuch’s. It was not an arduous task, for his prose is unusually engaging—think Scalia, with none of the abrasiveness. Justice Elena Kagan has declared herself a fan of his writing style. The only difficulty in summarizing Judge Gorsuch’s output is the compulsion to quote, at length, from so many of his opinions.

One opens this way: “Haunted houses may be full of ghosts, goblins, and guillotines, but it’s their more prosaic features that pose the real danger. Tyler Hodges found that out when an evening shift working the ticket booth ended with him plummeting down an elevator shaft.” The case, by the way, was a prosaic dispute between insurers. Another opinion starts: “What began as a fight at a strip club finds its way here as a clash over hearsay.”

Judge Gorsuch shows a concern for the people whose disputes are before the court. Each opinion typically begins with the name of the person seeking relief and why. A recent example: “After a bale of hay hit and injured Miriam White while she was operating her tractor, she sued the manufacturer, Deere & Company.” Ms. White’s appeal was summarily denied, but even the brief, three-page opinion reflects a serious engagement with her arguments and the facts—in contrast with the boilerplate language judges often use in such decisions. Win or lose, parties appearing before Judge Gorsuch surely know that they have been treated with fairness, consideration and respect.

These are not stylistic flourishes, but central to how Judge Gorsuch views the judicial role. “In our legal order,” he has written, “judges distinguish themselves from politicians by the oath they take to apply the law as it is, not to reshape the law as they wish it to be.” When a judge understands that he has no authority to legislate from the bench, cases that might otherwise be hard become straightforward exercises in applying law to facts.

Thus, Judge Gorsuch could recognize the “tragic circumstances” of a family whose daughter had died in a rafting accident, while still holding that the liability release she had signed was legally binding. That Colorado allows people to assume such risks, he explained, was a choice for the state’s General Assembly, not the court.

In a similar dissent, Judge Gorsuch argued for allowing a seventh-grader who was arrested for horseplay in gym class to sue the police officers, reasoning that no New Mexico statute authorized the arrest. And he has vigorously enforced rights of religious exercise under statutes like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, deferring to Congress’s decision to vindicate, as he put it, “this nation’s long-held aspiration to serve as a refuge of religious tolerance.”

Judge Gorsuch is among the judiciary’s most consistent and adept practitioners of textualism, the approach Scalia championed. In a memorial lecture last year, Judge Gorsuch said that “an assiduous focus on text, structure, and history is essential to the proper exercise of the judicial function.” Textualism, he added, serves to “confine the range of possible outcomes and provide a remarkably stable and predictable set of rules people are able to follow.” On the other hand, attempting to divine legislative intent, as he wrote in one opinion, is a “notoriously doubtful business.” Another opinion decried the judicial “conjuring” that substitutes the court’s view of optimal policy for Congress’s.

In an influential 2015 decision, Judge Gorsuch excavated the meaning of a law increasing penalties on anyone who “uses” a gun “during and in relation to” a drug offense. He carefully employed “plain old grade school grammar”—including a sentence diagram.

Judge Gorsuch’s textualism extends to the Constitution, quite emphatically: “That document,” he wrote, “isn’t some inkblot on which litigants may project their hopes and dreams for a new and perfected tort law, but a carefully drafted text judges are charged with applying according to its original public meaning.” Looking to the “original public meaning” of the Fourth Amendment, for example, Judge Gorsuch has rejected the government’s view that a search warrant could be applied across jurisdictional lines. He also disputed its claim that police officers may ignore “No Trespassing” signs to invade a homeowner’s property without a warrant.

What about the Constitution’s separation of powers, intended to safeguard liberty? Judge Gorsuch has been at the vanguard of applying originalism to the questions raised by today’s Leviathan state, which is increasingly controlled by unaccountable executive agencies. These questions loom large after the rash of executive actions by President Obama, and now the whiplash reversals by the Trump administration.

The deference that judges now must give to agencies’ interpretations of the law, he wrote in an opinion last year, permits the executive “to swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power and concentrate federal power in a way that seems more than a little difficult to square with the Constitution of the framers’ design.”

Judge Gorsuch added: “Maybe the time has come to face the behemoth.” His addition to the Supreme Court would give the justices a better chance than ever to do precisely that.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law with Baker & Hostetler in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-kind-of-a-judge-is-neil-gorsuch-1485912681

When Is a Judge Not Really a Judge?

By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. and ANDREW M. GROSSMAN

Jan. 23, 2017 in the Wall Street Journal

An “alphabet soup” of federal agencies established since the 1930s have gradually supplanted the rule of Congress and the courts with the rule of supposed expertise. This accumulation of power is what James Madison identified in Federalist No. 47 as “the very definition of tyranny.” An example of this trend is the Securities and Exchange Commission’s increased use of in-house administrative law judges under the Obama administration.

Following high-profile losses in federal court—remember the insider trading charges against Mark Cuban?—the SEC decided to file fewer enforcement cases in courts presided over by independent judges. Instead, the agency began to take advantage of its in-house administrative law judges. Conveniently, a change in the Dodd-Frank Act authorized the agency’s judges to hear more kinds of cases and dispense more penalties.

Administrative law judges are agency employees. The proceedings they oversee provide fewer protections than court cases. They also tend to set stern deadlines and limit the right to factual investigation, often leaving defendants to rely on the SEC’s evidence. According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal analysis, the agency’s shift paid off: Through the beginning of that year, it won 90% of cases in its in-house court, compared with 69% of regular court cases. Administrative decisions can be appealed to court but are rarely reversed. That’s because the judges apply a deferential “clear error” standard to the agency’s factual findings.

The due-process problems inherent in this arrangement are apparent. Less obvious, at least to the SEC, is that it also violates the Constitution’s Appointments Clause, which requires Senate hearings and confirmation votes for department heads and other senior officials. To promote political accountability, the Constitution also requires that “inferior officers” with significant responsibility be appointed by the president or senior officials who are confirmed by the Senate.

This month, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the SEC’s administrative law judges aren’t mere employees but inferior officers. They take testimony, rule on motions, issue subpoenas, preside over triallike hearings, make factual determinations and can even enter judgments and impose penalties in certain circumstances. The court’s analysis was guided by a 1991 Supreme Court decision holding the same about “special trial judges” who had similar powers under the U.S. Tax Court. The SEC will surely appeal, and there is a high likelihood that the Supreme Court will affirm the lower court’s ruling.

The immediate problem for the SEC is that Congress hasn’t authorized the appointment of administrative law judges through the constitutional process. So the agency faces the risk, in cases it tries in-house, that its decisions will be voided. The SEC and its allies will push for a legislative fix so that in-house judges can be properly appointed. Congressional Republicans should use the demand for legislation as a bargaining chip for other reforms, such as restricting cases that can be heard in administrative courts.

But a legislative fix only heightens the contradictions of trying these cases outside of real courts. Due process requires that judges be neutral. A fix would make them political appointees.

Moreover, in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Accounting Oversight Board (2010), the Supreme Court struck down an arrangement whereby appointed officers were double-insulated from removal. They could lose their jobs only for good cause, and the agency head with the power to remove them could himself only be fired for good cause. That kind of double protection, the court explained, impermissibly “subverts the President’s ability to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed” and “the public’s ability to pass judgment on his efforts.”

Administrative law judges are nearly identically insulated from political control. They can be dismissed only for good cause by their agencies, and even then only if the Merit Systems Protection Board agrees. If the 10th Circuit’s decision is upheld, this will almost certainly be the next shoe to drop, and it will leave administrative law judges subject to political control.

That means the in-house judges will be political appointees subject to the supervision of other political appointees—and at risk of dismissal for failure to follow instructions. Will agencies be able to maintain the pretense that they are “judges” in any meaningful sense? It’s difficult to see how.

The SEC’s overreaching may spell the end of the administrative state’s growth—marking the point when Congress and the courts started to regain lost ground. Thanks, Mr. Obama.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington, D.C.

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/when-is-a-judge-not-really-a-judge-1485215998