Tag Archives: David B Rivkin

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

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Should Noncitizens Be Represented in Congress?

by David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Richard Raile

24 April 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

The Supreme Court Tuesday will hear oral arguments in the Trump administration’s appeal of lower-court orders forbidding it to ask a citizenship question in the 2020 census. The justices’ task in Department of Commerce v. New York won’t be difficult: The law and facts overwhelmingly support the administration. But the case is a proxy for future battles over redistricting and reapportionment, vital components of American democracy that determine the balance of political power within and among states.

The Census Act grants the commerce secretary discretion to conduct the census “in such form and content as he may determine.” In rejecting the citizenship question, the lower courts usurped that authority and frustrated Congress’s intent. The question about citizenship is far from unprecedented: It was asked in every census but one from 1820 to 1950. Most advanced democracies ask for citizenship information in censuses, a United Nations-recommended best practice.

The administration argues that the citizenship data would help in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, and that is manifestly true. By law, “majority minority” districts must be drawn so at least 50% of eligible voters—i.e., citizens over 18—are members of the minority in question. If too many minority residents are ineligible to vote, that defeats the purpose of avoiding the dilution of minority voting strength. Voting-rights litigation and compliance are hampered by the lack of citizenship data in the decennial census.

The plaintiffs in this case, which include 18 states and the District of Columbia, are using the litigation as a means of stifling the legal and policy debate over whether and how citizenship information should be used in redistricting and reapportionment.

One question is whether states and localities may equalize the populations of their legislative districts according to the number of citizens rather than the total number of persons in the district, including aliens. The one-person, one-vote principle requires that district populations be substantially equal. But in states with large alien populations, equalizing all persons results in voter inequality, giving voters in districts with high numbers of aliens an unfair electoral advantage. This also tends to increase the political clout of urban over rural areas.

The Supreme Court held 8-0 in Evenwel v. Abbott (2016) that states and localities are not required to equalize citizens, but it did not forbid them from doing so. One purpose of the census-question litigation is to deprive states of the data to exercise that option.

An even more fundamental question is how accurate citizenship data might affect the apportionment of House seats (and therefore electoral votes) by state and the drawing of House districts. The conventional wisdom—which the justices assumed in Evenwel, although the case did not directly address the question—has been that the Constitution requires apportionment based on all persons physically present in a state, since the relevant language of Article I and the 14th Amendment refers to “the whole number of persons in each State.” But there is more here than meets the eye.

The draft Constitution required that seats be apportioned according to the number of “inhabitants” per State. That was the word used in the text, and framing debates, until the Convention’s Committee of Style and Arrangement substituted “persons.” But the high court made clear in Powell v. McCormack (1969) that any changes made by that committee were stylistic and not substantive. Further, the term “inhabitant” means more than mere physical presence. Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines it as someone with “a fixed residence” or who “resides permanently in a place.” In law, “inhabitant” was someone “who has a legal settlement in a town, city or parish” such that the person, “if a pauper,” was entitled to financial assistance there.

That mattered in the late 18th and early 19th centuries because the contemporary welfare system was administered at the local level and tied individuals to a political subdivision under a doctrine called “inhabitancy,” discussed in Blackstone’s commentaries on English law, which informed the Constitution’s drafters. The 1662 English statute Blackstone discussed required persons to return for assistance to the parish where they were declared “inhabitants.” As a result, the Constitution’s original public meaning tied apportionment to persons with a fixed abode and far more permanent place in the political community than simple physical presence.

True, inhabitancy and citizenship were not originally synonymous. Until the late 19th century, no federal law regulated immigration, and aliens could arrive and remain at will. Subsequently, however, Congress exercised its power over immigration and naturalization to define the nation’s political community, as well as entitlement to government benefits. Today, anyone who enters the U.S. unlawfully is subject to involuntary removal and thus cannot be considered an inhabitant in the constitutional sense.

Evenwel’s assumptions notwithstanding, these issues have yet to be directly explored, let alone resolved, in the political and judicial arenas. The plaintiffs in today’s cases want them to stay that way. They include states whose overt policies of attracting illegal aliens to so-called sanctuary cities advance their political self-interest in obtaining additional House seats and electoral votes.

Factoring such aliens into reapportionment and redistricting does nothing for them, as it does not change immigration status. Rather, it rewards state policies designed to subvert the Immigration and Nationality Act and to achieve enhanced representation at the expense of more law-abiding states. Today’s case marks only the beginning of a larger debate over these questions.

Messrs. Rivkin and Raile practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office. Mr. Raile has represented clients in redistricting litigation in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/should-noncitizens-be-represented-in-congress-11555972120

Gerrymandering Disputes Don’t Belong in Court

By David B. Rivkin Jr and Richard Raile

26 March 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

Not every day does the Supreme Court have a chance to advance democracy and reverse a major mistake while also lightening its future workload. But it can do all those things in two cases it hears Tuesday dealing with gerrymandering of congressional districts.

In Davis v. Bandemer (1986), six justices agreed that courts can resolve complaints about so-called partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of district lines to favor the party that controls the process. In legal parlance, the justices held that such complaints are “justiciable.” But no five justices were able to agree on what legal principles courts should apply in deciding such cases. That question has been litigated ever since, including this week’s cases, Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek. The court should put an end to this futile experiment by ruling that such claims are nonjusticiable political questions.

Electoral maneuvering, of which gerrymandering is one example, is as old as democracy itself. One of the more colorful examples is the English rotten boroughs system, which allowed the Crown and its supporters to control a substantial number of seats in the House of Commons until the passage of the Reform Act of 1832. Partisan gerrymandering strikes many observers as unfair, but it’s not clear what constitutional provision it might violate. The Constitution itself doesn’t even anticipate the existence of political parties.

The Constitution does address the question of who has the power to draw district lines. Article I, Section 4 provides that “the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” But the framers understood that what Alexander Hamilton called the “discretionary power over elections” entailed the danger, noted by James Madison, that legislatures might “mould their regulations as to favor the candidates they wish to succeed.” Hamilton went even further, saying unlimited state legislative authority over congressional elections would entail the power to “annihilate” the federal government.

Thus the same section also provides that “Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” That this delegation of power to Congress was the response to the possibility of abuse is powerful evidence that the Framers addressed the problem through the structural balance-of-power provisions and that a judicial check on legislatures’ politics is unavailable. Because the Framers agreed that a national election code was unworkable and that a benefit inhered in state legislatures’ ability to address local needs and traditions, they chose not to codify standards in the constitution.

With no standards to apply, judges are left to invent them—or to dismiss challenges as nonjusticiable. That’s where political-question doctrine comes in. Under the Constitution, some problems have no judicial resolution and are instead left to the other, democratically elected branches. Recent Supreme Court precedent establishes two principal hallmarks of a nonjusticiable political question—constitutional text committing a choice to the other branches and the absence of judicially manageable standards. Both apply here.

Another problem is that it is impossible to decide a partisan-gerrymandering case without making an initial determination of what a “fair” redistricting scheme would look like. That’s a question of policy, not law. A principle of partisan fairness is not like the one-person, one-vote rule, which stems from the individual right to representation and identifies equality by a clear, judicially manageable ratio of persons to districts. Nor is a gerrymander like a restraint on speech, which can be cured by allowing all sides to voice their views; or like discrimination, which can be cured by a mandate not to take account of race or another suspect characteristic.

Under the Constitution, the right to political representation belongs to individual human beings, not groups. Even if it is possible to draw maps in which Republicans and Democrats have equal electoral opportunities, a “right” to translate a party’s percentage of votes into seats is not one that all Americans can share. What about independents, members of the Green or Libertarian parties, or even partisans who disagree with platform planks of the two major parties, such as pro-choice Republicans or antitax Democrats?

How to define representational units is a choice that confronts every republican government, and that choice is inherently political. The Constitution itself was made possible by the Great Compromise, which accorded all states, regardless of population, two Senate seats. That affected the electoral opportunity of all citizens and groups. So did the choices to create the Electoral College and to make judges appointed for life rather than elected or term-limited. These were all deliberate choices to define representation according to policy and political compromise. They are not fundamentally different from the choices legislatures confront with every decade’s redistricting.

None of this is to suggest that each legislature’s redistricting choices are good ones; many are not. The questions are nonjusticiable not because they are easy, but because judges cannot distinguish good from bad answers without becoming politicians. If the calls for partisan “fairness” in redistricting represent a meaningful political desire, that desire will percolate through the system and translate into democratic change—like the change from appointment to election of senators. It wouldn’t even take a constitutional amendment for Congress to enact redistricting criteria limiting state legislatures’ political discretion. Proponents of fairness by lawsuit show remarkably little patience for the democratic process they claim to defend.

Messrs. Rivkin and Raile practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office. Mr. Raile has represented clients in redistricting litigation in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/gerrymandering-disputes-dont-belong-in-court-11553555381

Obstruction of justice? Careful what you wish for, lawmakers

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

7 February 2018 in the Wall Street Journal

Democrats have attacked Attorney General-designate William Barr for a memo in which he argued against a legal theory some claim could support prosecuting President Trump for obstruction of justice. Mr. Barr argued that an exercise of the president’s constitutional authority—for instance, firing James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—cannot be construed as obstruction even if prosecutors believe he did so for improper reasons.

At his confirmation hearings, Mr. Barr rightly stood his ground. Critics should consider the implications of the motive-driven obstruction theory with respect not only to the president but also to the other branches of government. It has the potential to impair Congress, the judiciary and state governments as well.

If the personal motivations behind every lawful official act could potentially be grounds for criminal charges, then presidents—and their subordinates, “from the Attorney General down to the most junior line prosecutor,” as Mr. Barr put it in his memo—might shirk supervisory authority over a wide variety of cases. Law enforcement would operate on an autopilot, with extreme harshness as the default approach. The result, as Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 70, would be “a feeble executive,” which “implies a feeble execution of the government” and produces “bad government.”

Nothing would stop prosecutors from applying such a theory to lawmakers and judges. Suppose a congressional committee investigates a matter also under investigation by the FBI. If prosecutors think the motive is political—and politics is Congress’s lifeblood—that could be considered obstruction.

Mr. Trump’s critics claim any presidential action to eliminate special counsel Robert Mueller’s funding would be obstruction, even if otherwise consistent with federal appropriations law. It would follow that congressional decisions to reduce or eliminate appropriations for public corruption investigations, which frequently target members of Congress, could also be prosecuted.

Federal judges would likewise be vulnerable to prosecution based on their personal motivations in reaching decisions. The proper method of interpreting the Constitution is a matter of fierce legal and political debates, waged largely in judicial confirmation proceedings. Under the motive-based obstruction theory, a judge might face criminal charges because a prosecutor thinks his rulings were influenced by his political, ideological or religious beliefs. If an official’s motives can transform lawful actions into crimes, then presidents—or junior prosecutors—would be able to investigate judges whose decisions they dislike. The mere possibility would destroy judicial independence.

Nor is there any reason to limit the motive-based obstruction theory to the federal government. State governors, lawmakers and judges also have wide-ranging constitutional authority. Discerning their motivations would become a fair game for prosecutors.

Historical practice does not support obstruction charges based on an exercise of lawful constitutional powers. As the Supreme Court has said for centuries, and reaffirmed in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning (2014), “the longstanding ‘practice of the government’ can inform our determination of ‘what the law is.’ ” Novel assertions of governmental power must be viewed with considerable skepticism.

Preventing corruption doesn’t require the motive-driven obstruction theory. Prosecutors and other officials have plenty of existing tools to deal with corruption, including laws against bribery and nepotism as well as statutes governing conflicts of interest and recusal. These legal strictures are vigorously enforced at both federal and state levels.

If the motive-based obstruction theory prevails, criminal investigations of alleged obstruction by government officials at all levels, and in all institutions, would eventually become routine. That would impair the government’s ability to function and destroy the separation of powers by shifting vast authority to federal investigators and prosecutors and shielding them from political accountability.

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/obstruction-of-justice-careful-what-you-wish-for-lawmakers-11549497555

Democrats Abandon the Constitution

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

October 16, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court has sparked a firestorm of outrage and recrimination on the left. Some attacks seem aimed at intimidating the justices into supporting progressive causes. “The Court must now prove—through its work—that it is worthy of the nation’s trust,” Eric Holder, President Obama’s attorney general, tweeted Oct. 6.

Yet the attacks go beyond ideology. Detractors of Justice Kavanaugh and President Trump are denouncing the Constitution itself and the core elements of America’s governmental structure:

• The Electoral College. Mr. Trump’s opponents claim he is an illegitimate president because Hillary Clinton “won the popular vote.” One commentator even asked “what kind of nation allows the loser of a national election to become president.” The complaint that the Electoral College is undemocratic is nothing new. The Framers designed it that way. They created a republican form of government, not a pure democracy, and adopted various antimajoritarian measures to keep the “demos” in check.

The Electoral College could be eliminated by amending the Constitution. But proposing an amendment requires two-thirds votes in both houses of Congress, and the legislatures of three-fourths, or 38, of the states would have to ratify it.

• The Senate. The complaint here is that the 50 senators who voted in Justice Kavanaugh’s favor “represent” fewer people than the 48 who voted against him. But senators represent states, not people.

Equal Senate representation for the states was a key part of the Connecticut Compromise, along with House seats apportioned by population. The compromise persuaded large and small states alike to accept the new Constitution. It was so fundamental that Article V of the Constitution—which spells out the amendment procedure—provides that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” That means an amendment changing the structure of the Senate would require ratification by all 50 states.

• Judicial independence. Commentators who disapprove of the Supreme Court’s composition have urged, as one law professor put it, “shrinking the power of the courts to overrun our citizens’ democratic decisions.” Some suggest limiting and staggering the justices’ terms so that a vacancy would come up every other year, ensuring that the court follows the election returns. That could be achieved via constitutional amendment, but it would go against the Framers’ wisdom. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 78, life tenure for judges is “the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright and impartial administration of the laws.”

Some of Justice Kavanaugh’s detractors have demanded that if Democrats take the House next month, they open an investigation into the sex-crime allegations Senate Democrats failed to substantiate. But although Congress has wide oversight powers with respect to the executive branch, it has no such oversight authority over the judiciary. The only way the House can legitimately investigate a sitting judge is in an impeachment proceeding.

And Justice Kavanaugh cannot be impeached for conduct before his promotion to the Supreme Court. Article III provides that judges “hold their Offices during good Behavior,” so that a judge can be removed only for “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” committed during his term in office.

That puts inquiry into allegations about Justice Kavanaugh’s conduct as a teenager and young adult well outside Congress’s investigative authority, along with any claims that he misled the Judiciary Committee. Such claims could be reviewed only as part of a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors based on a referral from the Senate, the only body that may decide whether his testimony contained “material” misrepresentations. For the House to inquire into this matter would impermissibly encroach on the Senate’s advice-and-consent power.

Michael Barone has observed that “all procedural arguments are insincere.” Those who now complain about the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College and the Senate were quite content when their party seemed to have a lock on the former and held a large majority in the latter. And it is the Supreme Court’s countermajoritarian character that made possible the decisions, such as Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, that progressives now fear are at risk of being overturned or pared back.

There’s one thing the left could do to make the Supreme Court more liberal without amending the Constitution. Some have suggested a return to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “court packing” plan, which sought to expand the court to as many as 15 justices. Nothing in the Constitution prevents Congress from expanding the Supreme Court’s membership. Article III merely establishes a Supreme Court; it does not say how many justices it should have. Congress has altered the number of justices by statute several times, most recently in the Circuit Judges Act of 1869, which expanded the court from seven members to nine. But this would require a president and House and Senate majorities willing to go down this path, likely at considerable political cost. In other words, progressives would have to win elections. And if they did that, they’d be able to change the court without making it bigger.

The anger and disappointment of Justice Kavanaugh’s opponents is understandable, as would be that of his supporters if the vote had gone the other way. They are perfectly entitled to pursue political remedies, including using his appointment as a campaign issue. They also are entitled to pursue amendments to the Constitution that would make our system of government more responsive to the popular will. What they cannot do is overturn the Connecticut Compromise guaranteeing each state equal representation in the Senate, or launch unconstitutional investigations or impeachment of a sitting Supreme Court justice. The Constitution protects all of us, even Supreme Court justices.

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/democrats-abandon-the-constitution-1539645364

The Rule of Law Prevails in the Travel Ban Case

A Champion of Constitutional Safeguards

Days before President Trump announced his choice of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, Senate Democrats had vowed to oppose any nominee. Backed by an activist-fueled propaganda machine, they now will unleash relentless personal attacks—on Judge Kavanaugh’s Catholic faith, his “elitist” Yale degrees, his service in the George W. Bush administration.

As with the attacks last year on Justice Neil Gorsuch, they should be unavailing. Over Judge Kavanaugh’s 12 years on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, he has developed an impressive record as a legal thinker and a champion of the Constitution’s structural safeguards against overweening government.

Typical is a 2008 dissent in which Judge Kavanaugh concluded that the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board was unconstitutionally structured because it improperly insulated the agency from political accountability. The opinion was a tour de force of historical exposition and originalist methodology—that is, interpreting the Constitution’s text as it was originally understood. The Supreme Court ultimately agreed, adopting the reasoning of Judge Kavanaugh’s dissent.

Yet he is equally wary of unbridled executive authority, as a 2013 case shows. When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission declined to proceed with licensing the proposed waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., which the agency appeared to oppose on policy grounds, he wrote: “The President may not decline to follow a statutory mandate or prohibition simply because of policy objections.”

In articles and speeches as well as formal opinions, Judge Kavanaugh has been a leading critic of Chevron deference, the courts’ practice of giving agencies free rein to interpret their own statutory authority. In a 2016 law-review article, he wrote that Chevron encourages the executive branch “to be extremely aggressive in seeking to squeeze its policy goals into ill-fitting statutory authorizations and restraints,” cutting Congress out of the picture. “The American rule of law, as I see it, depends on neutral, impartial judges who say what the law is.”

On that score, Judge Kavanaugh rivals the late Justice Antonin Scalia in his ability to make sense of Congress’s often knotty statutory constructions. Judge Kavanaugh considers textualism to be an important restraint on judges that prevents them from imposing their policy preferences. As he put it in that 2016 article: “When courts apply doctrines that allow them to rewrite the laws (in effect), they are encroaching on the legislature’s Article I power.”

That’s why the Democrats’ formulaic charges of partisanship won’t stick. In case after case, Judge Kavanaugh sided with the Obama administration in the war on terror. He turned away a constitutional challenge to ObamaCare on jurisdictional grounds, while writing that the government’s defenses of the law were “unprecedented” and without “principled limit.”

Across three successive administrations, Judge Kavanaugh has frequently ruled against the government. According to Jennifer Mascott of Scalia Law School, he “has written 40 opinions finding agency action to be unlawful and joined majority opinions reversing agency action in at least 35 additional cases.” That’s a muscular record on a court often criticized for deference to government.

Democrats may make an issue of a 1998 academic article in which Judge Kavanaugh—who early in his career worked in the Office of Independent Counsel during the Clinton administration—questioned whether the Constitution permits criminal prosecution of a sitting president. He didn’t actually reach a conclusion on the question, but the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel did, holding that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Since that opinion is binding on special counsel Robert Mueller, there’s no prospect the issue will reach the Supreme Court.

Democrats will also roll out culture-war issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. There is nothing in Judge Kavanaugh’s judicial or scholarly record to indicate how he would vote on any of those issues. Only one sitting justice, Clarence Thomas, has said he favors overturning Roe v. Wade, so the status quo on abortion seems likely to prevail for some time. As for same-sex marriage, there appears to be little appetite on the court to revisit it, and even less reason to believe that a case doing so is likely to arise, given its rapid public acceptance.

At any rate, it would be improper for Judge Kavanaugh to answer senators’ questions about how he would vote on any particular issue. Since Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s appointment in 1993, her “Ginsburg Rule”—“no hints, no forecasts, no previews”—has stood. Judges do not decide abstract issues but concrete cases with specific facts, arguments, and governing law. Judges have a duty to decide cases as they arise, without prejudgment. Like Justice Ginsburg, Judge Kavanaugh can and should be questioned on his record. And a fine record it is.

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/a-champion-of-constitutional-safeguards-1531189515