Shut up, they advised

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

4 February 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

At a time the First Amendment rights of free speech and association are under assault, it’s disheartening to see the judiciary getting in on the act. At issue are the judge-made rules governing judges themselves. A draft advisory opinion circulated last month by the Committee on Codes of Conduct of the U.S. Judicial Conference recommends new restrictions on the First Amendment rights of federal judges as well as their law clerks and staff attorneys. The opinion is unconstitutional, and a sloppy bit of judging to boot.

The committee, made up of 15 jurists, proposes to bar judges and their staffers from membership in the Federalist Society and the liberal American Constitution Society. The opinion reasons that a judge’s impartiality and independence could reasonably be called into question if he belongs to what the committee deems ideological “advocacy groups.” But the committee provides no clear guidance as to which other groups are forbidden. It says only that judges remain free to join the American Bar Association but must avoid the Federalist Society and the ACS.

Federal judges aren’t stripped of their constitutional rights before donning their robes. Yet the opinion takes no account of the First Amendment at all. If it did, its authors would have been obliged to subject their ruling to “heightened scrutiny”—which means, among other things, that the government may impose limits only to achieve a compelling interest. Safeguarding public confidence in the fairness and integrity of the judiciary qualifies—but that’s not the end of the test.

Inconsistent restrictions, as the Supreme Court has put it, invariably raise “doubts about whether the government is in fact pursuing the interest it invokes, rather than disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.” And inconsistency abounds in the draft opinion.

The Committee gives a pass to the ABA even though it advocates positions that line up consistently with those of the Democratic Party through its official resolutions, lobbying, grass-roots advocacy and friend-of-the-court briefs.

The basis for that approval appears to be that the ABA has a “judicial division,” whose members, its bylaws assert, “will not be deemed to endorse” the association’s “positions and policies.” Perhaps the Federalist Society or ACS could overcome the ban by creating a similar judicial division—though the committee doesn’t say. But that would be meaningless for the Federalist Society, which doesn’t lobby or take positions on policy or political candidates. Its purpose is to facilitate open debate, allowing voices and perspectives often shut out of legal academia to be heard. For the society to adopt a special disclaimer for judicial members would be tantamount to confessing falsely that it has been misrepresenting its true purpose.

The committee also asserts that the ABA “is concerned with the improvement of the law in general and advocacy for the legal profession as a whole,” while the Federalist Society and ACS are not. Such favoritism should raise a red flag. Decades of case law condemns viewpoint-based discrimination by the government that favors one group over others.

The Supreme Court stated the rule plainly in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995): “When the government targets not subject matter but particular views taken by speakers on a subject, the violation of the First Amendment is all the more blatant. Viewpoint discrimination is thus an egregious form of content discrimination. The government must abstain from regulating speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction.”

The rule’s application here is clear: The committee may not play favorites, approving organizations because it thinks their views foster “improvement.” To avoid viewpoint discrimination while banning the Federalist Society and ACS, the committee would have to paint with a much broader brush, proscribing not only the ABA but also state bar associations (membership in which is often mandatory for those practicing law), affinity bars like the National Association of Women Lawyers and the Hispanic National Bar Association, and perhaps even churches—all of which take positions on issues that come before federal judges.

That would be foolish as well as unconstitutional. The Judicial Code of Conduct recognizes that “a judge should not become isolated from the society in which the judge lives” and that blocking judges from participation in civil society “is neither possible nor wise,” given their “unique position to contribute to the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice.” A viewpoint-neutral ban would run afoul of First Amendment tailoring requirements, which demand that a restriction’s scope be the minimum required to fulfill the government’s stated interest. Requiring judges to be monks is a step too far.

The Committee’s speech- and association-censoring approach simply cannot be reconciled with the First Amendment. So why not stick with the status quo, which focuses on impartiality? Its virtues include neutrality, familiarity, and appropriate deference to a federal judiciary that has proven its integrity and good sense through its conduct and the esteem in which it is held.

Federalist Society members have served as federal judges and law clerks for nearly 40 years without a serious suggestion of ethical impropriety. During that period nothing has changed about the organization’s activities or its purpose. What has changed is that it now faces regular attacks from political actors seeking to achieve their own ends by spreading falsehoods about a public-spirited organization. It is dismaying enough to see a committee of federal judges accept those falsehoods. Their willingness to disregard basic constitutional principles in the process is a dereliction.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They are members of the Federalist Society, and Mr. Grossman serves on its Free Speech and Election Law Executive Committee.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/shut-up-they-advised-11580773557

This Impeachment Subverts the Constitution

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Elizabeth Price Foley

October 25, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has directed committees investigating President Trump to “proceed under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry,” but the House has never authorized such an inquiry. Democrats have been seeking to impeach Mr. Trump since the party took control of the House, though it isn’t clear for what offense. Lawmakers and commentators have suggested various possibilities, but none amount to an impeachable offense. The effort is akin to a constitutionally proscribed bill of attainder—a legislative effort to punish a disfavored person. The Senate should treat it accordingly.

The impeachment power is quasi-judicial and differs fundamentally from Congress’s legislative authority. The Constitution assigns “the sole power of impeachment” to the House—the full chamber, which acts by majority vote, not by a press conference called by the Speaker. Once the House begins an impeachment inquiry, it may refer the matter to a committee to gather evidence with the aid of subpoenas. Such a process ensures the House’s political accountability, which is the key check on the use of impeachment power.

The House has followed this process every time it has tried to impeach a president. Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment was predicated on formal House authorization, which passed 126-47. In 1974 the Judiciary Committee determined it needed authorization from the full House to begin an inquiry into Richard Nixon’s impeachment, which came by a 410-4 vote. The House followed the same procedure with Bill Clinton in 1998, approving a resolution 258-176, after receiving independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report.

Mrs. Pelosi discarded this process in favor of a Trump-specific procedure without precedent in Anglo-American law. Rep. Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee and several other panels are questioning witnesses in secret. Mr. Schiff has defended this process by likening it to a grand jury considering whether to hand up an indictment. But while grand-jury secrecy is mandatory, House Democrats are selectively leaking information to the media, and House Republicans, who are part of the jury, are being denied subpoena authority and full access to transcripts of testimony and even impeachment-related committee documents. No grand jury has a second class of jurors excluded from full participation.

Unlike other impeachable officials, such as federal judges and executive-branch officers, the president and vice president are elected by, and accountable to, the people. The executive is also a coequal branch of government. Thus any attempt to remove the president by impeachment creates unique risks to democracy not present in any other impeachment context. Adhering to constitutional text, tradition and basic procedural guarantees of fairness is critical. These processes are indispensable bulwarks against abuse of the impeachment power, designed to preserve the separation of powers by preventing Congress from improperly removing an elected president. Read more »

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.

Read more »

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.

Read more »

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.” Read more »

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. Read more »