Congress Sowed the Seeds of Jan. 6 in 1887

The Electoral Vote Count Act lets Congress think it can choose the President, but it’s unconstitutional.

By J. Michael Luttig and David B. Rivkin Jr.

March 18, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

Congress plans to establish a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. We already know one reason for that terrible event. Members of the mob acted in the mistaken belief, encouraged by President Trump, that lawmakers had the power to determine the election’s winner. Congress itself sowed the seeds of this belief when it passed the Electoral Vote Count Act of 1887 and could destroy it root and branch by repealing that law.

The EVCA grew out of another bitterly contested presidential election. In 1876 officials in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina certified competing slates of electors, one for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and one for Democrat Samuel J. Tilden ; a single electoral vote from Oregon was similarly contested. The 20 disputed votes were enough to decide the election. A congressional commission ultimately chose Hayes in a political deal. In exchange for the presidency, Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction and withdraw federal troops from the South.

The EVCA was enacted 10 years later, largely to limit Congress’s role in determining which electoral votes to accept. Yet Congress gave itself more authority than the Constitution allows, by establishing a labyrinthine process to resolve state electoral-vote challenges. The most constitutionally offensive provision gave Congress the absolute power to invalidate electoral votes as “irregularly given,” a process that a single representative and senator can trigger by filing an objection.

Fortunately, this provision has seldom been invoked—only twice before 2021—and no objection has ever been sustained. But this year Republican lawmakers vowed to contest the results in six swing states that Joe Biden carried. Although the objections had no prospect of success in a Democratic House and those that were filed (for Arizona and Pennsylvania) were voted down overwhelmingly in both chambers, the law put Congress smack in the middle, where it uncomfortably found itself in 1876.

That’s not what the Framers intended. The Constitution’s Electors Clause gives state legislatures plenary authority over the manner of choosing electors and relegates Congress to determining on what day the Electoral College would cast its votes. The 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, reformed the Electoral College by providing for separate votes for president and vice president. It also reiterates the Article II, Section 1 language that the certified state electoral results are to be transmitted to Washington, opened by the president of the Senate, and counted in the presence of both congressional houses.

No constitutional provision empowers Congress to resolve disputes over the validity of a state’s electoral slate—or for that matter addresses who is to resolve these disputes. Significantly, the 12th Amendment gives Congress no power to enact legislation to enforce its provisions, unlike subsequent amendments expanding the franchise. The Necessary and Proper Clause doesn’t support such legislation either. The constitutional text contains further indications that the Framers chose to exclude Congress from participating in presidential elections. While Article I, Section 5 grants Congress the authority to judge the elections of its own members, no such power is given with regard to presidential elections. And Article II, Section 1 forbids members of Congress from being appointed as electors.

In fact, after much debate, the Framers deliberately chose to deny Congress any substantive role in selecting the president and vice president, except in the rare case that no candidate has an Electoral College majority. This was for compelling separation-of-powers reasons. As Gouverneur Morris explained at the time, “if the Executive be chosen by the [National] Legislature, he will not be independent [of] it; and if not independent, usurpation and tyranny on the part of the Legislature will be the consequence.”

Thus Congress’s prescribed role as audience during the process of opening and counting the electoral votes is ministerial. With electoral college votes coming from all of the states, the counting had to be performed by a federal government entity, and both the executive and judicial branches had potential conflicts of interest. That Congress has no constitutional “skin in the game” of presidential selection made it perfectly positioned for this role of official observer.

Who then does have the power to settle disputes over electoral slates, such as those in 1876 and 2020? Whether electors are validly chosen is a quintessentially legal determination, not a political one. When state legislatures select presidential electors, they exercise power vested in them by the U.S. Constitution, not by state law. As the power to say what federal law is rests with the federal judiciary, it is the federal courts that have the authority and the responsibility to resolve these disputes.

Congress should promptly repeal the Electoral Vote Counting Act. Given the tight constitutional timeline for casting and counting votes and inaugurating a president, lawmakers should enact a statute providing for expeditious federal judicial resolution of all questions relating to compliance with state legislatively established procedures for selecting presidential electors, the validity of elector selection, and the casting of electoral votes—and requiring eventual mandatory Supreme Court review.

By ridding the country of this unconstitutional and anachronistic law, lawmakers would remove themselves from the process for choosing the president and surrender back to the federal judiciary the role Congress unconstitutionally arrogated to itself almost a century and a half ago. That would go a long way toward ensuring that America never witnesses a siege on the National Capitol on a future Jan. 6.

Mr. Luttig served as a judge on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1991-2006. He advised Vice President Mike Pence on the 2020 vote certification. Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He 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/congress-sowed-the-seeds-of-jan-6-in-1887-11616086776

Legal analysis of the Democrats’ proposed elections law

In this interview (20 Feb 2021) on the Dan Proft show, David Rivkin shows that the Democrats’ proposal to regulate federal elections is unconstitutional, especially in relation to presidential ballots. The constitution stipulates that determining the manner of presidential elections is a power held by the states, not by Congress. The interview follows a recent op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal

An Unconstitutional Voting ‘Reform’

Democrats want to impose federal rules on elections for president. Congress doesn’t have that power.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Jason Snead

Feb. 16, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

House Democrats have made election “reform” their top legislative priority. House Resolution 1, styled the For the People Act, would vitiate existing state election laws, federalize the rules of congressional and presidential elections, and effectively do the same for state elections, which are often conducted on the same ballot. Critics have noted that the proposed rules are designed to benefit Democrats. They’re also unconstitutional.

The key problem is that the Constitution doesn’t give Congress the authority to regulate all federal elections in the same way. Congress has significant power over congressional elections. The Elections Clause of Article I, Section 4 provides that state legislatures “shall prescribe” the “times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives,” but also authorizes Congress to “make or alter such regulations.”

Yet Congress has only limited authority over the conduct of presidential elections. They are governed by the Electors Clause in Article II, Section 1, which provides: “Congress may determine the time of choosing the electors, and the day on which they shall give their votes; which day shall be the same throughout the United States.” Congress’s timing determination is binding on the states, as the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held last year in Carson v. Simon, which rejected Minnesota’s modification of its ballot-receipt deadline. (The Honest Elections Project sponsored the litigation, and Mr. Rivkin was the plaintiffs’ lead attorney.)

But the Electors Clause gives state legislatures plenary power over the manner of selecting presidential electors. It does not permit lawmakers to promulgate a comprehensive federal elections code. Nor does the 15th Amendment, which bars racial discrimination in voting, or the other amendments extending the franchise. Each grants Congress the power to enforce its guarantees through “appropriate legislation.” But as the Supreme Court explained in City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), “Congress does not enforce a constitutional right by changing what the right is.” None of these amendments guarantee the right to vote in any particular way—such as by mail versus in person—so Congress can’t rightly be said to be enforcing them through H.R.1. And none of them repeal the Electors Clause.

Although all 50 state legislatures have provided for popular election of presidential electors, the legislatures could change state law and appoint electors directly. H.R.1 violates the Electors Clause on its face, purporting to govern not merely the time, place and manner of congressional elections, but also regulating presidential elections in exactly the same prescriptive matter as congressional elections.

The profound difference between the Electors Clause and the Elections Clause was no accident. The 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia considered many possible methods of choosing the chief executive: direct popular election, selection by one or both houses of Congress, even a vote of state governors. Ultimately, delegates settled on a college of electors, chosen in a manner to be determined by the legislature of each state, to avoid the president’s selection by Congress. As Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris said at the convention, “if the Executive be chosen by the [national] legislature, he will not be independent [of] it; and if not independent, usurpation and tyranny on the part of the legislature will be the consequence.”

Another delegate, South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney, explained later: “In the Federal Convention great care was used to provide for the election of the president of the United States independently of Congress; to take the business as far as possible out of their hands.” Congress, Pinckney continued, “had no right to meddle with it at all.” The only exception is that the House chooses the president if no candidate commands an Electoral College majority.

The Supreme Court has recognized state legislatures’ primacy in regulating presidential elections. In McPherson v. Blacker (1892), the justices upheld Michigan’s apportionment of presidential electors by congressional district, holding that the Constitution “leaves it to the [state] legislature exclusively to define the method” of appointing electors. Subsequent rulings have adhered to that principle. In Burroughs v. U.S. (1934), the court held that Congress’s authority is limited to enacting laws that don’t “interfere with the power of a state to appoint electors or the manner in which their appointment shall be made.”

The court restated this principle as recently as 2000, holding unanimously in Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board that the Florida Supreme Court couldn’t change state election laws on its own authority, without action by the Legislature.

Even if lawmakers cured the constitutional deficiency of H.R.1 by applying it only to congressional elections, it would still be bad policy. Voting systems are vast and complex. Even minor, well-intentioned changes can have significant unintended consequences. Few know this better than election officials themselves. According to a recent report by Pennsylvania’s county commissioners, “uncertainty regarding court challenges” and “confusion because of ever-changing guidance” from Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar contributed to the November delays and problems experienced by counties across the commonwealth. It took Philadelphia two weeks to count 700,000 ballots.

By contrast, Florida has spent two decades bolstering its election system after the debacle of 2000. The Sunshine State processed 11 million ballots in November and reported accurate results on election night. More states should be doing what Florida does.

But H.R.1 would put Florida’s success at risk. Its law requires voters to show identification and return absentee ballots by Election Day, bans organized ballot trafficking, and requires that voters cure problems with their mail-in ballots no later than two days after an election. Common-sense measures like these help the state deliver honest elections with prompt and accurate results even in the face of a pandemic. For H.R.1’s drafters, though, these are instruments of “voter suppression.” The bill would dilute or prohibit all these measures.

Keeping states in charge of elections also limits the damage when policy changes fail. States can experiment with voting improvements, learn from missteps, and replicate successes. Not so with a one-size-fits-all system. Any troubles caused by a national voting law will instantly affect all 50 states, none of which will have the freedom to correct them. Imposing unconstitutional voting changes on the whole nation would politicize the machinery of democracy and risk permanently tainting the credibility of elections.

Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Mr. Snead is executive director of the Honest Elections Project.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/an-unconstitutional-voting-reform-11613497134

The Constitution Will Survive Covid-19

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

Nov. 27, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

The Covid-19 pandemic “has served as a sort of constitutional stress test,” Justice Samuel Alito observed this month. “The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty.” The setting underscored the point: Justice Alito made his remarks in an online speech that ordinarily would have been delivered in a cavernous hall, before a crowd of hundreds gathered for the Federalist Society’s annual dinner.

A public-health emergency may justify curtailments of liberty that would be unacceptable in normal times. But even in an emergency, America’s government doesn’t wield unlimited powers. Measures taken to deal with this pandemic have imposed severe restrictions on the most basic rights and liberties, often with little consideration of their legal basis. The U.S. Constitution prohibits many of the most draconian measures taken or under consideration.

Joe Biden has implicitly acknowledged the point. Accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in August, the former vice president declared: “We’ll have a national mandate to wear a mask—not as a burden, but to protect each other. It’s a patriotic duty.” But his transition website promises only to “implement mask mandates nationwide by working with governors and mayors.”

A federal mask mandate is a nonstarter because it would have to be grounded in one of Congress’s constitutionally enumerated powers, all of which have limits. The go-to section to justify federal regulation is the clause granting lawmakers the power “to regulate commerce . . . among the several states.” As the Supreme Court held in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012), which involved the ObamaCare mandate to buy medical insurance, individuals must be engaged in commercial activity before Congress can regulate them. Congress cannot impose requirements on the citizenry “precisely because they are doing nothing,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.

The same is true of other prospective federal anti-Covid measures, such as a national “stay at home” order or an overall economic lockdown. Congress does have broad authority to regulate business, which it could use to impose workplace safety rules, including mask mandates. But nationwide lockdowns are a dubious legal proposition. Congress has never attempted to eliminate all or most economic activity. Any such requirement, even if supportable under the Commerce Clause, would raise significant concerns about the constitutional rights of people prevented from earning a living.

State and local mandates pose a more complicated question. Unlike the federal government, states have a general “police power” that permits them to enact public-health regulations. State and local mask mandates will likely survive judicial scrutiny, as the burden is relatively small. But quarantine requirements imposed on otherwise healthy people, and especially stay-at-home orders and shutdowns of economic activity, are another matter.

Courts have generally upheld quarantines as proper exercises of state police power. But they have traditionally required the involuntary seclusion only of infected individuals and those exposed to them. Quarantines for travelers may survive constitutional challenges. They are generally limited to 14 days or less and arguably supported by the states’ interest in limiting the potential to spread the infection from viral “hot spots.”

But states have no constitutional authority to discriminate against out-of-state persons, goods or services or to burden interstate commerce unduly. It would be hard to justify restrictions that draw arbitrary distinctions between intra- and interstate travelers or among states. New York’s current rules, for instance, exempt travelers within New York and from adjacent states while ordering quarantine for those from distant states with lower Covid rates.

Universal, open-ended stay-at-home mandates and general economic shutdowns are unprecedented in America. The former amount to the imposition of house arrest on vast numbers of people without due process or any provision for basic needs. They raise important constitutional issues involving freedom of assembly, due process and equal protection.

Mandating how many individuals can meet in one’s home, as some states did in time for Thanksgiving, is particularly difficult to justify. If the government can regulate your dinner guests, what can’t it do? Although the government has imposed location-specific curfews in times of war and civil disorder to address specific public-safety concerns, protracted populationwide curfews directed at more-nebulous threats will be difficult to justify.

Some of these issues will doubtless reach the Supreme Court, but lower courts are already wrestling with them. In County of Butler v. Wolf, William S. Stickman IV, a federal district judge in Pittsburgh, struck down Pennsylvania’s most draconian anti-Covid-19 measures. These included strict limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings, stay-at-home requirements, and the lockdown of businesses that aren’t “life-sustaining.” Judge Stickman found these measures wanting on First Amendment, due-process and equal-protection grounds, even under an “intermediate” level of scrutiny.

“A public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists,” Judge Stickman concluded in his September decision. He took particular note of Pennsylvania’s diversity of communities—and hence of Covid risks—as against the state’s “one-size fits all approach” to stay-at-home orders, which were not in any way tailored to minimize the burden while achieving the government’s legitimate ends.

Judge Stickman concluded that Pennsylvania’s business lockdown requirements failed to meet even the lowest level of constitutional scrutiny—being rationally related to a proper state purpose. He noted that the state had not articulated “a set, objective and measurable definition” of “life-sustaining” businesses, and that its requirements arbitrarily favored large retailers over small ones. Pennsylvania has appealed Judge Stickman’s decision, but it is difficult to see how the state can defend such capricious and comprehensive restrictions. The same goes for other states: Such details as closing health clubs but not beauty salons (New York), or imposing restrictions on the use of sailboats but not motorboats (Michigan), appear driven not by any rational basis but by government officials’ aesthetic and ideological preferences.

No doubt some judges will be inclined to defer to government officials in an emergency. Five Supreme Court justices did so earlier this year when churches in California and Nevada sought to enjoin state orders limiting the number of worshipers at services. In both cases, Chief Justice Roberts voted with the court’s four Democratic appointees to deny immediate relief.

But the other four justices dissented in both cases on the grounds that the orders violate freedom of religion by imposing greater limits on religious activities than comparable secular businesses, including casinos. As Justice Alito quipped during his Federalist Society speech: “Take a quick look at the Constitution. You will see the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which protects religious liberty. You will not find a craps clause.”

This Wednesday the court granted injunctive relief to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and an Orthodox synagogue, which are challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s occupancy limits. Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the new 5-4 majority. In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch observed that the state had ignored “long-settled principles” that almost always prohibit government officials “from treating religious exercises worse than comparable secular activities.”

One area in which the states clearly can impose anti-Covid mandates is vaccinations. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the Supreme court upheld the city of Cambridge’s authority to respond to a smallpox outbreak by mandating vaccines for all inhabitants. The justices affirmed that “the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”

Congress may also be able to impose vaccination or testing on employees or others engaged in commerce. But proponents of economic lockdowns overreach when they cite Jacobson in support. The case was modest in scope and dealt with a far surer remedy for a deadlier virus than Covid-19.

Federal and state officials have every right to urge Americans to take precautions against viral spread, though it would help if they consistently followed their own advice. But when the government moves beyond persuasion to coercion, its requirements must meet constitutional muster.

Some of them will, such as well-tailored state-level mask and vaccination mandates. Others probably won’t, including broad curfews, stay-at-home orders, economic lockdown mandates and measures that target protected First Amendment activities. There may be a “judicial impulse to stay out of the way in times of crisis,” Justice Gorsuch wrote in the New York case. “But . . . we may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack.”

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/the-constitution-will-survive-covid-19-11606502792

Another Election Goes to Court

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

Nov. 6, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

Whoever first quipped “It’s all over but the counting” forgot about the lawyers. Over the past year, Democrats and their allies marched through state after state in an unprecedented legal campaign to upend longstanding rules of election administration. The result is more uncertainty than ever over the basic rules of voting, and an increased likelihood that races will have to be called by the courts. Although it’s too early to say for certain, that may include the presidential election.

The battle lines are being drawn in states President Trump needs to win. Pennsylvania provides a typical illustration. In 2019 the state overhauled its election code to allow everyone to vote by absentee ballot. What had been a relatively restrictive regime, with early deadlines and limited availability, was transformed into one of the most liberal in the nation, requiring only that ballots be received by the statewide voting deadline, 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Even that wouldn’t hold. After three lawsuits to extend the deadline struck out this summer, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party hit a home run on the fourth at-bat. What changed was that the secretary of state, charged with defending state law, switched sides to support her own political party. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the ballot-receipt deadline, established by state law, violated the state constitution’s “Free and Equal Election Clause” and legislated a three-day extension along with a presumption of timeliness for unpostmarked ballots received by Friday. It dismissed out of hand arguments that the U.S. Constitution’s Elections and Electors clauses vest exclusive authority in state legislatures to set the rules of federal elections that can’t be rewritten by state judges or executive-branch officials.

The U.S. Supreme Court split evenly on requests by the state Republican Party and the GOP-controlled Legislature to block the lower-court ruling—effectively denying them. But both have asked the court to review the case on the merits, and the Trump campaign filed a motion on Wednesday to join that case as a party. If Pennsylvania is close, the Biden campaign will join the other side, creating a 2020 reincarnation of Bush v. Gore.

We’ve come to this pass because of Democratic politicians’ recklessness and the Supreme Court’s timidity. Democrats knew from the beginning that it was risky for state courts to shift the rules of federal elections, because voters might rely on state-court decisions later overturned under federal law. The justices also could have avoided the problem by deciding the issue before Election Day, when voters still had the opportunity to get their ballots in on time according to the rules.

In this case, Chief Justice John Roberts’s inclination to duck politically charged cases may prove self-defeating. If the court has to step in now, after the votes have been cast and counted, a political storm could become a hurricane.

Republicans filed two Election Day lawsuits in Pennsylvania challenging local election officials’ disparate treatment of defective mail-in ballots. While state law doesn’t permit mail-in voters to be notified of defects with their ballots—doing so would interfere with the timing and confidentiality of the counting process—officials in several counties apparently contacted voters to allow them to cure defects. The problem, aside from violating state law, is that this treats voters differently depending on where in the state they live, in contravention of equal-protection principles. It’s little different from the gerrymandered recount the high court rejected in Bush v. Gore.

The backdrop in Arizona is a long-running lawsuit by the Democratic National Committee challenging the state’s requirement (shared by most states) that voters cast their ballots in assigned precincts, along with its prohibition on “ballot harvesting,” the collection of ballots by parties outside the voter’s family or household. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Democrats and enjoined both policies in 2016, but the Supreme Court blocked the injunction a day later, with no recorded dissents.

The litigation dragged on. After a 10-day trial, a district court held that neither of these policies violates the Voting Rights Act. The Ninth Circuit reversed, but it stayed its own decision, anticipating that the Supreme Court would do so if it didn’t. The Supreme Court agreed last month to hear the state’s appeal, but it has yet to schedule arguments in the case. Meanwhile, Democrats stand ready to challenge the disqualification of wrong-precinct votes if that’s necessary to nudge up the numbers.

The presidential race may require legal decisions resolving such issues, as well as recounts and all the additional questions they implicate, to be decided in as many as half a dozen states. Manual recounts may be requested in several states, adding additional delays to the overall process. The Trump campaign has already filed lawsuits challenging various aspects of ballot handling and counting in Michigan and Georgia; suits in Nevada and Arizona may follow. Every case will have to be decided before Dec. 8, the federal statutory “safe harbor” deadline for states to appoint elector slates, or, at the absolute latest, by Dec. 14, when the Electoral College votes.

The media is already accusing the Trump campaign of attempting to litigate its way to victory, but practically every issue in play arises from the Democrats’ march through the courts in the run-up to Election Day. For all the cries of “disenfranchisement,” both sides agree that every lawful ballot should be counted. But after so many conflicting court decisions over the past year, what’s uncertain now is the law, and there’s no dishonor in asking the courts to say what it is.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin has served in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/another-election-goes-to-court-11604618993?mod=e2two

China Deserves a Day in Court

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

Oct. 19, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

As Donald Trump and Joe Biden debate how to deal with malign Chinese behavior, Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics reports its economy has largely recovered from the Covid-19 pandemic, growing 4.9% year-on-year in the third quarter. Meanwhile American class-action lawyers and the attorneys general of Mississippi and Missouri are suing the Chinese government over the novel coronavirus. Plaintiffs accuse Beijing of various forms of misconduct, ranging from negligence in handling the original infections in Wuhan to the reckless operation of biolabs and even perpetrating bioterrorism against the U.S.

Some of these claims are more plausible than others, but all face an insurmountable obstacle in court: the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which prevents most lawsuits against foreign countries in U.S. courts. Litigation could be a way of holding China accountable, but only if Congress changes the law.

FSIA makes a few limited exceptions to immunity. Although lawyers in these cases have cited them, all seem clearly inapplicable. One permits suits against foreign governments based on their commercial activities in the U.S., or elsewhere if there is a direct effect in America. But these complaints allege governmental, not commercial, negligence or duplicity in handling the epidemic.

The tort exception allows foreign governments to be sued for wrongful actions, whether negligent or intentional. But Supreme Court precedent limits the exception to torts that take place entirely within the U.S. It would cover, for instance, an auto accident in Washington but not in Beijing.

There’s also an exception for terrorism, but that requires either that the defendant be designated a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the U.S.—currently only Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria are—or a specific act of international terrorism within the U.S. A biological attack would surely qualify, but there’s no evidence of that here.

FSIA gives federal courts jurisdiction over all lawsuits against foreign governments, and it’s almost certain judges will dismiss these actions even if Beijing refuses to participate in the proceedings. Reinterpreting any of the FSIA exceptions to cover suits involving the pandemic would open the door to further attacks on sovereign immunity. The U.S., a sovereign state itself, should be careful about creating broad new exceptions, and judges should be especially cautious, since they have neither the authority nor the expertise to conduct foreign policy.

That said, Congress has the power to limit or withdraw a foreign state’s sovereign immunity, and it should consider doing so in response to Covid-19. Such changes to deal with novel problems are legitimate and well-recognized. In May the Supreme Court held unanimously in Optai v. Republic of Sudan that plaintiffs in a lawsuit over al Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa could recover punitive damages under an amendment to FSIA enacted in 2008.

Congress could enact a new exception to FSIA for cases in which a foreign state has failed to inform, or deliberately misinformed, the global community of the nature and scope of a local epidemic that becomes a global pandemic. Beijing’s failure in December to comply with the 24-hour notification requirement of the 2005 International Health Regulations would be an important factor to consider.

Such a statute could either create a new federal tort or give federal courts jurisdiction over suits alleging injuries under state law. As with the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act of 2016, Congress should authorize the federal government to intervene in litigation to secure a diplomatic resolution that compensates plaintiffs and mitigates future harms.

The U.S. judiciary is respected around the world and would be a better venue than any governmental or international investigation for getting at the truth of Covid-19. Beijing has accused the U.S. military of creating the virus and introducing it during the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan, in which a U.S. team participated. Chinese nationals have filed several lawsuits in China against the U.S. military, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other American government entities. In these pages in May, a senior Chinese official, Xie Feng, suggested that the virus might have originated outside China. If Chinese officials have evidence to support any of these assertions, they could introduce them in court. In any case, their claims underscore the need for an impartial inquiry.

Congress could also withdraw immunity from international organizations that allegedly aided and abetted China’s efforts to play down the virus’s transmission and the health risks. Western intelligence services have suggested that Beijing gave detailed instructions to World Health Organization on what it should say. Plaintiffs could use the discovery process to identify other governmental and private-sector collaborators and hold them accountable for their Covid-related activities and other likely offenses, such as garden-variety corruption, committed while collaborating with Beijing.

They could also explore evidence that Covid-19 stemmed from an accidental release from a Wuhan biolab.

Beijing wouldn’t be able to ignore U.S. lawsuits. If it refused to participate, U.S. courts would enter enforceable default judgments. If it did participate, it would have to submit to discovery. It may be tempted to cheat in this process, but modern discovery techniques make that exceedingly difficult, and cheating would entail further liability and judicial punishments.

The Chinese government could try to avoid complying with any court-ordered damages and injunctions. But that wouldn’t be easy. Successful plaintiffs could collect judgments against Beijing by seizing Chinese government-owned commercial property around the world and the proceeds of sales of government goods and services. Ignoring injunctions would lead to monetary fines and other punishments.

Several bills featuring some of these provisions have been introduced by Sens. Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, Martha McSally and Marsha Blackburn. Congress should proceed with caution. The law is usually a blunt and inflexible policy tool, wielded by an unelected judiciary rather than the president and Congress, where the Constitution vests the power to run foreign affairs. The political branches are accountable for their decisions in a way that the judiciary is not.

Yet Covid-19 has taken a tremendous human and economic toll world-wide. Lawsuits may become a powerful instrument for changing China’s behavior and can aid U.S. diplomatic and economic efforts to accomplish the same goal. Deterring China from future aberrant behavior requires holding it accountable for its Covid-19-related misconduct.

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/china-deserves-a-day-in-court-11603148463