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

The Supreme Court and the Election Returns

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

Oct. 11, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide as early as Monday whether to grant a stay in Pennsylvania Democratic Party v. Boockvar, in which the Keystone State’s supreme court, despite state election law to the contrary, ordered officials to count mail-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day. The justices should do so. This may turn out to be a normal election, in which we know the result by Nov. 4 and the Electoral College meets Dec. 14 to make it official. But a lot could go wrong, and the complex legal issues can be resolved only by the high court. Consider these possible scenarios:

• The counting drags on. If the election is close—and even if it isn’t—the process of tallying the vote could end up making the 2000 election dispute look simple. This year’s election procedures are being revised by courts in multiple states. This raises such questions as whether widespread mail-in voting and “ballot harvesting” are permissible and whether ballots received after Election Day can be counted, along with the overarching question of whether state or federal courts can create new election rules to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Bush v. Gore, the justices were forced to act by an impending deadline. Based on a specific constitutional grant of authority, Congress established the date on which the Electoral College must vote—a hard deadline (this year Dec. 14). In addition, Congress created a “safe harbor,” Dec. 8 this year, by which the state’s electoral slate is presumed to be valid. The court in 2000 acted to stop the recounts to meet the latter deadline.

Regardless of the statutory safe harbor, Article II of the Constitution requires each state to appoint electors “in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct” in time for the Electoral College vote. Because this is a specific constitutional duty conferred on state legislatures, they are exercising federal authority. Therefore neither state nor federal courts may rewrite election laws applicable to the selection of presidential electors. Justice Brett Kavanaugh emphasized that point concurring in Andino v. Middleton, an Oct. 5 order in which the justices stayed an injunction by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that would have prevented South Carolina from enforcing its witness requirement for absentee ballots.

The Constitution similarly authorizes Congress to establish a single day—this year Nov. 3—on which presidential electors (and members of Congress) must be chosen. The election must be conducted on that day. This was the Supreme Court’s conclusion in Foster v. Love (1997), which involved congressional elections. The justices ruled that “the combined actions of voters and officials meant to make a final selection of an officeholder” must take place on Election Day, even if some aspects of voting may take place earlier. Thus although ballots can be completed beforehand and returned through the mail, they must be received by Nov. 3.

The justices have discretion over which petitions to hear and when. In cases involving a pending election, they should err on the side of speed and decisiveness. The sooner and more clearly these disputes are adjudicated, the likelier the election will go smoothly—and the less likely the need for an 11th-hour judicial intervention à la Bush v. Gore.

If counting isn’t complete by the time the Electoral College votes on Dec. 14, it’s possible one or more states will fail to appoint electors, violating its constitutional duty and leaving it disfranchised.

In that case, another question may arise: If states are absent from the Electoral College, does a candidate need a majority of the 538 available electoral votes (270) to be elected president or vice president, or is a majority of the votes cast sufficient? The 12th Amendment calls for “a majority of the whole number of electors appointed,” but the Supreme Court has never addressed this issue because it has never arisen. In only three elections—1789, 1864 and 1868—have any states’ electors gone unappointed, and in all three cases the winner had a majority either way.

• State authorities certify competing slates of electors. That’s what happened in the election of 1876 between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. Competing officials claimed their party had won 21 electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, plus a single vote from Oregon—together enough to be decisive. Congress enacted legislation establishing a 15-member bipartisan “electoral commission” to resolve the dispute. The result, just in time for Inauguration Day on March 4, 1877, was a political deal that recognized Hayes as president and ended Reconstruction throughout the South.

The law creating the commission rested on no obvious congressional authority and thus was surely unconstitutional. But in an era when the federal judiciary’s role was far more circumscribed than today, the issue didn’t come before the Supreme Court. That would be different today—and rightly so. A dispute over the certification of electors is a legal question, not a political one. It would have to be resolved in the courts, and, given the stakes, ultimately by the Supreme Court.

• Congress attempts a power grab. In the years after the 1876 dispute, lawmakers enacted statutes to address the presidential election process, including barely intelligible language that purports to establish rules for determining which electoral votes Congress will count and authorizing members to lodge disputes. This too is constitutionally dubious although like the 1876 solution, it has never been litigated.

The 12th Amendment provides that once the electoral votes have been cast, the vice president receives and opens the votes before a joint session of Congress. (Under current statutory law, this takes place Jan. 6, after the new Congress has taken office.) But this is a purely ministerial function. If no candidate has an Electoral College majority, the House and Senate, respectively, choose the president and vice president. That is Congress’s only legitimate role in deciding the election.

This is for good reason. The Framers considered having Congress choose the president but concluded it would give too much power to the legislative branch and violate the separation of powers. Their solution was the Electoral College, an ephemeral body with no institutional interests of its own. Judges don’t decide election outcomes either, but the Supreme Court has recognized since Marbury v. Madison (1803) that it is their duty to “say what the law is.”

However disputed the election results may be, there is no basis for Congress to override the Electoral College or refuse to count the votes. The House recognized this in its 1932 report proposing the 20th Amendment, which noted that it was using “the term ‘President elect’ in its generally accepted sense, as meaning the person who has received the majority of the electoral votes, or the person who has been chosen by the House of Representatives in the event that the election is thrown into the House. It is immaterial whether or not the votes have been counted [in Congress], for the person becomes President elect as soon as the votes are cast.”

Whichever candidates receive the majority of electoral votes on Dec. 14 immediately become president and vice president elect, and they will take office on Jan. 20, 2021—even if it takes a Supreme Court ruling to make it so.

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-supreme-court-and-the-election-returns-11602435660

There was nothing unlawful or improper about Trump’s acceptance speech

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

30 August 2020 in The Hill

The talking heads and pundits attacking President Trump for giving his Republican National Convention acceptance speech from the White House lawn need to actually read the law. The Hatch Act is a precisely written statute — as is appropriate for a law that limits the indisputable First Amendment rights of federal workers — and it supports the president.

First and foremost, the Hatch Act explicitly exempts the president and vice president from its strictures. It defines “employee,” to which the Hatch Act’s restrictions apply, as someone “other than the President or Vice President.” This is constitutionally required because the president is a co-equal branch of the federal government and Congress can no more limit or restrain his political activities than he could limit theirs.

As a result, President Trump was entirely within his legal rights to give his acceptance speech from the South Lawn of the White House. And any members of the White House staff who may have assisted and supported the president on Thursday night also were in compliance with the Hatch Act.

Although the Hatch Act prohibits a wide swath of federal workers — including many of the individuals who work in the White House — from engaging in political activities while on duty or “in any room or building occupied,” the White House lawn is not such a room or building.  Had Congress intended to extend Hatch Act restrictions to entire government installations or compounds, it could and would have said so.

In addition, there is a further exemption from the relevant Hatch Act restrictions for White House staff members whose work and responsibilities continue beyond normal working hours and while on travel — which includes many if not most of them. These individuals are permitted to engage in political activities while on duty and in a federal room or building, as long as “the costs associated with that political activity are not paid for by money derived from the Treasury of the United States.” The president has stated that the Republican National Committee would be picking up the tab for his White House event (and the fireworks afterwards).

Similarly, the attacks on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for delivering a convention speech from Jerusalem, endorsing President Trump’s reelection, are similarly misplaced based on these same provisions.  In addition to exempting senior White House staff from Hatch Act restrictions on political activities while on duty or in a federal building, Section 7324(b) of the Hatch Act also exempts federal officials who are confirmed by the Senate and who “determine[] policies to be pursued by the United States in relations with foreign powers or in the nationwide administration of Federal laws.” This language includes, at a minimum, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and other members of the president’s cabinet.  

Such officials cannot, of course, use their “official authority or influence” to affect an election’s result, but the State Department has made clear that Secretary Pompeo spoke in his private capacity from Israel, not as secretary. Consequently, his speech was entirely consistent with his legal and ethical responsibilities.

Indeed, to the extent that Secretary Pompeo’s critics claim that he has somehow acted unethically or improperly, even if not illegally, it is significant that Congress itself made clear, in the Hatch Act’s first section, that federal employees — which includes cabinet members — “should be encouraged to exercise fully, freely, and without fear of penalty or reprisal, and to the extent not expressly prohibited by law, their right to participate or to refrain from participating in the political processes of the Nation.” The Hatch Act is a technical law to be applied as far as it goes and no further.

Finally, using the White House as a campaigning site is far from unprecedented. Jimmy Carter is said to have coined the phrase “Rose Garden Campaign,” complaining in 1976 that President Ford was taking advantage of the White House as a backdrop for his campaign. Then, in 1980 — facing economic disaster, the Iran hostage crisis and candidate Ronald Reagan, President Carter fell into the same strategy. Of course, it is only fair to note that the Rose Garden strategy did not turn out well for either sitting president in 1976 or 1980. 

But, there was nothing unlawful or improper about Presidents Ford and Carter using the White House grounds to help their campaigns then, and there is nothing improper about President Trump using it now.  

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 Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/judiciary/514192-there-was-nothing-unlawful-or-improper-about-trumps-acceptance-speech

Mail-In Voting Could Deliver Chaos

By David B. Rivking, Jr., and Lee A. Casey

25 August 2020 in the Wall Street Journal

If the 2000 election provoked a constitutional crisis, the 2020 one is flirting with disaster. Debate over voting by mail has focused mostly on the potential for fraud and logistical difficulties. But there are also legal problems with it, which carry the seeds of chaos before Inauguration Day and continuing instability after.

Under federal law, the presidential election must take place on Nov. 3, and the electors chosen on that day must vote on Dec. 14 to select the new president and vice president. These dates can’t be changed without an act of Congress, and the 20th Amendment sets Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.

Article II of the Constitution gives Congress the power to “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 has done so by enacting laws mandating that “the electors of President and Vice President shall be appointed, in each State, on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November,” and that the Electoral College must meet and vote on “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.” As the Supreme Court held in Foster v. Love (1997), taken together the relevant constitutional and statutory provisions mandate “holding all elections for Congress and the Presidency on a single day throughout the Union.”

It follows that although state statutes permit the use of certain mail-in ballots sent on or before Election Day, no ballot cast after Nov. 3 is constitutionally valid. That implies that counting unpostmarked mailed ballots that arrive after Election Day would be unconstitutional, as there would be no way to tell if they were cast in time. In addition, the winner of each state’s electoral votes must be determined by Dec. 14, or those votes cannot be cast.

These requirements create a six-week window during which the electors must be chosen and certified, leaving little time for errors or challenges to the results. The delays inevitable in widespread voting by mail would make it difficult or impossible for some states to meet the Dec. 14 deadline, even without challenges to the results—which are certain this year if the election is close.

The deadline is even tighter thanks to another federal statute, which requires that any controversy over the electors a state has appointed must be resolved, under pre-existing state law, at least six days before the Electoral College meets. If a dispute isn’t resolved by the Dec. 8 “safe harbor,” the state legislature has until Dec. 14 to determine how the electors are to be selected or forfeit its electoral votes. If a state meets the Dec. 8 deadline, the result is conclusive and Congress must accept it.

The U.S. Supreme Court stopped the biased Florida recount on Dec. 12, 2000—that year’s safe-harbor deadline. Time had run out to remedy the equal-protection and due-process violations in the recounts that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered. The state court had earlier concluded that the Florida Legislature intended its electors to “participate[e] fully in the federal electoral process.” Thus, the high court concluded, the safe harbor had to be met.

We can assume no state would want its electoral votes to go uncast. As a result, there is only a very short window for mail-in-ballots to be received and counted. State actions and litigation—which are already being pursued with gusto—establishing an overlong period for counting such ballots will endanger a state’s electoral votes, impeding the Constitution and federal election statutes. And, as the Supreme Court said in Ex parte Siebold (1880), Congress’s election regulations “are paramount to those made by the State legislature; and if they conflict therewith, the latter, so far as the conflict extends, ceases to be operative.”

Proponents of universal mail-in-voting argue that reliance on traditional in-person voting will disenfranchise many Americans because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even if that’s true, the established constitutional and statutory requirements must be met. Drawing out the tabulation of large numbers of ballots received after Election Day would make this nearly impossible.

At best, the result would be electors chosen by state legislatures. At worst, states would be disfranchised in the Electoral College—or send rival slates of electors to vote on Dec. 14, leading to a bitter dispute in Congress over which votes to recognize. Any victor who emerged from such chaos would serve under a cloud of illegitimacy, promising four more years of political instability.

One of America’s greatest constitutional imperatives is the smooth and timely transition of power from one duly elected president to the next. That is now in doubt not because of the absurd notion that President Trump will refuse to leave office on Jan. 20 if the voters reject him on Nov. 3, but because the push for mail-in voting may overload the system, making an orderly election impossible.

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/mail-in-voting-could-deliver-chaos-11598376494