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

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

Coronavirus, Contracts and the Constitution

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

17 August 2020 in the Wall Street Journal

Plaintiff lawyers want insurance companies to absorb the cost to business of the Covid-19 pandemic—and they’ve had some early successes. A federal judge in Kansas City, Mo., last week allowed salon and restaurant owners to proceed with a lawsuit claiming that Covid shutdowns constituted “direct physical loss or damage” covered by business-interruption policies. California lawmakers introduced legislation in June that would establish a presumption that Covid-19 qualifies for such coverage.

Yet however sympathetic their clients, the lawyers’ efforts are unconstitutional and dangerous. They threaten to bankrupt the insurance industry, on which American businesses and consumers depend.

Most commercial policies include coverage for business interruption caused by physical damage to the business assets. If a car dealership suffers tornado damage to its roof, it can recover repair costs and losses incurred while the premises are closed. But disease isn’t “physical loss or damage,” as that phrase is ordinarily understood or typically intended in insurance contracts. Most such contracts expressly exclude such losses. That’s because losses associated with communicable diseases—like those from war or nuclear accident—aren’t insurable. The risks are unknowable, preventing the calculation of a premium sufficient to cover the losses if the event occurs.

As the Supreme Court observed in Los Angeles Department of Water and Power v. Manhart (1978), “drastic changes” in the legal rules governing insurance policies can “jeopardize the insurer’s solvency and, ultimately, the insureds’ benefits.” If the Kansas City lawsuit and hundreds like it succeed in redefining “direct physical loss” to include Covid-induced business closures, insurers would be forced to cover losses that were never underwritten. The industry has enough reserves to pay up to $800 billion for losses covered by home, auto and business policies. Uncovered Covid-19 losses are estimated in the trillions.

Fortunately, there are significant constitutional limits on the ability of either courts or legislatures to change private insurance contracts. The Constitution forbids the states to “impair the obligation of contracts.” As Chief Justice John Marshall observed in Ogden v. Saunders (1827), the power of contract impairment “had been used to such an excess by the state legislatures, as to break in upon the ordinary intercourse of society and destroy all confidence between man and man.” The effect was “not only to impair commercial intercourse and threaten the existence of credit, but to sap the morals of the people and destroy the sanctity of private faith.”

The Contracts Clause has been invoked less frequently since the ratification of the 14th Amendment, whose Due Process Clause has become the preferred vehicle for challenging state regulatory actions. But the justices made clear in Allied Structural Steel Co. v. Spannaus (1978) that it still “limits the power of a State to abridge existing contractual relationships.” In that case, Minnesota rewrote pensions, requiring an employer to pay $185,000 to nine employees who were terminated before their benefits vested under the company’s plan. The court struck down the law as a “severe” and “unreasonably conditioned” retroactive alteration of agreed-upon obligations. Sveen v. Melin (2018), another Minnesota case, upheld a state-mandated invalidation of life-insurance beneficiary designations on divorce—but only because the impairment of the parties’ contractual obligations was minimal. The policyholder could redesignate the former spouse and “reverse the effect of the . . . statute with the stroke of a pen.”

Even during the Depression, the high court was skeptical of state laws that impaired private contracts. Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell (1934) upheld a state law that extended the time allowed for redeeming real property from foreclosure under existing mortgages, but only because the redemption extension was a reasonable temporary condition.

State legislatures that attempt to abridge commercial insurance contracts today may argue that they are meeting a Depression-caliber economic emergency. Yet although the court reaffirmed in Spannaus that states’ ability to impair contract obligations is greater during an emergency, it also held that such laws must be “tailored to the emergency that it is designed to meet” and impose only “reasonable” conditions. Legislative changes establishing liability for Covid-19 losses would completely abrogate existing contracts and impose immediate, permanently binding, ruinous contractual obligations that the parties specifically contracted not to cover. They would almost certainly be struck down under the Contracts Clause.

Federal efforts to impose new contracts on insurance companies would also be unlikely to survive a constitutional challenge. The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits Congress from imposing retroactive liabilities that, as the court put it in Landgraf v. USI Film Productions (1994), “increase a party’s liability for past conduct, or impose new duties with respect to transactions already completed.” In Eastern Enterprises v. Apfel (1998), the court struck down a law imposing new pension liabilities on employers based on decades-old contracts. The justices couldn’t agree on a rationale for their ruling: A plurality saw it as an unconstitutional taking without just compensation. But in a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that it violated due process. He noted that political pressures tempt lawmakers “to use retroactive legislation as a means of retribution against unpopular groups or individuals.”

Businesses, especially small ones, have suffered terribly because of the Covid-19 virus. Many likely won’t survive. But shifting the burden to the insurance industry by either judicial rewriting or legislatively abrogating insurance contracts would be unconstitutional, especially since the losses have been largely caused by government decrees. Congress has already provided enormous financial assistance to American businesses—the appropriate means of compensating losses suffered from the government’s shutdown of the economy.

Because the litigation threat is existential, the insurance industry should do more than defend specific lawsuits. It should seek declaratory judgments now, establishing the limits of their potential liability. It also should work to convince federal and state lawmakers that they neither should nor constitutionally could abrogate and rewrite private insurance contracts.

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. Luttig was general counsel of the Boeing Co., 2006-20. He served as a judge on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 1991-2006.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-contracts-and-the-constitution-11597705464

Madison Warned About ‘Sanctuary’ States

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and John S. Baker Jr.

Aug. 2, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

President Trump met wide derision last month when he issued an executive order excluding illegal aliens from the census numbers used for apportioning House seats. “Persons means persons,” Thomas Wolf of the Brennan Center for Justice told a reporter. “Everyone must be counted.” But counting is different from allocating political power, and Mr. Trump has the better constitutional argument.

Section 2 of the 14th Amendment provides: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.” This revises a provision in Article I that uses similar language but also includes the infamous Three Fifths Clause.

When voting on the latter provision, the Constitutional Convention used the term “number of inhabitants.” The Committee on Style shortened that to “numbers,” but that linguistic change was of no import. As Chief Justice Earl Warren noted in Powell v. McCormack (1969), the committee wasn’t authorized to make substantive changes to previously voted provisions. In Wesberry v. Sanders (1964), Justice Hugo Black wrote for the court that “the debates at the Convention make at least one fact abundantly clear: that . . . in allocating Congressmen, the number assigned to each State should be determined solely by the number of the State’s inhabitants.”

The administration argues that illegal aliens don’t qualify as inhabitants, and it’s right. The definition of “inhabitant” at the time of the Founding had an important political and economic context because of the legal responsibility of localities to care for the destitute under the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor. An inhabitant was a person who rightfully resided in a jurisdiction, contributing to and qualifying for available benefits. Like illegal aliens today, those whose presence was unlawful were not considered inhabitants and were subject to removal.

According to the 2018 Yale study, there are at least 16.7 million, and more likely around 22.1 million, illegal aliens in the U.S. The apportionment following the 2010 census yielded congressional districts containing roughly 710,000 people each. That means the illegal-alien population is the equivalent of around 30 districts, more than any state except California (53) or Texas (36).

States inflating census numbers has been a ever-present danger to the proper functioning of America’s federalist system. In Federalist No. 54, James Madison addressed what he called states’ “interest in exaggerating their inhabitants” to bolster their representation in Congress: “It is of great importance that the States should feel as little bias as possible, to swell or to reduce the amount of their numbers.”

Millions of illegal aliens are distributed disproportionately throughout the U.S., more than enough to cause shifts in apportionment of congressional seats, which also affect the Electoral College. In an example of the kind of swelling Madison warned about, some states and localities entice illegal aliens with “sanctuary” laws promising to shield them from federal law enforcement and provide them free health care and other benefits. In the years ahead, that could make the illegal alien population become larger and more concentrated in these states.

Yet this is not simply a blue vs. red state conflict over political power. Sanctuary state California will lose representatives if illegal aliens are excluded from apportionment, but so will Texas and Florida. It is also a Sun Belt vs. Rust Belt conflict. States like Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio are the ones that stand to gain (or at least not lose) in apportionment under the president’s plan.

Since only a few states lose representation after each decennial census, this gradual erosion of political power has rarely been challenged. The Supreme Court has never addressed the constitutionality of including illegal aliens in congressional apportionment and has only occasionally been asked to do so (including in a 2011 case in which we represented Louisiana). When the court rejected Mr. Trump’s proposed citizenship question on the census, it was on technical administrative procedure ground, not the merits.

That leaves it to the political branches to carry out the constitutional mandate of counting only inhabitants for reapportionment. Congress has done so, by enacting statutes giving the president wide discretion on reapportionment decisions. Mr. Trump is right to take the next step.

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. Baker is a visiting professor at Georgetown’s Center for the Constitution and a professor emeritus at Louisiana State University Law Center.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/madison-warned-about-sanctuary-states-11596396761

A Way to Curb Chinese Intimidation

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Anastasia Lin

July 13, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

Facebook, Google and Twitter announced this month that they will refuse to comply with customer-information requests from Hong Kong authorities until the companies review the implications of a new Chinese security law designed to suppress dissent in the territory. If the tech companies don’t cave in, it will be a rare instance of Western businesses standing firm against Beijing’s intimidation.

Corporations typically kowtow, fearful of losing access to China’s massive market. International airlines, including American, Delta and United, changed their websites so that Taipei isn’t listed as being in Taiwan. The general manager of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets apologized for tweeting an image that read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Mercedes-Benz apologized for an English-language Instagram post that included an innocuous quote from the Dalai Lama. The Big Four accounting firms issued statements criticizing Hong Kong protests after some of their employees took out an ad supporting them.

Using its economic power to pressure Western corporations is a key element of Chinese statecraft. The Communist Party keenly appreciates that Western entities are far more credible than Chinese government or media. China scrutinizes statements by Western companies, focuses on those that are even mildly critical of its behavior, and threatens them on social media with economic retaliation and blacklisting.

Such threats often appear to emanate from private Chinese citizens. But given the government’s heavy censorship of Chinese social-media platforms, they inevitably bear the party’s imprimatur. Moreover, the Chinese government almost always backs up the statements attributed to its citizens, waging a joint campaign, so that the language of these “private” complaints tracks Communist Party propaganda.

Beijing also attempts to suppress authentic Chinese voices critical of its human-rights abuses. One of us (Ms. Lin) represented Canada in the Miss World 2016 finals in Washington. The London-based Miss World Organization—most of whose sponsors are Chinese companies—isolated her from the media during the pageant and threatened to disqualify her after she was seen speaking informally to a Boston Globe columnist. The ban on her contact with journalists was ameliorated only after intense public pressure.

It’s too much to expect corporations, whose objective is to make money for shareholders, to take a lonely stand against a government that controls access to a major market. But U.S. lawmakers could stiffen corporate spines. In response to the Arab League boycott of Israel, Congress in 1977 made it illegal for U.S. companies to cooperate with any unsanctioned foreign boycott and imposed civil and criminal penalties against violators. That legislation and the implementing regulations “have the effect of preventing U.S. firms from being used to implement foreign policies of other nations which run counter to U.S. policy,” according to the Commerce Department.

Antiboycott regulations forbid U.S. companies to “agree” to eschew doing business in Israel or with a company already blacklisted by the Arab League, or to cooperate with the boycott’s enforcement by providing information about business relationships with Israel or blacklisted companies. All requests for such cooperation must be reported to the Commerce Department. The regulations presume that any action taken in response to boycott-related requests violates the law. It isn’t sufficient to claim that one’s boycott-related speech or activity is based on one’s own views.

These regulations survived legal challenges from companies that claimed violations of their First Amendment right to free speech. Federal courts upheld the rules as narrowly tailored restrictions on commercial speech driven by a compelling government interest. American companies eventually grasped that the rules protected them from foreign pressure. In time, antiboycott compliance became part of American corporate culture and didn’t require much enforcement.

Beijing’s efforts to force American companies to support and comply with its propaganda and deception campaigns and furnish information on Chinese dissidents are similarly inimical to vital American interests. Preventing Western companies from participating in Chinese propaganda campaigns would diminish China’s soft power and impair its ability to use economic blackmail as a tool of statecraft.

Congress should enact legislation prohibiting American companies, as well as foreign entities doing business in the U.S., from cooperating with any Chinese effort to enlist them for propaganda or furnish information on dissidents. In particular, they would be barred from changing their public statements and social-media presence in response to Chinese pressure or from taking other steps to placate Beijing, whether its demands are communicated directly or indirectly. Any such Chinese demands would have to be reported to the U.S. government.

With most Americans—91%, according to a March Pew Research Center report—agreeing that Beijing threatens American interests, such legislation should be able to win bipartisan support. It would also be constitutionally defensible as a narrowly tailored regulation of commercial speech supported by a compelling government interest—countering Beijing’s push for global dominance.

The goal would not be to prevent companies from speaking, or to compel their speech, on China-related issues. They could not, however, legally comply with Chinese government attempts to direct their speech. Like the antiboycott laws, such a statute would protect Western companies, enabling them to tell Beijing that they are unable to comply with its demands. The U.S. can’t stop Chinese state institutions from spreading propaganda, but it can use the law to shield Western companies from the Communist Party’s intimidation.

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. Ms. Lin, an actress, was Miss World Canada 2015 and 2016. She is the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s ambassador for China policy and a senior fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. She is the wife of James Taranto, the Journal’s editorial features editor.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-way-to-curb-chinese-intimidation-11594680594