Obstruction of justice? Careful what you wish for, lawmakers

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

7 February 2018 in the Wall Street Journal

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

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

The Constitution vests all executive power in the president, including decisions about high-level personnel, investigations, prosecutions and pardons. Human motives are rarely pure, and bad motives are often in the eye of the beholder. Presidents inevitably have self-interested objectives when exercising their authority—enhancing their political position, for example.

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

Iranian Sanctions with an Extra Bite

Saudi Probe Is Not a Job For the U.N.

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

October 24, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has justly triggered international outrage. Yet calls for a United Nations-led investigation are neither justified nor prudent.

Those urging the U.N. to investigate argue that with so much at stake, no sovereign state can be trusted to conduct a full and fair probe. And there is a potential for bias—by the Saudis, whose officials are implicated; by Turkey, a rival of Riyadh; and by the U.S., the Saudis’ longstanding strategic partner. The same is true of many other states, including Britain, France and Germany, all of which have economic and strategic interests in the region.

But this objection proves too much. There are numerous instances in which countries have been accused of terrible crimes, including torture and extrajudicial killings. The list includes the U.S. and every other permanent member of the Security Council. This standard would disqualify virtually every U.N. member.

The general rule is that sovereign states both have the authority and the obligation to put their own houses in order by investigating and prosecuting alleged offenses. Only in the most extreme circumstances can an international inquiry be justified—such as when the state concerned is incapable of undertaking the investigation, or when the alleged offenses rise to the level of widespread international crimes, for which international law prescribes individual criminal responsibility.
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Democrats Abandon the Constitution

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

October 16, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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Kavanaugh’s Foes Politicize the FBI

By David B. Rivkin Jr and Kristi Remington

October 1st, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

The bipartisan bonhomie occasioned by the reopening of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s background investigation dissipated quickly. By the weekend, Senate Democrats—who had demanded the investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation—were challenging its credibility, objecting to its scope and focus, and lamenting that the White House had any involvement in shaping the process.

The reopened investigation, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham—reflecting the White House’s view—potentially entailed interviewing Deborah Ramirez, who claims that Judge Kavanaugh committed lewd conduct while a freshmen at Yale, and the three purported witnesses named by first accuser Christine Blasey Ford—Mark Judge, P.J. Smyth and Leland Keyser—all of whom have attested they have no memory that would corroborate her accusation. Julie Swetnick’s sordid and implausible claims were to be left out, and if any new allegations against Judge Kavanaugh were to emerge, these also wouldn’t be investigated.

President Trump told reporters Monday: “The FBI should interview anybody that they want within reason, but you have to say within reason.” That qualification is crucial. It is clear that Judge Kavanaugh’s opponents are clamoring for an open-ended fishing expedition that, probably by design, would go on much longer than a week. They are insisting that the FBI investigate Judge Kavanaugh’s drinking while in high school and college and interview anyone who might know about it. Two such people have already come forward, and there are no disincentives for new claimants, possibly driven by partisan or personal animus, to emerge.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) tried to justify his demand to broaden the FBI investigation by claiming that heavy drinking was “directly relevant” to the sexual-assault allegations. If this approach were adopted, the FBI would have to interview a very large pool of witnesses about Judge Kavanaugh’s alcohol intake, and possibly many other personal traits, over many years. Never mind that alcohol use is a standard FBI question, certainly asked in the course of Judge Kavanaugh’s previous six background investigations.

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Kavanaugh and the Ginsburg Standard

Don’t blame Brett Kavanaugh when he demurs at his confirmation hearing from answering questions on legal issues that might come before the Supreme Court. It’s the senators who will be in the wrong, for demanding commitments that no judicious nominee could provide. To answer “direct questions on stare decisis on many other matters, including Roe and health care”—as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called for—would itself be disqualifying.

That principle has come to be called the Ginsburg Standard, after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As she explained in the opening statement of her 1993 confirmation hearing: “A judge sworn to decide impartially can offer no forecasts, no hints, for that would show not only disregard for the specifics of the particular case—it would display disdain for the entire judicial process.” Or, as she later responded to a question about constitutional protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation: “No hints, no forecasts, no previews.”

It would be a mistake to associate the rule too closely with Justice Ginsburg, who honored it inconsistently at her hearing, or to view it as driven only by policy considerations. In fact, the standard has deep roots in the law and history.

Begin with the Constitution. The Appointments Clause provides that judges, including Supreme Court justices, are appointed by the president “with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” From the nomination of John Jay as the first chief justice in 1789 through the mid-1950s, public confirmation hearings were rare. Few nominees attended them when they did occur, and only a handful testified. Senators had no occasion to grandstand by demanding that a nominee declare his stance on legal controversies.

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