H.R.1 Would Steamroll the Constitution

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Jason Snead

June 3, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

President Biden and his media partisans are stepping up the pressure campaign on Joe Manchin. The West Virginia senator is the only Democrat in the upper chamber who hasn’t signed on to H.R.1, styled the For the People Act, an unprecedented federal takeover of U.S. election laws that the House passed in March and that the Senate plans to consider this month. The bill’s supporters describe it as a vital safeguard of democracy, but it’s the opposite: If enacted it would destroy the Constitution’s careful balance of federal and state powers, taking common election safeguards along with it.

H.R.1 plainly exceeds Congress’s power to regulate presidential elections, as we argued in these pages in February. That’s only the start of its constitutional infirmities.

The primary asserted constitutional basis of H.R.1 is Article I’s Elections Clause, which authorizes state legislatures to establish the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections, while providing that “Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (2013), the Supreme Court held that several state election-integrity measures were invalid because federal law pre-empted them.

Yet H.R.1’s sponsors fail to recognize that the Elections Clause limits Congress’s authority to time, place and manner. “Prescribing voting qualifications,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court in 2013, “forms no part of the power to be conferred upon the national government by the Elections Clause.” Article I’s Qualifications Clause provides that “the electors”—that is, voters—“in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature.” Determining those qualifications is up to the states, except where the Constitution says otherwise—for instance in the 19th and 26th amendment, enfranchising women and 18-year-olds, respectively.

Yet H.R.1 purports to establish federal voter qualifications for congressional elections. A prime example is the section mandating “democracy restoration”—a euphemism for enfranchising felons except during imprisonment, a decision the Constitution leaves to the states. The bill’s provisions governing internet voter registration, automatic registration and same-day registration are also suspect. Justice Clarence Thomas, dissenting in Inter Tribal Council, argued that registration is a matter of qualifications, not manner. Scalia and the majority didn’t disagree, so that issue remains open for adjudication.

Other provisions would intrude into states’ efforts to ensure the integrity of elections—such a fundamental aspect of sovereignty that erasing it extinguishes states’ status as coequal sovereigns. H.R.1 would require states to accept a voter’s sworn statement attesting to his identity and eligibility in lieu of any other identification requirement. The Inter Tribal Council majority held that “the power to establish voting requirements is of little value without the power to enforce those requirements” and stated that a statute precluding “a State from obtaining the information necessary to enforce its voter qualifications” would “raise serious constitutional doubts.”

The constitutional problems with H.R.1 are more fundamental than its specific provisions. One arises from their sheer magnitude, which would effectively create a comprehensive federal elections code. The Constitution’s framers and early commentators were united in their rejection of a congressional takeover of federal elections.

Federalist 59 affirmed that the Elections Clause granted power, “in the first instance, to the local administrations” and merely “reserved to the national authority a right to interpose, whenever extraordinary circumstances might render that interposition necessary to its safety.” Justice Joseph Story’s “Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States” (1833) noted that Congress would pass election legislation only if “there has been some extraordinary abuse” and would provide merely “a check upon state legislation.”

H.R.1’s supporters claim the bill provides such a check against a supposed rash of “voter suppression” measures. That claim is flimsy given historic turnout and diversity in recent elections, as well as data showing that voter-ID laws don’t depress turnout. H.R.1 features provisions Democrats have long favored—further evidence that it isn’t a response to a new crisis.

H.R.1’s extreme federal election takeover raises the question of how far Congress can go to oust states from the entire field. Federalist 59 describes Congress’s role as regulating elections “in the last resort”; H.R.1 does so as the first resort. The Supreme Court has never had to address the outer limits of Congress’s power because nothing like H.R.1 has ever passed. But if it does, its comprehensiveness should be its undoing.

There’s another problem. H.R.1 would also compel states to administer and fund the new election regime through state-established and funded redistricting commissions and online registration schemes. Such requirements violate the Supreme Court’s anticommandeering and anticoercion doctrines, which prohibit Congress from mandating that states do its bidding or unduly burdening those that refuse.

Some courts have found the anticommandeering doctrine inapplicable to election laws, reasoning that Congress’s Elections Clause power authorizes it to regulate federal elections. That’s a non sequitur. The doctrine applies when Congress has constitutional authority to regulate the matter directly; it condemns the indirect manner of dictating “what a state legislature may and may not do,” as Justice Samuel Alito put it for the court in Murphy v. NCAA (2018). The high court has never endorsed a different view, and in Inter Tribal Council, it stated that the Elections Clause “is none other than the power to pre-empt”—implying it is not the power to commandeer.

The anticoercion doctrine also prohibits H.R.1’s proposed federal takeover of state authority, and no court has denied that it applies in the electoral context. As Chief Justice John Roberts stated in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), the anticoercion doctrine requires Congress to afford states “a legitimate choice whether to accept . . . federal conditions” in choosing whether to administer a federal program.

H.R.1 would leave no choice at all. It isn’t a cooperative federalism program giving states benefits in exchange for implementing federal laws. Instead, it would force states to do what Congress can’t: administer national elections in every state.

The constitutional problems with H.R.1 are legion, and no new federal election legislation is necessary. States are exercising their constitutional authority, revising election laws to balance the imperatives of voter access and election integrity. Mr. Manchin should stick to his guns.

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/h-r-1-would-steamroll-the-constitution-11622737590

A Letter to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

28 May 2021, published in Real Clear Politics

To the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Dear Chair Bhargava, Vice Chair Perkins, and Commissioners Bauer, Carr, Davie, Maenza, Moore, and Turkel:

The Prosecutor General of Finland has undertaken criminal prosecutions that will compel Finland’s clergy and lay religious believers to choose between prison and abandoning teachings of their various faiths.

First, Prosecutor General Raija Toiviainen has charged Dr. Päivi Räsänen, a Member of the Finland’s Parliament and former Finnish Minister of the Interior, with three counts of “ethnic agitation” for peacefully expressing her views on marriage and sexuality. The charges against Dr. Räsänen stem from her authorship of a 2004 booklet entitled, Male and Female He Created Them: Homosexual Relationships Challenge the Christian Concept of Humanity, published by the Luther Foundation. In the booklet, Dr. Räsänen argues that homosexual activity should be recognized by the church as sinful based on the teachings of the Hebrew Bible and Christian scripture.

Second, the Prosecutor General has charged the Bishop-Elect of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola, with one count of ethnic agitation for publishing Dr. Räsänen’s booklet.

The Prosecutor General’s pursuit of these charges against a prominent legislator and bishop sends an unmistakable message to Finns of every rank and station: no one who holds to the traditional teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and several other religions on questions of marriage and sexual morality will be safe from state harassment should they, like Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen, express their moral and religious convictions.

These prosecutions constitute serious human rights abuses. They violate Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 10 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, all of which affirm the right of every human “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching.” They likewise violate multiple provisions of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, including its affirmation of the right “[t]o write, issue and disseminate relevant publications” expressing one’s religious beliefs.

These prosecutions cannot be understood as mundane applications of a European-style “hate speech” law. No reasonable balance of the goods of public order, civil equality, and religious liberty can ever support this suppression of the right to believe and express one’s beliefs. The prosecutions are straightforward acts of oppression.

To uphold the internationally recognized rights of freedom of expression and religious liberty, the United States must now respond to the abuses in Finland as it has recently responded to other violations of religious liberty in non-western nations.

For example, in 2020, the Department of State designated the chief of the Xiamen Public Security Bureau as a human rights abuser under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 2020, for his involvement in the detention and interrogation of Falun Gong practitioners for practicing their beliefs. In 2020 and 2021, the Departments of Treasury and State likewise designated multiple Chinese officials in Xinjiang for their roles in the detention of Uyghur Muslims. Prosecutor General Toiviainen’s status as a European official must not shield her from sanctions for her abuse of traditionalist Christians in Finland.

We therefore respectfully request that USCIRF call on U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to designate Prosecutor General Toiviainen under Section 7031(c), which requires the Secretary to deny visas to officials (and their family members) who have engaged in “a gross violation of human rights.”

We further request that USCIRF call on U.S. Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen to designate Prosecutor General Toiviainen under the Global Magnitsky Act and related statutes. Executive Order 13818 empowers the Secretary to designate and impose economic sanctions on individuals determined “to be responsible for or complicit in, or to have directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse.” Prosecutor General Toiviainen and any line prosecutors who choose to assist her plainly meet this description.

Finally, we note that there is no statute of limitations on human rights violations of this magnitude. Should calls by USCIRF to designate and sanction Prosecutor General Toiviainen and her accomplices fall on deaf ears, we respectfully request that USCIRF not simply let the matter drop. We ask you to continue to press our government to use its legal powers and fulfill its duties under U.S. law to aid victims of human rights violations, including Dr. Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola. We further ask USCIRF to take account of the violation of human rights by the Finnish Prosecutor General in its assessment of the state of religious freedom in nations around the globe in its Annual Report.

Peter Berkowitz, Ted and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Keegan Callanan, Associate Professor of Political Science, Middlebury College

Carlos Eire, T. L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies, Yale University

Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University

Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law Emerita, Harvard University

Sergiu Klainerman, Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics, Princeton University

John B. Londregan, Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University

Jacqueline C. Rivers, Lecturer in African & African-American Studies, Harvard University, Executive Director, Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies

David Rivkin, Partner, BakerHostetler, Washington, DC

Adrian Vermeule, Ralph S. Tyler, Jr. Professor of Constitutional Law, Harvard University

(Institutional affiliations are for identification.)

Source: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2021/05/28/a_letter_to_the_us_commission_on_international_religious_freedom__145839.html

Sheldon Whitehouse Is No Friend of the Courts

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

April 29, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

The “Trump judiciary” is corrupt, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse claims, and the remedy is to scrutinize parties presenting legal arguments in friend-of-the-court, or amicus, briefs. The proposal wouldn’t make the courts any cleaner, but it would violate the First Amendment. It is also part and parcel of the broader Democrat-driven effort to politicize and intimidate the judiciary.

Amicus briefs are a fixture of litigation, particularly in appellate cases presenting broad and important legal questions. While the parties to a case present their positions in their own briefings, amici inform the courts with additional perspectives and analysis. Typical amicus briefs address the history of a constitutional provision or statute, dive deep into legal doctrine and precedent, or argue about the practical consequences of approaches the court might take. Many are filed by, or on behalf of, legal scholars. At the Supreme Court, the justices often question lawyers on points raised by amici, and they occasionally engage amicus-brief arguments in written opinions.

Where others see public-spirited legal advocacy, Mr. Whitehouse sees a plot. In a 2019 amicus brief of his own, the senator, joined by four Senate Democratic colleagues, denounced amici supporting a gun owner denied the right to transport his firearm as “marionettes controlled by a puppetmaster” as part of a “project” in partnership with the court itself to “thwart gun-safety regulations.” Amicus briefs, the senator asserted in his own, are driving a “pattern of outcomes” in which “corporate and Republican political interests prevailed.”

“The Supreme Court is not well,” the brief concluded ominously. “Perhaps the Court can heal itself before the public demands it be ‘restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics.’ ”

Mr. Whitehouse expanded on the point in a 2020 screed co-authored with Sens. Chuck Schumer and Debbie Stabenow, titled “Captured Courts.” It contends that a “network” centered on the Federalist Society—which doesn’t file amicus briefs or even take positions on cases or issues—is using such briefs “to inject its boundary-pushing theories directly into Supreme Court jurisprudence.”

The senator has introduced legislation, the Assessing Monetary Influence in the Courts of the United States Act, that would require any organization filing three or more amicus briefs a year to register with the government and disclose the identities of those who worked on the brief and of its significant donors, even those who didn’t seek to fund any particular brief. In February Mr. Whitehouse wrote a letter to the Judicial Conference Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, urging it to adopt the same approach through court rules.

Mr. Whitehouse’s claims of corruption are frivolous. It’s not as if there are hundred-dollar bills tucked between the pages of the PDFs. And how exactly are amici supposed to be influencing judges other than by making persuasive legal arguments? The common complaint from the bench is that too many amicus briefs are useless because they merely restate the parties’ arguments or make an empty show of support.

The courts, unlike politicians, decide cases under the law and have to show their work. So while an amicus’s argumentation can be persuasive, its support for one party or the other carries little weight. (Some amicus briefs don’t even take a position on which party should prevail.) If the courts were counting noses, the support of the Chamber of Commerce and a half-dozen other business groups should have swung things for Ford Motor Co. in the big personal-jurisdiction case the Supreme Court decided last month. But Ford lost unanimously. Federal judges, with life tenure, don’t have a campaign on the horizon or a constituency to please.

This isn’t the first time politicians have sought to compel disfavored organizations to disclose their associations. In NAACP v. Alabama (1958), the Supreme Court turned back the state’s demand that the civil-rights organization turn over its membership list. The justices recognized that the First Amendment protects citizens’ right to join together to advance beliefs and ideas and that “privacy in group association” can be essential to such advocacy, “particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.” The court has since consistently subjected disclosure requirements implicating associational rights to “exacting scrutiny,” requiring that disclosure further an important governmental interest like combating fraud or corruption or preserving election integrity.

The courts already require amici to disclose whether a party to the case wrote its briefs or made any contributions intended to fund them, and those requirements further the courts’ interests in preventing parties to a case from using amicus briefs as supplements to their own briefing. By contrast, donors who make general contributions to an organization—whether the Chamber of Commerce or the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund—aren’t putting themselves before the court. Whether an argument presented by an amicus sinks or swims turns on its merit, not who contributed to its filer’s operating expenses. Perversely, Mr. Whitehouse’s proposal would cement into law the opposite presumption, with predictably corrosive consequences for the public’s view of the judiciary and the law.

That is the objective. With a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and many originalist and textualist judges now serving on courts of appeals, Mr. Whitehouse understands that the policy-driven mode of judging that underpins so many progressive legal victories is on the wane. So he spelled out a new strategy in “Captured Courts”: attack the conservative legal movement and tar the judges who share its principles with made-up claims of corruption. Donor disclosure is the fodder for the attacks.

The damage to Americans’ freedom would be substantial. Organizations advocating on all sides of controversial issues would be forced to publicize their supporters, even ones who may disagree with those particular briefs and positions. They would be targeted for harassment, as practically anyone taking a controversial stand today is, and many would curtail their associations with groups that file amicus briefs.

The endgame, per the senator, is to dry up support for what he regards as “unpopular and self-serving positions.” The First Amendment exists precisely to protect the right to take unpopular positions.

Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/sheldon-whitehouse-is-no-friend-of-the-courts-11619713971

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