Barr’s Loyalty Is to the Constitution, Not a Party

By David B. Rivkin and Andrew M. Grossman

December 24, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Washington’s knives are out for Attorney General William Barr, and the stabbing has intensified since he delivered a November address at the Federalist Society. Predecessor Eric Holder —who while serving in the Obama administration described himself as “the president’s wingman”—accused Mr. Barr of championing “essentially unbridled executive power.” In the same Washington Post op-ed, Mr. Holder added that Mr. Barr’s “nakedly partisan” remarks rendered him a pawn of President Trump and “unfit to lead the Justice Department”—an utterly unhinged claim.

In the New York Times, William Webster, who directed both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, chastised Mr. Barr for criticizing FBI bias. Meanwhile, the Never Trump group Checks and Balances accused Mr. Barr of advancing an “autocratic vision of executive power” that is “unchecked” by Congress and the courts.

Some of the attacks are mere symptoms of Trump derangement syndrome, but others reflect by a deep-seated resistance to the Constitution’s separation of powers and the threat that its enforcement poses to the unaccountable administrative state. In either case, they’re wrong. Far from calling for executive supremacy, Mr. Barr has vigorously advocated the Framers’ vision of the Constitution’s separation-of-powers architecture, featuring the three governmental branches—Congress, the president and the judiciary—each exercising its distinctive authorities while checking the others. In his Federalist Society address, Mr. Barr, quoting Justice Antonin Scalia, explained that the Constitution gives the president and Congress “many ‘clubs with which to beat’ each other.”

Mr. Barr’s extolling of the “unitary executive” is hardly revolutionary—nor, as critics imagine, is it a call for dictatorship. It posits only that the president, being responsible for execution of the law, must be able to control his subordinates. This was the rule across the government until Humphrey’s Executor v. U.S. (1935), in which the Supreme Court carved out an exception for members of certain “independent” regulatory agencies, whom the president can fire only for “good cause.”

The Framers had good reason to favor a strong presidency. The early republic’s weak civilian executive leadership almost lost the Revolutionary War, shifting nearly the entire burden to Gen. George Washington. Postwar government under the Articles of Confederation was a ruinous shambles, unable to assert any sort of national leadership. To be sure, the Framers also feared legislative overreaching. They resolved all these problems by creating a coequal executive who could act, in Mr. Barr’s words, with “energy, consistency and decisiveness.”

Humphrey’s Executor was only the beginning of the attack on the constitutional design. Congress whittled away at executive power, depriving the president of the authority and duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The courts not only approved those usurpations, but themselves meddled in disputes between the political branches and seized broad swaths of executive discretion.

Numerous lawmakers, most of the media and much of the political class now claim—at least during a Republican administration—that even core executive-branch activities, such as diplomacy and law enforcement, must be substantially free from presidential control. Hence the steady drumbeat of criticism directed at Mr. Trump for overseeing and making policy for the Justice Department, the FBI and the intelligence community as a whole.

The result isn’t a strong Congress but the supplantation of the Constitution’s checks and balances with a worst-of-all-worlds muddle. Leaders of independent agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau exercise executive power free from accountability to the president or voters and subject only to the partisan whims of Congress. The bureaucratic “resistance,” spurred on by its allies in Congress, openly defies presidential decisions, undermining the principle of democratic control even in core areas of presidential responsibility like foreign policy. For their part, the courts increasingly police ordinary separation-of-powers disputes between Congress and the executive, destroying the possibility of compromise through political means.

These deviations from the Framers’ blueprint explain much of the government’s current dysfunction. Congress avoids politically dangerous decisions by palming tough choices off on agencies and the courts. The legal and political limbo of the so-called Dreamers is a ready example. Ceaseless congressional investigations nearly incapacitate the White House and are designed to achieve precisely that result. Executive agencies find their every action—even those involving inherently discretionary matters—subject to judicial scrutiny and nationwide injunctions imposed by judges whose jurisdiction is supposed to be limited to a state or district. Whereas the separation of powers fostered practical compromise, today’s judicial supremacy reduces everything to winner-take-all litigation.

Mr. Barr warned in his address that we must “take special care not to allow the passions of the moment to cause us to permanently disfigure the genius of our Constitutional structure.” Too often, previous attorneys general regarded the elements of separation of powers opportunistically, as cudgels to be employed in particular disputes. Mr. Barr’s vision and goals are broader. He’s concerned not only with the conflicts of the day but the structure necessary for the federal government to work. It’s a bold vision, but it’s the opposite of a partisan one.

If Mr. Barr achieves even a fraction of his agenda to restore the Framers’ vision of a strong, independent executive, he will go down as Mr. Trump’s most consequential executive appointment.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/barrs-loyalty-is-to-the-constitution-not-a-party-11577229447

This Impeachment Subverts the Constitution

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Elizabeth Price Foley

October 25, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has directed committees investigating President Trump to “proceed under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry,” but the House has never authorized such an inquiry. Democrats have been seeking to impeach Mr. Trump since the party took control of the House, though it isn’t clear for what offense. Lawmakers and commentators have suggested various possibilities, but none amount to an impeachable offense. The effort is akin to a constitutionally proscribed bill of attainder—a legislative effort to punish a disfavored person. The Senate should treat it accordingly.

The impeachment power is quasi-judicial and differs fundamentally from Congress’s legislative authority. The Constitution assigns “the sole power of impeachment” to the House—the full chamber, which acts by majority vote, not by a press conference called by the Speaker. Once the House begins an impeachment inquiry, it may refer the matter to a committee to gather evidence with the aid of subpoenas. Such a process ensures the House’s political accountability, which is the key check on the use of impeachment power.

The House has followed this process every time it has tried to impeach a president. Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment was predicated on formal House authorization, which passed 126-47. In 1974 the Judiciary Committee determined it needed authorization from the full House to begin an inquiry into Richard Nixon’s impeachment, which came by a 410-4 vote. The House followed the same procedure with Bill Clinton in 1998, approving a resolution 258-176, after receiving independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report.

Mrs. Pelosi discarded this process in favor of a Trump-specific procedure without precedent in Anglo-American law. Rep. Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee and several other panels are questioning witnesses in secret. Mr. Schiff has defended this process by likening it to a grand jury considering whether to hand up an indictment. But while grand-jury secrecy is mandatory, House Democrats are selectively leaking information to the media, and House Republicans, who are part of the jury, are being denied subpoena authority and full access to transcripts of testimony and even impeachment-related committee documents. No grand jury has a second class of jurors excluded from full participation.

Unlike other impeachable officials, such as federal judges and executive-branch officers, the president and vice president are elected by, and accountable to, the people. The executive is also a coequal branch of government. Thus any attempt to remove the president by impeachment creates unique risks to democracy not present in any other impeachment context. Adhering to constitutional text, tradition and basic procedural guarantees of fairness is critical. These processes are indispensable bulwarks against abuse of the impeachment power, designed to preserve the separation of powers by preventing Congress from improperly removing an elected president. Read more »

Probe the effort to sink Kavanaugh

By David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey

Sept. 29, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

The effort to sink Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation cries out for investigation. The Senate Judiciary Committee has already made a criminal referral to the Justice Department regarding alleged material misstatements by lawyer Michael Avenatti and his client Julie Swetnick. And a new book by two New York Times reporters contains a potentially explosive revelation.

In “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly report that Leland Keyser —who was unable to corroborate high-school friend Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of youthful sexual misconduct—says she felt pressured by a group of common acquaintances to vouch for it anyway. The book quotes an unnamed male member of the group suggesting in a text message: “Perhaps it makes sense to let everyone in the public know what her condition is”—a remark the reporters describe as reading “like a veiled reference” to Ms. Keyser’s “addictive tendencies.” (The authors quote her as saying she told investigators “my whole history of using.”)

A concerted effort to mislead the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Senate, especially if it involved threats to potential witnesses, could violate several federal criminal statutes, including 18 U.S.C. 1001 (lying to federal officials), 18 U.S.C. 1505 (obstruction of official proceedings) and 18 U.S.C. 1622 (subornation of perjury). Investigating and, if the evidence is sufficient, prosecuting such offenses would deter similar misconduct in the future.

It’s bad for the country when nominees are subjected to what Bill Clinton calls “the politics of personal destruction.” It intensifies political polarization and bitterness, traduces due process, dissuades good people from government service, and injures the reputation of the judiciary and other institutions.

The Senate and FBI could also consider changing the background-check process for nominees. Justice Kavanaugh’s opponents seem to have expected a full-fledged criminal-style inquiry into Ms. Ford’s allegations, although Senate Democrats had sat on them for months. But that’s not how background investigations work. They’re carried out by a special unit whose job is to verify information the nominee has provided and gather additional information that may reflect on his character and reputation. This process does not involve the same sort of searching questions that are characteristic of a criminal investigation. Nor do FBI background investigators routinely assess individual witness credibility. They reach no conclusions but collect information and then forward it to the White House and Senate. It is then up to the elected officials to decide who and what to believe. It is a political, not a criminal, process.

This is a matter of practice and tradition, not law. The FBI could be asked to conduct background investigations in a manner more comparable to its criminal and intelligence work, where agents will assess witness credibility and use those assessments to guide the focus and course of the inquiry. It should be especially vigilant to the possibilities of collusion and witness tampering, which are uniquely troubling in high profile confirmation battles.

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/probe-the-effort-to-sink-kavanaugh-11569786380

End the Media’s Campaign Privilege

The Trump era has seen an erosion of the distinction between journalism and partisan politics, with much of the mainstream media in open opposition to the president. “Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator . . . to announce his candidacy,” New York Times columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote in August 2016.

Three years later, the holiday continues. Slate last month published a leaked transcript of a staff “town hall” at the Times. “We built our newsroom to cover one story,” executive editor Dean Baquet told employees, explaining that the paper’s narrative “went from being a story about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia and obstruction of justice to being a more head-on story about the president’s character.” The new story, he said, “requires deep investigation into people who peddle hatred.”

Mr. Baquet makes the Times sound like an advocacy organization working against Mr. Trump’s re-election. Such organizations are regulated by campaign-finance statutes. So are other corporations, for-profit or nonprofit, that engage in electioneering speech. But those laws exempt media organizations, provided they are not owned by a political party, committee or candidate.

The justification for this favored treatment is the media’s “unique” role in public discourse and debate. But that has changed—and not only because the media have become more partisan. “With the advent of the Internet and the decline of print and broadcast media,” the Supreme Court observed in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), “the line between the media and others who wish to comment on political and social issues becomes far more blurred.”

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An originalist libel defense

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

31 July 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

A federal judge in Kentucky dismissed high-school student Nicholas Sandmann’s libel suit against the Washington Post last week. That’s no vindication of the newspaper’s skewed reporting on the teen’s run-in with American Indian activist Nathan Phillips on the National Mall in January. But it’s a vindication of the First Amendment’s limitations on state libel law, which have come under scrutiny of late, including from President Trump and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Mr. Sandmann and his peers were targeted by a Twitter mob, and the Post joined in portraying him as the villain in a “white privilege” morality play. Mr. Sandmann claimed the Post had defamed him by repeating Mr. Phillips’s claim that Mr. Sandmann had physically “blocked” him. That judge held that was an opinion, not a factual claim, and therefore shielded by the First Amendment.

That conclusion may be debatable, but the First Amendment’s protection of opinion shouldn’t be. It is the legal expression of America’s “national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” as Justice William Brennan put it in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which established that the Constitution imposes limits on state libel law.

Mr. Trump said in 2016 that he wanted to “open up” libel laws, and in February Justice Thomas wrote a solo opinion arguing that Sullivan departs from the Constitution’s original meaning. He has a point: Brennan’s reasoning is all policy. For decades, originalists like Justice Antonin Scalia have criticized it as an exercise of raw judicial power. Yet there’s a good originalist case for limits on libel law.

Sullivan established that government officials suing for defamation must demonstrate that the defendant either knew that the defamatory statements were false or acted with “reckless disregard” for their accuracy—a standard confusingly known as “actual malice.” Later decisions extended the requirement to all “public figures,” whether or not they hold office.

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How to put citizenship back in the census

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Gilson B. Gray

5 July 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration said Wednesday it will attempt to add a citizenship question on the 2020 census while complying with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Department of Commerce v. New York. Five justices held that the Census Act allows the question, but a separate five-justice majority found the rulemaking that added the question was procedurally deficient. There is a way forward. The Constitution itself requires the collection of citizenship information.

Section 2 of the 14th Amendment provides that if a state denies the franchise to anyone eligible to vote, its allotment of House seats shall be “reduced in the proportion which the number of such . . . citizens shall bear to the whole number of . . . citizens . . . in such state.” This language is absolute and mandatory. Compliance is impossible without counting how many citizens live in each state.

The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868, and this provision meant to secure the voting rights of newly freed slaves. But it wasn’t limited to that purpose. An earlier version of Section 2, introduced in 1865, specifically referred to limits on suffrage based on “race or color,” but the Senate rejected that limitation. The amendment forbids state interference with the rights of all eligible voters (then limited to males over 21).

Section 2 also applies to every state, a point Rep. John Bingham, the amendment’s principal drafter, emphasized during the floor debate: “The second section . . . simply provides for the equalization of representation among all the States in the Union, North, South, East, and West. It makes no discrimination.”

Congress has dealt with suffrage-abridgement problems through other constitutional and statutory means, especially the Voting Rights Act. But that doesn’t change the constitutional obligation to obtain citizenship data. A future Congress could decide to rely on Section 2 to enforce voting rights, particularly as the VRA’s core provision, requiring Justice Department approval when certain states change voting procedures, becomes irrelevant because of changing attitudes and Supreme Court precedent.

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