The Constitution Will Survive Covid-19

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

Nov. 27, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

The Covid-19 pandemic “has served as a sort of constitutional stress test,” Justice Samuel Alito observed this month. “The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty.” The setting underscored the point: Justice Alito made his remarks in an online speech that ordinarily would have been delivered in a cavernous hall, before a crowd of hundreds gathered for the Federalist Society’s annual dinner.

A public-health emergency may justify curtailments of liberty that would be unacceptable in normal times. But even in an emergency, America’s government doesn’t wield unlimited powers. Measures taken to deal with this pandemic have imposed severe restrictions on the most basic rights and liberties, often with little consideration of their legal basis. The U.S. Constitution prohibits many of the most draconian measures taken or under consideration.

Joe Biden has implicitly acknowledged the point. Accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in August, the former vice president declared: “We’ll have a national mandate to wear a mask—not as a burden, but to protect each other. It’s a patriotic duty.” But his transition website promises only to “implement mask mandates nationwide by working with governors and mayors.”

A federal mask mandate is a nonstarter because it would have to be grounded in one of Congress’s constitutionally enumerated powers, all of which have limits. The go-to section to justify federal regulation is the clause granting lawmakers the power “to regulate commerce . . . among the several states.” As the Supreme Court held in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012), which involved the ObamaCare mandate to buy medical insurance, individuals must be engaged in commercial activity before Congress can regulate them. Congress cannot impose requirements on the citizenry “precisely because they are doing nothing,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.

The same is true of other prospective federal anti-Covid measures, such as a national “stay at home” order or an overall economic lockdown. Congress does have broad authority to regulate business, which it could use to impose workplace safety rules, including mask mandates. But nationwide lockdowns are a dubious legal proposition. Congress has never attempted to eliminate all or most economic activity. Any such requirement, even if supportable under the Commerce Clause, would raise significant concerns about the constitutional rights of people prevented from earning a living.

State and local mandates pose a more complicated question. Unlike the federal government, states have a general “police power” that permits them to enact public-health regulations. State and local mask mandates will likely survive judicial scrutiny, as the burden is relatively small. But quarantine requirements imposed on otherwise healthy people, and especially stay-at-home orders and shutdowns of economic activity, are another matter.

Courts have generally upheld quarantines as proper exercises of state police power. But they have traditionally required the involuntary seclusion only of infected individuals and those exposed to them. Quarantines for travelers may survive constitutional challenges. They are generally limited to 14 days or less and arguably supported by the states’ interest in limiting the potential to spread the infection from viral “hot spots.”

But states have no constitutional authority to discriminate against out-of-state persons, goods or services or to burden interstate commerce unduly. It would be hard to justify restrictions that draw arbitrary distinctions between intra- and interstate travelers or among states. New York’s current rules, for instance, exempt travelers within New York and from adjacent states while ordering quarantine for those from distant states with lower Covid rates.

Universal, open-ended stay-at-home mandates and general economic shutdowns are unprecedented in America. The former amount to the imposition of house arrest on vast numbers of people without due process or any provision for basic needs. They raise important constitutional issues involving freedom of assembly, due process and equal protection.

Mandating how many individuals can meet in one’s home, as some states did in time for Thanksgiving, is particularly difficult to justify. If the government can regulate your dinner guests, what can’t it do? Although the government has imposed location-specific curfews in times of war and civil disorder to address specific public-safety concerns, protracted populationwide curfews directed at more-nebulous threats will be difficult to justify.

Some of these issues will doubtless reach the Supreme Court, but lower courts are already wrestling with them. In County of Butler v. Wolf, William S. Stickman IV, a federal district judge in Pittsburgh, struck down Pennsylvania’s most draconian anti-Covid-19 measures. These included strict limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings, stay-at-home requirements, and the lockdown of businesses that aren’t “life-sustaining.” Judge Stickman found these measures wanting on First Amendment, due-process and equal-protection grounds, even under an “intermediate” level of scrutiny.

“A public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists,” Judge Stickman concluded in his September decision. He took particular note of Pennsylvania’s diversity of communities—and hence of Covid risks—as against the state’s “one-size fits all approach” to stay-at-home orders, which were not in any way tailored to minimize the burden while achieving the government’s legitimate ends.

Judge Stickman concluded that Pennsylvania’s business lockdown requirements failed to meet even the lowest level of constitutional scrutiny—being rationally related to a proper state purpose. He noted that the state had not articulated “a set, objective and measurable definition” of “life-sustaining” businesses, and that its requirements arbitrarily favored large retailers over small ones. Pennsylvania has appealed Judge Stickman’s decision, but it is difficult to see how the state can defend such capricious and comprehensive restrictions. The same goes for other states: Such details as closing health clubs but not beauty salons (New York), or imposing restrictions on the use of sailboats but not motorboats (Michigan), appear driven not by any rational basis but by government officials’ aesthetic and ideological preferences.

No doubt some judges will be inclined to defer to government officials in an emergency. Five Supreme Court justices did so earlier this year when churches in California and Nevada sought to enjoin state orders limiting the number of worshipers at services. In both cases, Chief Justice Roberts voted with the court’s four Democratic appointees to deny immediate relief.

But the other four justices dissented in both cases on the grounds that the orders violate freedom of religion by imposing greater limits on religious activities than comparable secular businesses, including casinos. As Justice Alito quipped during his Federalist Society speech: “Take a quick look at the Constitution. You will see the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which protects religious liberty. You will not find a craps clause.”

This Wednesday the court granted injunctive relief to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and an Orthodox synagogue, which are challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s occupancy limits. Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the new 5-4 majority. In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch observed that the state had ignored “long-settled principles” that almost always prohibit government officials “from treating religious exercises worse than comparable secular activities.”

One area in which the states clearly can impose anti-Covid mandates is vaccinations. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the Supreme court upheld the city of Cambridge’s authority to respond to a smallpox outbreak by mandating vaccines for all inhabitants. The justices affirmed that “the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”

Congress may also be able to impose vaccination or testing on employees or others engaged in commerce. But proponents of economic lockdowns overreach when they cite Jacobson in support. The case was modest in scope and dealt with a far surer remedy for a deadlier virus than Covid-19.

Federal and state officials have every right to urge Americans to take precautions against viral spread, though it would help if they consistently followed their own advice. But when the government moves beyond persuasion to coercion, its requirements must meet constitutional muster.

Some of them will, such as well-tailored state-level mask and vaccination mandates. Others probably won’t, including broad curfews, stay-at-home orders, economic lockdown mandates and measures that target protected First Amendment activities. There may be a “judicial impulse to stay out of the way in times of crisis,” Justice Gorsuch wrote in the New York case. “But . . . we may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack.”

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-constitution-will-survive-covid-19-11606502792

China Deserves a Day in Court

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

Oct. 19, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

As Donald Trump and Joe Biden debate how to deal with malign Chinese behavior, Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics reports its economy has largely recovered from the Covid-19 pandemic, growing 4.9% year-on-year in the third quarter. Meanwhile American class-action lawyers and the attorneys general of Mississippi and Missouri are suing the Chinese government over the novel coronavirus. Plaintiffs accuse Beijing of various forms of misconduct, ranging from negligence in handling the original infections in Wuhan to the reckless operation of biolabs and even perpetrating bioterrorism against the U.S.

Some of these claims are more plausible than others, but all face an insurmountable obstacle in court: the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which prevents most lawsuits against foreign countries in U.S. courts. Litigation could be a way of holding China accountable, but only if Congress changes the law.

FSIA makes a few limited exceptions to immunity. Although lawyers in these cases have cited them, all seem clearly inapplicable. One permits suits against foreign governments based on their commercial activities in the U.S., or elsewhere if there is a direct effect in America. But these complaints allege governmental, not commercial, negligence or duplicity in handling the epidemic.

The tort exception allows foreign governments to be sued for wrongful actions, whether negligent or intentional. But Supreme Court precedent limits the exception to torts that take place entirely within the U.S. It would cover, for instance, an auto accident in Washington but not in Beijing.

There’s also an exception for terrorism, but that requires either that the defendant be designated a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the U.S.—currently only Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria are—or a specific act of international terrorism within the U.S. A biological attack would surely qualify, but there’s no evidence of that here.

FSIA gives federal courts jurisdiction over all lawsuits against foreign governments, and it’s almost certain judges will dismiss these actions even if Beijing refuses to participate in the proceedings. Reinterpreting any of the FSIA exceptions to cover suits involving the pandemic would open the door to further attacks on sovereign immunity. The U.S., a sovereign state itself, should be careful about creating broad new exceptions, and judges should be especially cautious, since they have neither the authority nor the expertise to conduct foreign policy.

That said, Congress has the power to limit or withdraw a foreign state’s sovereign immunity, and it should consider doing so in response to Covid-19. Such changes to deal with novel problems are legitimate and well-recognized. In May the Supreme Court held unanimously in Optai v. Republic of Sudan that plaintiffs in a lawsuit over al Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa could recover punitive damages under an amendment to FSIA enacted in 2008.

Congress could enact a new exception to FSIA for cases in which a foreign state has failed to inform, or deliberately misinformed, the global community of the nature and scope of a local epidemic that becomes a global pandemic. Beijing’s failure in December to comply with the 24-hour notification requirement of the 2005 International Health Regulations would be an important factor to consider.

Such a statute could either create a new federal tort or give federal courts jurisdiction over suits alleging injuries under state law. As with the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act of 2016, Congress should authorize the federal government to intervene in litigation to secure a diplomatic resolution that compensates plaintiffs and mitigates future harms.

The U.S. judiciary is respected around the world and would be a better venue than any governmental or international investigation for getting at the truth of Covid-19. Beijing has accused the U.S. military of creating the virus and introducing it during the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan, in which a U.S. team participated. Chinese nationals have filed several lawsuits in China against the U.S. military, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other American government entities. In these pages in May, a senior Chinese official, Xie Feng, suggested that the virus might have originated outside China. If Chinese officials have evidence to support any of these assertions, they could introduce them in court. In any case, their claims underscore the need for an impartial inquiry.

Congress could also withdraw immunity from international organizations that allegedly aided and abetted China’s efforts to play down the virus’s transmission and the health risks. Western intelligence services have suggested that Beijing gave detailed instructions to World Health Organization on what it should say. Plaintiffs could use the discovery process to identify other governmental and private-sector collaborators and hold them accountable for their Covid-related activities and other likely offenses, such as garden-variety corruption, committed while collaborating with Beijing.

They could also explore evidence that Covid-19 stemmed from an accidental release from a Wuhan biolab.

Beijing wouldn’t be able to ignore U.S. lawsuits. If it refused to participate, U.S. courts would enter enforceable default judgments. If it did participate, it would have to submit to discovery. It may be tempted to cheat in this process, but modern discovery techniques make that exceedingly difficult, and cheating would entail further liability and judicial punishments.

The Chinese government could try to avoid complying with any court-ordered damages and injunctions. But that wouldn’t be easy. Successful plaintiffs could collect judgments against Beijing by seizing Chinese government-owned commercial property around the world and the proceeds of sales of government goods and services. Ignoring injunctions would lead to monetary fines and other punishments.

Several bills featuring some of these provisions have been introduced by Sens. Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, Martha McSally and Marsha Blackburn. Congress should proceed with caution. The law is usually a blunt and inflexible policy tool, wielded by an unelected judiciary rather than the president and Congress, where the Constitution vests the power to run foreign affairs. The political branches are accountable for their decisions in a way that the judiciary is not.

Yet Covid-19 has taken a tremendous human and economic toll world-wide. Lawsuits may become a powerful instrument for changing China’s behavior and can aid U.S. diplomatic and economic efforts to accomplish the same goal. Deterring China from future aberrant behavior requires holding it accountable for its Covid-19-related misconduct.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-deserves-a-day-in-court-11603148463

The Supreme Court and the Election Returns

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

Oct. 11, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-supreme-court-and-the-election-returns-11602435660

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

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

30 August 2020 in The Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

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

RFK vs. D.C. Statehood

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

July 2, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

Voting along party lines except for one Democratic dissent, the House last week approved a bill to grant statehood to almost all of the District of Columbia – and create two safe Democratic Senate seats in a city that typically votes 90% Democratic in presidential elections. But while Congress has the power to admit new states, changing the district’s status would require a constitutional amendment.

The Framers had good reason to put the capital outside the borders or control of any state. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, writing in opposition to a 1964 statehood bill, summed up their view: “It was indispensably necessary to the independence and the very existence of the new Federal Government to have a seat of government which was not subject to the jurisdiction or control of any State.”

In 1783, a mutinous band of Continental solders drove Congress out of Philadelphia after Pennsylvania’s government refused assistance. The recent protests and riots in Washington’s streets make it easy to imagine a similar clash if the federal government lacked sovereignty over the city. To prevent such a situation, the Constitution’s Framers wrote a provision giving Congress the power “to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of government of the United States.” Congress took over 100 square miles of Maryland and Virginia with the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801.

In 1846, Congress retroceded Virginia’s portion, now Arlington County and a portion of the city of Alexandria. Was that constitutional? We think not. While the retrocession didn’t alter the configuration of the district in as fundamental a way as the House is now trying to do, the most logical reading of the Constitution is that no change in the district’s boundaries is permissible and that the original cession is irrevocable.

The Supreme Court has never ruled on the question. When it reached the justices, in Phillips v. Payne (1875), they dismissed the case, holding that the plaintiffs – taxpayers seeking reunion with the District of Columbia, which had lower taxes than Virginia – lacked standing. But if Congress approves statehood, other states would clearly have standing to challenge the dilution of their voting rights by the addition of two senators from an area ineligible for admission as a state.

The House bill attempts to hew to the Constitution’s design by excluding a small area of the district – including the White House, other federal buildings and the National Mall – and leave it as a federal district. RFK rejected a similar proposal in 1964: “A small Federal enclave comprised primarily of parks and Federal buildings … clearly does not meet the concept of ‘the permanent seat of government’ which the framers held.”

There’s an additional problem: The bill violates the 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, which enfranchised the district’s residents in presidential elections. The amendment allocates three electoral votes to “the district constituting the seat of government of the United States.” Under the House bill, that would not be the new state (which would get three electors of its own), but the rump federal district, which lots of structures but few or no inhabitants.

The bill provides for “expedited procedures” in both congressional chambers to propose an amendment repealing the 23rd. But doing so would require two-thirds majorities, and ratification needs approval from 38 state legislatures. That would require broad bipartisan cooperation – a tall order in today’s political climate, especially if one party sees an advantage in leaving the problem unsolved.

There are strong arguments for granting Washington residents representation in Congress. The Framers understood and were troubled by the undemocratic contradiction of denying capital residents the vote. Alexander Hamilton believed the federal district should have representation in the House but not the Senate (whose members were chosen by state legislatures until 1913). James Madison countered that the new capital’s residents would have an elected local government and “find sufficient inducement of interests to become willing parties to the cession” to justify their lack of congressional representation.

The District of Columbia has always been an imperfect solution to a constitutional problem. The debate over its role and status will and should continue. But abolishing the permanent seat of the federal government would be a profound change – the sort that can be accomplished only with a national consensus implemented through a constitutional amendment, not by a law pushed through for partisan advantage.

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/rfk-vs-d-c-statehood-11593709155

Bailing out states violates the Constitution’s ‘general welfare’ clause

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

6 May 2020 in The Hill

Republican senators, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are right to oppose legislation that would provide a broad federal bailout of highly indebted states. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York calls this legislative stance “toxic and poison,” but it is constitutionally required.  

As senators, including Florida’s Rick Scott and Texas’s Ted Cruz, made clear in a recent letter to President Trump, no one doubts that the federal government can and should assist states in meeting the coronavirus emergency. Nor can there be any reasonable objection that this aid will benefit certain states — especially New York, which has the majority of coronavirus cases — more than others. There is, however, a profound objection to any plan that would use federal resources to ensure that heavily indebted states need not reassess their policy priorities. These states find themselves in dire fiscal straits primarily because of underfunded pension plans for their public employees. Virtually all of these states are Democrat-run and three of them — Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut — are facing a particularly calamitous fiscal situation.

Politics aside, bailing out unfunded state pension plans with federal dollars would violate the Constitution’s often ignored, but nevertheless binding, “general welfare” clause. Congress does not, in fact, have unfettered power to spend money as it sees fit. The Constitution permits it to tax, and by implication spend, “to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” (Art. I, § 8, cl. 1) This language was neither puffery nor surplusage, but was added by the Constitution’s Framers for a compelling purpose.

The Framers were determined to vest the federal government with sufficient authority to carry out its national purpose, but also to limit that power. These principles are reflected in numerous constitutional provisions and that document’s overall architecture. Thus, all congressional powers have some limit, some cabining principle. Just as the commerce clause is limited to the regulation of economic activities and does not permit Congress to exercise a general “police power” regulating people simply because they are here, so Congress’s ability to tax and spend is limited by the requirement that this must be for the general welfare.

This requirement stems from the Framers’ concern that large, powerful states would dominate the federal government and would use federal institutions to benefit their own interests, rather than the Union as a whole. Indeed, the question of how to ensure that a cabal of large states would not run roughshod over small states dominated much of the Constitutional Convention. It shaped many key constitutional provisions, including the bicameral federal legislature, with all states having equal representation in the Senate, the apportionment requirement for direct federal taxes, and the language mandating that “all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”  

Even such an ardent proponent of a strong federal government as Alexander Hamilton was sufficiently concerned about states acting selfishly that he argued initially for abolishing the states as independent sovereigns altogether because “states will prefer their particular concerns to the general welfare.” Eventually, this concern resulted in the constitutional language that required the federal government to operate for the general welfare of the entire nation. Notably, this language is found both in the Constitution’s preamble and Article I, Section 8, which enumerates Congress’s powers. And, as is made clear in an early draft of the general welfare clause, the Framers understood the phrase to mean that “which may concern the common interests of the Union.”

This understanding of the clause is similarly revealed in a debate that took place in September 1787, near the Convention’s end, after the general welfare language had taken its final form.  This debate concerned whether an additional provision should be included in the Constitution specifically vesting the federal government with the power to build canals, which would benefit some states more than others. Some thought yes; others argued that tasks such as canal-building should be the responsibility of the states that would directly benefit. Regardless of this disagreement, they all appeared to have shared the same view that such authority — which today we would take for granted as being well within Congress’s spending power — was not already present.

As in other areas, after the Constitution’s ratification, the Framers took different views of how far the spending power could go. Hamilton, always the preeminent Federalist, took the position that the power to tax and spend constituted a separate grant of authority to Congress, while James Madison believed it was merely a support for Congress’s otherwise enumerated powers.  Hamilton’s view prevailed and was endorsed by the Supreme Court in the 1936 case of United States v. Butler. The court did not, however, determine the meaning of “general welfare” in Butler, except to note that Hamilton understood it to mean “the purpose must be ‘general, and not local.’”

To be sure, the definition of what types of expenditures advance general welfare has been much debated throughout U.S. history. Prior to the Civil War, a stringent definition prevailed, with Congress vigorously debating expenditures for various types of infrastructure projects and presidents vetoing spending bills that they believed served local needs and did not sufficiently advance general welfare. Post-Civil War, and particularly following the New Deal, a far broader federal spending pattern emerged. This reflected the view that, using federal dollars to pay the costs of natural disasters and similar emergencies, or various infrastructure projects, while benefiting some states more than others at any given point in time, would benefit the nation as a whole in the long run. This practice broadened the understanding of what expenditures served the national interest, but it did not and could not abolish the general welfare requirement altogether.

Thus, however broad Congress’s power to tax and spend may be, this remains the fundamental limitation — expenditures must promote national, rather than local, interests. And it is difficult to imagine a more locally-oriented program than one designed to prop up the fiscal choices of a group of states — to benefit state and municipal government employees by establishing generous, underfunded pension systems — at the expense of other states. Significantly, numerous states repeatedly have rejected similar pension arrangements for themselves, vividly manifesting their view that this was not in their best interests or conducive to general welfare.  Indeed, by subsidizing a particular vision of what constitutes a proper state government, one of the basic justifications for our federalist system — that states can make their own choices as laboratories — would be discarded. True federalism requires that the federal government neither coerces states nor imposes on states’ fiscal burdens that properly belong to individual states that have incurred them.

Senate Republicans have every right, and all senators have an equal obligation, to ensure that any funding legislation meets the general welfare requirement, so that federal dollars cannot be used to pay, either directly or indirectly, for the repair of long-term fiscal liabilities of any recipient state.  

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 and have litigated separation-of-powers cases, representing states in challenges to ObamaCare and the federal Clean Power Plan.

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/judiciary/495961-bailing-out-states-violates-the-constitutions-general-welfare-clause