Can a President Obstruct Justice?

Speculation about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has turned toward obstruction of justice—specifically, whether President Trump can be criminally prosecuted for firing James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or for earlier asking Mr. Comey to go easy on onetime national security adviser Mike Flynn. The answer is no. The Constitution forbids Congress to criminalize such conduct by a president, and applying existing statutes in such a manner would violate the separation of powers.

The Constitution creates three coequal branches of government, and no branch may exercise its authority in a manner that would negate or fundamentally undercut the power of another. The power to appoint and remove high-level executive-branch officers, such as the FBI director, is a core aspect of the president’s executive authority. It is the principal means by which a president disciplines the exercise of the executive power the Constitution vests in him.

The same is true of Mr. Trump’s request, as purported by Mr. Comey: “I hope you can see your way clear . . . to letting Flynn go.” The FBI director wields core presidential powers when conducting an investigation, and the president is entirely within his rights to inquire about, and to direct, such investigations. The director is free to ignore the president’s inquiries or directions and risk dismissal, or to resign if he believes the president is wrong. Such officials serve at the president’s pleasure and have no right to be free of such dilemmas.

A law criminalizing the president’s removal of an officer for a nefarious motive, or the application of a general law in that way, would be unconstitutional even if the president’s action interferes with a criminal investigation. Such a constraint would subject every exercise of presidential discretion to congressional sanction and judicial review. That would vitiate the executive branch’s coequal status and, when combined with Congress’s impeachment power, establish legislative supremacy—a result the Framers particularly feared.

Mr. Trump’s critics claim that subjecting the president’s actions to scrutiny as potential obstructions of justice is simply a matter of asking judges to do what they do every day in other contexts—determine the purpose or intent behind an action. That is also wrong. The president is not only an individual, but head of the executive branch. Separating his motives between public interests and personal ones—partisan, financial or otherwise—would require the courts to delve into matters that are inherently political. Under Supreme Court precedent stretching back to Marbury v. Madison (1803), the judiciary has no power to do so. And lawmakers enjoy an analogous immunity under the Speech and Debate Clause.

The president’s independence from the other branches does not merely support “energy” in the chief executive, as the Framers intended. It also ensures that he, and he alone, is politically accountable for his subordinates’ conduct. If officials as critical to the executive branch’s core functions as the FBI director could determine whom and how to investigate free from presidential supervision, they would wield the most awesome powers of government with no political accountability. History has demonstrated that even when subject to presidential authority, the FBI director can become a power unto himself—as J. Edgar Hoover was for decades, severely damaging civil liberties.

There are limits to presidential power. The Constitution requires the Senate’s consent for appointment of the highest-level executive-branch officers—a critical check on presidential power. The Supreme Court has upheld statutory limits—although never involving criminal sanction—on the removal of certain kinds of officials. But the decision to fire principal executive-branch officers like the FBI director remains within the president’s discretion. A sitting president can also be subjected to civil lawsuits—but only in a carefully circumscribed fashion, to avoid impeding his ability to discharge the powers of his office.

The ultimate check on presidential power is impeachment. Even though Mr. Trump cannot have violated criminal law in dismissing Mr. Comey, if a majority of representatives believe he acted improperly or corruptly, they are free to impeach him. If two-thirds of senators agree, they can remove him from office. Congress would then be politically accountable for its action. Such is the genius of our Constitution’s checks and balances.

None of this is to suggest the president has absolute immunity from criminal obstruction-of-justice laws. He simply cannot be prosecuted for an otherwise lawful exercise of his constitutional powers. The cases of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton —the latter impeached, and the former nearly so, for obstruction of justice—have contributed to today’s confusion. These were not criminal charges but articulations of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the constitutional standard for impeachment.

And in neither case was the accusation based on the president’s exercise of his lawful constitutional powers. If a president authorizes the bribery of a witness to suppress truthful testimony, as Nixon was accused of doing, he can be said to have obstructed justice. Likewise if a president asks a potential witness to commit perjury in a judicial action having nothing to do with the exercise of his office, as Mr. Clinton was accused of doing.

Although neither man could have been prosecuted while in office without his consent, either could have been after leaving office. That’s why President Ford pardoned Nixon—to avoid the spectacle and poisonous political atmosphere of a criminal trial. In Mr. Trump’s case, by contrast, the president exercised the power to fire an executive-branch official whom he may dismiss for any reason, good or bad, or for no reason at all. To construe that as a crime would unravel America’s entire constitutional structure.

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

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/can-a-president-obstruct-justice-1512938781

Begging Your Pardon, Mr. President

The Justices Lay Down the Law

In the travel-ban case, a high-court ‘compromise’ delivers a unanimous rebuke to political judges.

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

June 27, 2017, in the Wall Street Journal

In one of the last decisions of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a clear rebuke to politicized lower courts. The justices’ unanimous ruling in Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project upholds both the integrity of the judiciary and the Supreme Court’s own authority.

The case came to the justices from two federal appellate courts. They had upheld trial judges’ orders halting enforcement of President Trump’s “travel ban” executive order, which temporarily limits entry to the U.S. by nationals from six countries. The court will hear the appeal on the merits in October. On Tuesday it held unanimously that the executive order can be immediately enforced, with narrow exceptions, until they address the merits of these cases in the fall.

The challenges to the order claimed it violated the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom and exceeded the president’s authority under immigration law. Both the substance and tone of these decisions created an unmistakable impression that a portion of the judiciary has joined the anti-Trump “resistance.” Not only did the lower-court judges defy clear and binding Supreme Court precedent, they based much of their legal analysis, incredibly, on Candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

The high court didn’t rule entirely in the administration’s favor. By a 6-3 vote, with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissenting, it held that the individuals who originally challenged the order could continue to do so, as could a carefully defined class of “similarly situated” persons with “close familial” relationships to individuals in the United States, along with institutions that can show a “formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course” relationship to a U.S. entity. Read more »

In Texas, judges waive bail for the indigent, distorting the Constitution

by DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. & LEE A. CASEY

May 31, 2017, in the National Review

The Constitution protects arrestees against “excessive bail.” This guarantee, however, has never been understood to provide indigents the right to a zero-dollar bail simply because they cannot afford more. That, however, is the clear import of in ODonnell v. Harris County, a recent decision by a federal district court in Houston. Unless reversed on appeal, such a rule would require the release of any arrestee, irrespective of the seriousness of the charges being brought, who claims that he or she cannot afford bail — even if the arrestee has a history of failing to appear for trial. This would have wide-ranging implications for how the balance is struck between the rights of criminal defendants and society at large. And policy consequences aside, another judge-engineered right would enter the Constitution’s firmament.

The ODonnell case is part of a recent wave of lawsuits asking unelected federal judges to require the release of arrestees without any bail if they cannot afford it, regardless of what the Constitution says or what such a sweeping abolition of money-bail requirements might portend. Indeed, for many individuals who are accused of a crime, facing months or years in jail, the temptation is great to skip court and avoid justice, and money bail can be a powerful incentive to check this temptation.

When judges set bail, they may obviously consider an arrestee’s ability to pay. But the Constitution does not require this to be the only factor. In fact, Texas law requires judges to consider not only an arrestee’s ability to pay but also their flight risk, criminal history, and danger to the community. Indigent arrestees who present little flight risk are frequently released without posting money bail. But public safety is not served by releasing, with no financial constraint, arrestees with long rap sheets and rich histories of failing to appear in court — which is what the Houston court’s decision arguably now requires. Read more »

The Fourth Circuit Joins the ‘Resistance’

Another court has weighed in against President Trump’s executive order temporarily limiting entry to the U.S. of aliens from six terrorist hotspot countries in Africa and the Middle East. In ruling against the order last week, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals defied Supreme Court precedent and engaged the judicial branch in areas of policy that the Constitution plainly reserves to the president and Congress. The high court should reverse the decision.

In International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a Maryland district judge’s nationwide injunction halting enforcement of the president’s order. Chief Judge Roger Gregory, writing for the 10-3 majority, acknowledged that the “stated national security interest is, on its face, a valid reason” for the order. But he went on to conclude that the administration acted in bad faith based on, among other things, “then-candidate Trump’s numerous campaign statements expressing animus towards the Islamic faith.”

Whatever one may think of that conclusion as a political matter, as a legal matter the judges overstepped their bounds. The controlling case is Kleindienst v. Mandel (1972), in which the Supreme Court rejected a petition from American scholars seeking admission to the country on behalf of a foreign colleague who had been kept out because he advocated communism. The plaintiffs argued that the government’s refusal to admit their colleague on account of his views violated their First Amendment rights. The justices upheld his exclusion and made three things clear: first, aliens have no constitutional right to enter the U.S.; second, American citizens have no constitutional right to demand entry for aliens; and third, the decision to deny admission to an alien must be upheld if it is based on “a facially legitimate and bona fide reason.” Read more »

The Ninth Circuit Ignores Precedent and Threatens National Security

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals violated both judicial precedent and the Constitution’s separation of powers in its ruling against President Trump’s executive order on immigration. If the ruling stands, it will pose a danger to national security.

Under normal rules of standing, the states of Washington and Minnesota should never have been allowed to bring this suit. All litigants, including states, must meet fundamental standing requirements: an injury to a legally protected interest, caused by the challenged action, that can be remedied by a federal court acting within its constitutional power. This suit fails on every count.

The plaintiff states assert that their public universities are injured because the order affects travel by certain foreign students and faculty. But that claim involved no legally protected interest. The granting of visas and the decision to admit aliens into the country are discretionary powers of the federal government. Unadmitted aliens have no constitutional right to enter the U.S. In hiring or admitting foreigners, universities were essentially gambling that these noncitizens could make it to America and be admitted. Under the theory of standing applied in this case, universities would be able to sponsor any alien, anywhere in the world, then go to court to challenge a decision to exclude him.

It is also settled law that a state can seek to vindicate only its own rights, not those of third parties, against the national government. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Massachusetts v. Mellon (1923) that it is not within a state’s duty or power to protect its citizens’ “rights in respect of their relations with the Federal Government.” Thus the plaintiffs’ claims that the executive order violates various constitutional rights, such as equal protection, due process and religious freedom, are insufficient because these are individual and not states’ rights.

Read more »