Alito Teases a Judicial Revolution

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

23 June 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

The Supreme Court’s decision last week in Gundy v. U.S. was deceptively anticlimactic. The vote was 5-3, but there was no majority opinion and the decision made no new law. Justice Samuel Alito’s lone concurrence, however, suggested that a major break with precedent—and a return to the Constitution’s original meaning—will soon be in the offing.

The Constitution’s first clause after the Preamble states: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Since 1935 the justices have ignored that provision and permitted lawmakers to delegate their authority to the executive branch. At issue in this case was a provision of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 2006, or Sorna, that directed the attorney general to “specify the applicability” of the law’s registration requirements to offenders, like Herman Gundy, whose crimes predated the act. Mr. Gundy, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to register, claimed this delegation was illegitimate.

The case was heard four days before Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Had Justice Alito dissented, the resulting 4-4 split would have upheld the lower court’s ruling against Mr. Gundy without any opinion being issued. Instead, Justice Alito joined his four liberal colleagues in rejecting Mr. Gundy’s appeal but said he was prepared to switch sides: “If a majority of this Court were willing to reconsider the approach we have taken for the past 84 years, I would support that effort.” A dissent from Justice Neil Gorsuch, meanwhile, set forth the case for nondelegation.

In their quest to control governmental power and protect individual liberty, the Framers separated federal power among three branches of government. As Justice Gorsuch notes, they also “went to great lengths to make lawmaking difficult,” requiring consent of both houses of Congress and the president, or legislative supermajorities. The veto was the executive branch’s only role in the legislative process.

That was deliberate. Justice Gorsuch quotes Montesquieu, who was quoted by James Madison in Federalist No. 47: “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates.”

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Demanding Trump’s tax returns is congressional overreach

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

17 May 2019 in The Hill

Democrats in Congress long have demanded that President Trump make his tax returns public. Many promised voters that, if given the House majority in the 2018 elections, they would force public disclosure of Trump’s returns. Indeed, they’ve demanded access to the president’s returns, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has refused to give Congress that access. He was right to refuse. His action is firmly grounded in federal statute and the Constitution.

In April, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) demanded Trump’s tax returns from 2013 to 2018, invoking a federal statute (26 U.S.C. § 6103) that makes federal tax returns confidential. Other statutory sections, including 26 U.S.C. § 7213, make it a felony to disclose information in federal tax returns without proper authorization.

There are narrowly drawn exceptions to the general rule of confidentiality, including one that allows congressional tax committees to demand copies of individual tax returns. That information, however, cannot be made public without the taxpayer’s written consent. Secretary Mnuchin must have a well-grounded fear that one or more members of Congress would make the president’s returns public, hiding behind the Constitution’s speech or debate clause to escape prosecution. This factor alone can preclude the release of tax information.

There are, however, even more fundamental problems with the request. The committee’s stated purpose is to investigate how the IRS enforces tax laws against sitting presidents. That is an obvious pretext. Even if the Democrats’ posturing could be ignored, the fact that only Trump’s returns are sought — and not those of former presidents — makes the game clear. Read more »

Gerrymandering Disputes Don’t Belong in Court

By David B. Rivkin Jr and Richard Raile

26 March 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

Not every day does the Supreme Court have a chance to advance democracy and reverse a major mistake while also lightening its future workload. But it can do all those things in two cases it hears Tuesday dealing with gerrymandering of congressional districts.

In Davis v. Bandemer (1986), six justices agreed that courts can resolve complaints about so-called partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of district lines to favor the party that controls the process. In legal parlance, the justices held that such complaints are “justiciable.” But no five justices were able to agree on what legal principles courts should apply in deciding such cases. That question has been litigated ever since, including this week’s cases, Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek. The court should put an end to this futile experiment by ruling that such claims are nonjusticiable political questions.

Electoral maneuvering, of which gerrymandering is one example, is as old as democracy itself. One of the more colorful examples is the English rotten boroughs system, which allowed the Crown and its supporters to control a substantial number of seats in the House of Commons until the passage of the Reform Act of 1832. Partisan gerrymandering strikes many observers as unfair, but it’s not clear what constitutional provision it might violate. The Constitution itself doesn’t even anticipate the existence of political parties.

The Constitution does address the question of who has the power to draw district lines. Article I, Section 4 provides that “the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” But the framers understood that what Alexander Hamilton called the “discretionary power over elections” entailed the danger, noted by James Madison, that legislatures might “mould their regulations as to favor the candidates they wish to succeed.” Hamilton went even further, saying unlimited state legislative authority over congressional elections would entail the power to “annihilate” the federal government.

Thus the same section also provides that “Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” That this delegation of power to Congress was the response to the possibility of abuse is powerful evidence that the Framers addressed the problem through the structural balance-of-power provisions and that a judicial check on legislatures’ politics is unavailable. Because the Framers agreed that a national election code was unworkable and that a benefit inhered in state legislatures’ ability to address local needs and traditions, they chose not to codify standards in the constitution. Read more »

Stop the Impeachment Fishing Expedition

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Elizabeth Price Foley

Feb. 14, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

As William Barr begins his term as attorney general, House Democrats are aiming a “subpoena cannon” at President Trump, hoping to disable his presidency with investigations and possibly gather evidence to impeach him. Mr. Trump fired back in his State of the Union address: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.” To protect the presidency and separation of powers, Mr. Barr should be prepared to seek a stay of all congressional investigations of Mr. Trump’s prepresidential conduct.

The president is not one among many, as are legislators and judges. Crippling his ability to function upsets the constitutional balance of power. For this reason, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has repeatedly concluded that a sitting president may not be indicted or prosecuted. The same logic should apply to congressional investigations.

Congress is targeting Mr. Trump’s actions before becoming president because there are well-established constitutional limits, grounded in separation-of-powers doctrine, on its ability to investigate his official conduct. In U.S. v. Nixon (1974), the Supreme Court recognized a constitutionally based, although not unlimited, privilege of confidentiality to ensure “effective discharge of a President’s powers.” In Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982), the justices held that presidents and ex-presidents have absolute immunity against civil liability for official presidential acts.

Executive immunity for prepresidential activity is less clear. In Clinton v. Jones (1997), which arose out of Paula Jones’s accusation that Bill Clinton sexually harassed her while he was governor of Arkansas, the justices reasoned that Ms. Jones’s lawsuit could proceed because the burden on the presidency objectively appeared light. Specifically, because only three sitting presidents had been sued for prepresidential acts, the justices thought it “unlikely that a deluge of such litigation will ever engulf the presidency.” Read more »

Obstruction of justice? Careful what you wish for, lawmakers

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

7 February 2018 in the Wall Street Journal

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

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

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

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

The Rule of Law Prevails in the Travel-Ban Case

The judicial “resistance” to President Trump suffered a well-deserved defeat in the Supreme Court’s “travel ban” ruling, Trump v. Hawaii. At issue was Mr. Trump’s order limiting entry to the U.S. of nationals from eight (now seven) countries that are unwilling or unable to cooperate sufficiently in U.S. antiterrorist screening efforts. The plaintiffs challenged the order on several grounds, arguing that it exceeded the president’s authority and was animated by anti-Muslim bias, violating the First Amendment. (Six of the eight covered countries are mostly Muslim.) The court upheld Mr. Trump’s order 5-4.

Whatever one thinks of the travel ban as policy, the ruling is an important victory for the rule of law. Federal trial and appellate courts have persistently enjoined Mr. Trump’s orders, defying clear Supreme Court precedent supporting his power to limit the entry of aliens. The decision has removed all doubt that the president’s orders are lawful under both the Immigration and Nationality Act and the Constitution.

The justices made short work of the plaintiffs’ statutory claims, affirming that the Immigration and Nationality Act’s plain language gives the president the power to deny “any aliens or any class of aliens” entry to the U.S. whenever he finds that letting them in “would be detrimental” to U.S. interests. This provision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “exudes deference to the President in every clause.” Mr. Trump’s proclamation, the justices concluded, was “well within this comprehensive delegation.” The court also concluded that a “searching inquiry” into the president’s justifications for the order, such as the lower courts in this case conducted, is inconsistent with both the statute and “the deference traditionally accorded the President in this sphere”—namely “international affairs and national security.”

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