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 »

Should Noncitizens Be Represented in Congress?

by David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Richard Raile

24 April 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

The Supreme Court Tuesday will hear oral arguments in the Trump administration’s appeal of lower-court orders forbidding it to ask a citizenship question in the 2020 census. The justices’ task in Department of Commerce v. New York won’t be difficult: The law and facts overwhelmingly support the administration. But the case is a proxy for future battles over redistricting and reapportionment, vital components of American democracy that determine the balance of political power within and among states.

The Census Act grants the commerce secretary discretion to conduct the census “in such form and content as he may determine.” In rejecting the citizenship question, the lower courts usurped that authority and frustrated Congress’s intent. The question about citizenship is far from unprecedented: It was asked in every census but one from 1820 to 1950. Most advanced democracies ask for citizenship information in censuses, a United Nations-recommended best practice.

The administration argues that the citizenship data would help in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, and that is manifestly true. By law, “majority minority” districts must be drawn so at least 50% of eligible voters—i.e., citizens over 18—are members of the minority in question. If too many minority residents are ineligible to vote, that defeats the purpose of avoiding the dilution of minority voting strength. Voting-rights litigation and compliance are hampered by the lack of citizenship data in the decennial census.

The plaintiffs in this case, which include 18 states and the District of Columbia, are using the litigation as a means of stifling the legal and policy debate over whether and how citizenship information should be used in redistricting and reapportionment. 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 »

Another IRS free-speech scandal

By David B. Rivkin and Randall John Meyer

November 23, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

The Internal Revenue Service infamously targeted dissenters during President Obama’s re-election campaign. Now the IRS is at it again. Earlier this year it issued a rule suppressing huge swaths of First Amendment protected speech. The regulation appears designed to hamper the marijuana industry, which is still illegal under federal law although many states have enacted decriminalization measures. But it goes far beyond that.

The innocuously named Revenue Procedure 2018-5 contains a well-hidden provision enabling the Service to withhold tax-exempt status from organizations seeking to improve “business conditions . . . relating to an activity involving controlled substances (within the meaning of Schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act) which is prohibited by federal law.” That means that to obtain tax-exempt status under any provision of the Internal Revenue Code’s Section 501—whether as a charity, social-welfare advocacy group or other type of nonprofit—an organization may not advocate for altering the legal regime applicable to any Schedule I or II substance.

Marijuana is a Schedule I substance, meaning the Food and Drug Administration has found it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Schedule II drugs include such widely prescribed medications as Adderall, Vyvanse, codeine and oxycodone. The IRS can deny tax-exempt status to any organization that seeks to improve the “business conditions” of a currently prohibited activity involving these medications. That could include simply advocating for a change in the law or regulation forbidding the possession, sale or use of marijuana or other Schedule I substances. It would also encompass advocacy for relaxing the regulatory regime currently governing the production, distribution or prescription of Schedule II medications.

The rule does not apply to all speech dealing with the listed substances, only that involving an “improvement” in “business conditions,” such as legalization or deregulation. Efforts to maintain restrictions or impose additional ones are fine by the IRS. This is constitutionally pernicious viewpoint discrimination. As the Supreme Court stated in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995): “When the government targets not subject matter, but particular views taken by speakers on a subject, the violation of the First Amendment is all the more blatant.”

Read more »

Democrats Abandon the Constitution

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

October 16, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court has sparked a firestorm of outrage and recrimination on the left. Some attacks seem aimed at intimidating the justices into supporting progressive causes. “The Court must now prove—through its work—that it is worthy of the nation’s trust,” Eric Holder, President Obama’s attorney general, tweeted Oct. 6.

Yet the attacks go beyond ideology. Detractors of Justice Kavanaugh and President Trump are denouncing the Constitution itself and the core elements of America’s governmental structure:

• The Electoral College. Mr. Trump’s opponents claim he is an illegitimate president because Hillary Clinton “won the popular vote.” One commentator even asked “what kind of nation allows the loser of a national election to become president.” The complaint that the Electoral College is undemocratic is nothing new. The Framers designed it that way. They created a republican form of government, not a pure democracy, and adopted various antimajoritarian measures to keep the “demos” in check.

The Electoral College could be eliminated by amending the Constitution. But proposing an amendment requires two-thirds votes in both houses of Congress, and the legislatures of three-fourths, or 38, of the states would have to ratify it.

• The Senate. The complaint here is that the 50 senators who voted in Justice Kavanaugh’s favor “represent” fewer people than the 48 who voted against him. But senators represent states, not people.

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Kavanaugh’s Foes Politicize the FBI

By David B. Rivkin Jr and Kristi Remington

October 1st, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

The bipartisan bonhomie occasioned by the reopening of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s background investigation dissipated quickly. By the weekend, Senate Democrats—who had demanded the investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation—were challenging its credibility, objecting to its scope and focus, and lamenting that the White House had any involvement in shaping the process.

The reopened investigation, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham—reflecting the White House’s view—potentially entailed interviewing Deborah Ramirez, who claims that Judge Kavanaugh committed lewd conduct while a freshmen at Yale, and the three purported witnesses named by first accuser Christine Blasey Ford—Mark Judge, P.J. Smyth and Leland Keyser—all of whom have attested they have no memory that would corroborate her accusation. Julie Swetnick’s sordid and implausible claims were to be left out, and if any new allegations against Judge Kavanaugh were to emerge, these also wouldn’t be investigated.

President Trump told reporters Monday: “The FBI should interview anybody that they want within reason, but you have to say within reason.” That qualification is crucial. It is clear that Judge Kavanaugh’s opponents are clamoring for an open-ended fishing expedition that, probably by design, would go on much longer than a week. They are insisting that the FBI investigate Judge Kavanaugh’s drinking while in high school and college and interview anyone who might know about it. Two such people have already come forward, and there are no disincentives for new claimants, possibly driven by partisan or personal animus, to emerge.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) tried to justify his demand to broaden the FBI investigation by claiming that heavy drinking was “directly relevant” to the sexual-assault allegations. If this approach were adopted, the FBI would have to interview a very large pool of witnesses about Judge Kavanaugh’s alcohol intake, and possibly many other personal traits, over many years. Never mind that alcohol use is a standard FBI question, certainly asked in the course of Judge Kavanaugh’s previous six background investigations.

Read more »