By David B. Rivkin Jr.
Sept. 9, 2018, in The Hill
Democrats like to pillory President Trump for destroying American institutions and breaking the norms of conduct. Yet, during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Democrats blatantly and flippantly violated Senate norms, rules and traditions — and inflicted in the process considerable damage on the institution.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) interrupted the very first sentence of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) opening statement. Protesters constantly interrupted questions asked by senators of both parties, as well as Kavanaugh’s answers; they were challenged only by Republican senators. But even in this chaotic atmosphere, Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) decision to violate the committee’s confidentiality agreement with the executive branch, pursuant to which the committee received documents that otherwise would have been withheld, was particularly egregious.
On Wednesday night, Booker asked Kavanaugh about an email exchange dating to the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. He quoted a committee confidential document — that is, a document that no senator had the authority to make public, and which Kavanaugh did not have in front of him.
Early Thursday, to ensure that Kavanaugh and the American public would be able to see the emails for themselves, Grassley worked with the Department of Justice and former President George W. Bush’s attorney to release several committee confidential documents, including the one Booker had quoted. They were taken off the “committee confidential” roster at 4 a.m.
Don’t blame Brett Kavanaugh when he demurs at his confirmation hearing from answering questions on legal issues that might come before the Supreme Court. It’s the senators who will be in the wrong, for demanding commitments that no judicious nominee could provide. To answer “direct questions on stare decisis on many other matters, including Roe and health care”—as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called for—would itself be disqualifying.
That principle has come to be called the Ginsburg Standard, after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As she explained in the opening statement of her 1993 confirmation hearing: “A judge sworn to decide impartially can offer no forecasts, no hints, for that would show not only disregard for the specifics of the particular case—it would display disdain for the entire judicial process.” Or, as she later responded to a question about constitutional protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation: “No hints, no forecasts, no previews.”
It would be a mistake to associate the rule too closely with Justice Ginsburg, who honored it inconsistently at her hearing, or to view it as driven only by policy considerations. In fact, the standard has deep roots in the law and history.
Begin with the Constitution. The Appointments Clause provides that judges, including Supreme Court justices, are appointed by the president “with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” From the nomination of John Jay as the first chief justice in 1789 through the mid-1950s, public confirmation hearings were rare. Few nominees attended them when they did occur, and only a handful testified. Senators had no occasion to grandstand by demanding that a nominee declare his stance on legal controversies.
Donald Trump’s lawyers have signaled he won’t agree to a voluntary interview with special counsel Robert Mueller. If Mr. Mueller insists, he will have to subpoena the president. To enforce a subpoena, the special counsel would have to go to court and meet a highly exacting standard, showing what he wants and why he needs it. He would be unlikely to succeed, given that Mr. Trump already has cooperated extensively with the investigation, producing 1.4 million documents and making dozens of White House staffers available for interviews.
The leading precedent is a 1997 opinion, In re Sealed Case, by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The case involved the independent counsel investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who was accused of receiving unlawful gifts. The independent counsel sought to obtain sensitive documents produced in the course of an internal White House inquiry. These materials involved the preparation of a report to then-President Clinton himself. Although Mr. Clinton had directed that most of the materials be provided, he asserted executive privilege to withhold some items.
At issue in particular was information regarding whether Mr. Clinton should discipline or fire Mr. Espy, who did resign. To justify producing such sensitive materials involving “the exercise of [the president’s] appointment and removal power, a quintessential and non-delegable presidential power,” the court required the independent counsel to demonstrate with “specificity” why he needed the materials and why he could not get them, or equivalent evidence, from another source. (Mr. Espy was acquitted in 1998.)
Mr. Mueller’s initial charge was to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. But his investigation has expanded to cover whether Mr. Trump has obstructed justice. The president’s critics say his obstructive acts include urging then-FBI Director James Comey to “go easy” on former national security adviser Mike Flynn, subsequently firing Mr. Comey, and his public criticism of Mr. Mueller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
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.”
Days before President Trump announced his choice of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, Senate Democrats had vowed to oppose any nominee. Backed by an activist-fueled propaganda machine, they now will unleash relentless personal attacks—on Judge Kavanaugh’s Catholic faith, his “elitist” Yale degrees, his service in the George W. Bush administration.
As with the attacks last year on Justice Neil Gorsuch, they should be unavailing. Over Judge Kavanaugh’s 12 years on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, he has developed an impressive record as a legal thinker and a champion of the Constitution’s structural safeguards against overweening government.
Typical is a 2008 dissent in which Judge Kavanaugh concluded that the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board was unconstitutionally structured because it improperly insulated the agency from political accountability. The opinion was a tour de force of historical exposition and originalist methodology—that is, interpreting the Constitution’s text as it was originally understood. The Supreme Court ultimately agreed, adopting the reasoning of Judge Kavanaugh’s dissent.
Yet he is equally wary of unbridled executive authority, as a 2013 case shows. When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission declined to proceed with licensing the proposed waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., which the agency appeared to oppose on policy grounds, he wrote: “The President may not decline to follow a statutory mandate or prohibition simply because of policy objections.”