A Look at Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Judicial Record

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Andrew M. Grossman

February 28, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is known as a capable, diligent and collegial jurist. Hers isn’t the straightforward ascent of most Supreme Court nominees. After a clerkship with Justice Stephen Breyer, she spent a decade as what she called a “professional vagabond”—a junior litigator at a Washington firm; an associate of Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer known for administering compensation funds for victims of terrorism and other disasters; an assistant special counsel for the Sentencing Commission. She would be the first justice to have served as a public defender. One gets the reassuring sense that, like Clarence Thomas, Judge Jackson hasn’t had her sights trained on a Supreme Court nomination since law school.

The same could be said of Judge Jackson’s time on the bench. As a federal trial court judge in the District of Columbia (2013-21), she oversaw a docket consisting largely of run-of-the-mill employment disputes, contract cases, freedom-of-information actions, criminal prosecutions and the like. Her opinions are generally workmanlike, making it easy to discern the rare case that inspired her passion.

At the top of that list is her decision ordering then-President Trump’s former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify before a House committee investigating purported Russian interference with the 2016 election. Judge Jackson rejected out of hand Mr. Trump’s assertion of a kind of immunity from testimony recognized by the courts for well over a century. “Presidents are not kings,” she wrote. “This means that they do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control.”

The decision rejects—and describes as “strident”—the government’s argument that parties generally need authorization from Congress to bring suit in federal court. Congress did authorize suits over Senate subpoenas, but not House suits. What may seem an arcane procedural point speaks volumes: Much judicial mischief has involved courts appointing themselves to exercise power and impose liability in the absence of any law. Judge Jackson’s rationale, echoing those of many Warren and Burger court decisions, is that the Constitution empowers courts to vindicate “intrinsic rights.”

Also revealing is Judge Jackson’s decision blocking a Trump policy expanding eligibility for “expedited removal” to aliens who have been in the country illegally for up to two years. The statute gives the Homeland Security Department “sole and unreviewable discretion” over expedited removal, which should give the courts nothing to review. Judge Jackson asserted that although the policy itself was unreviewable, she could pass judgment on the “manner” in which the agency made it. She found it lacking based on the agency’s failure to engage in notice-and-comment rulemaking and its failure to consider adequately the “downsides of adopting a policy that, in many respects, could significantly impact people’s everyday lives in many substantial, tangible, and foreseeable ways”—which would seem to be a consideration of policy, not manner. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed this ruling.

Judge Jackson was also reversed in a case in which she sided with federal-employee unions challenging presidential directives to streamline collective-bargaining terms, limit time spent on union business during work hours, and make it easier to fire employees for misconduct or unacceptable performance. Her decision bends over backward to excuse the unions from the requirement that they bring disputes to the Federal Labor Relations Authority before going to court, and the D.C. Circuit reversed it on that basis. But her take on the merits also raises concerns. In her view, the government’s general duty to bargain and negotiate “in good faith” precludes the government from taking topics off the bargaining table (like the availability of grievance proceedings for outright employee misconduct). She acknowledged that position went well beyond the governing precedent. While that would be a boon to the unions, it would disable presidential control of the federal workforce to account for changing circumstances.

Since joining the D.C. Circuit in June 2021, Judge Jackson has handed down only two opinions on the merits, both in the past month. The first, in another federal-union case, is notable. Siding again with the union, Judge Jackson rejected an FLRA decision holding that collective bargaining is required only for workplace changes that have a “substantial impact” on conditions of employment, as opposed to the much lower “de minimis” standard that had previously prevailed. The opinion concludes that the agency failed to explain adequately its adoption of the new standard—a holding that rests on what legal scholar Jonathan Adler called an “erroneous and unduly strict” application of Supreme Court precedent imposing a light burden on agencies changing their policy positions. They need merely “display awareness” of the change and identify “good reasons for the new policy.” To this, Judge Jackson’s opinion adds the requirement, which the Supreme Court had rejected, that the agency show the new policy to be better than the old one.

After reviewing so many of Judge Jackson’s judicial opinions, we have no doubt of her capabilities. We can’t discern whether she has any cognizable judicial philosophy that would guide her approach to the sort of fraught legal questions that the Supreme Court confronts term after term. Her loudest advocates are confident that she’ll serve them well, and her record supports that view. With 50 Democratic senators, that may be enough.

Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/ketanji-brown-jackson-judicial-record-supreme-court-nominee-public-defender-dc-circuit-biden-11646001770

The Vaccine Mandate Case May Mark the End of the ‘Work-Around’ Era

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

Jan. 6, 2022, in the Wall Street Journal

Hours after President Biden’s Sept. 9 speech announcing a series of vaccine mandates for private-sector employees, his chief of staff, Ron Klain, retweeted an MSNBC anchor’s quip that wielding workplace-safety regulation to force vaccinations was “the ultimate work-around.” Congress has never enacted a law requiring American civilians to be vaccinated—assuming it even has the constitutional authority to do so, which is doubtful. The Supreme Court hears arguments Friday on two of the mandates, which are likely to meet the same fate as other recent attempts to circumvent Congress that the courts have rejected.

The Constitution vests the power to make laws in Congress and charges the president with the duty to execute them. That’s what many in Washington derisively call the “high school civics class” model of government. It’s slow, it’s cumbersome, it rarely approves measures that don’t enjoy widespread public support, and it forces compromise, moderation and tailoring of policies to address the circumstances of a vast and varied nation. The temptation of avoiding it via executive fiat is obvious.

All it seems to take is clever lawyering. The U.S. Code is littered with broadly worded laws, made all the more capacious by judicial deference to agencies’ interpretations of them. Rather than dutifully carry out Congress’s design, a president can set his own policy and then scour the statute books for language that can be contorted to authorize it. In a 2001 Harvard Law Review article, then- Prof. Elena Kagan called the practice “presidential administration.” President Obama put it more plainly when he faced congressional resistance to his agenda: “I’ve got a pen to take executive actions where Congress won’t.”

But it isn’t quite that easy. The Clean Power Plan, Mr. Obama’s signature climate policy, set rigid and unattainable emission limitations for fossil-fuel power plants to force them out of operation and transform the energy market. It relied on an adventuresome interpretation of an obscure provision of the Clean Air Act. In 2016 the Supreme Court blocked it from taking effect, and the Trump administration later repealed it. (We represented Oklahoma in the litigation.)

Mr. Obama’s immigration-reform measures—also taken in the face of congressional opposition—suffered a similar fate. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—which allows illegal aliens who were brought to the U.S. as children to work and avoid deportation—remains in legal limbo nearly a decade after it was established, following setbacks in the courts. Its counterpart for parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents was enjoined before it took force.

Mr. Biden has had a taste of defeat himself, in a case that prefigures the mandate challenges. After Congress declined to extend the Trump administration’s nationwide eviction moratorium, the Biden administration acted on its own, relying on a 1944 statute authorizing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to undertake clearly delineated disease-prevention measures like fumigation and pest extermination. The justices, however, found it unthinkable that Congress had intended to confer on CDC so “breathtaking” an authority: “We expect Congress to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to exercise powers of vast economic and political significance.”

In other words, loose language in old laws isn’t enough to support a presidential power grab. Yet that’s all the support the administration has been able to muster for the vaccination mandates. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandate forcibly enlists all companies with 100 or more employees to administer a vaccination-or-testing requirement that reaches nearly 85 million employees. It relies on a narrow provision addressing workplace-specific hazards that has never been used to require vaccination. The mandate for Medicare and Medicaid providers (covering 10.3 million workers) rests on general provisions authorizing regulations necessary to administer those programs—which, again, have never been used to require vaccinations. None of these statutes contain even a hint that Congress authorized any agency to administer broad-based vaccination mandates touching millions of Americans.

Although the mandates are flawed in other ways, their lack of clear congressional authorization is the most striking defect. Excessive judicial deference to agencies’ statutory interpretations is what enabled Mr. Obama’s “I’ve got a pen” agenda and its revival under Mr. Biden. The result has been to distort the entire federal lawmaking apparatus. Members of Congress now lobby the executive branch to make law through regulation rather than legislate themselves. Agencies enact major policies that have the durability of a presidential term before they’re reversed. And the president would sooner blame the courts for legal defeats than admit he lacks the power to do his allies’ bidding.

The courts share blame for this state of affairs, having lost sight of the basic separation-of-powers principles that should guide questions of agencies’ statutory authority. A decision rejecting the vaccination mandates because they weren’t clearly authorized by Congress would serve as a shot across the bow signaling that the work-around era is over.

Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/end-of-work-arounds-biden-executive-order-vaccine-mandate-covid-omicron-supreme-court-11641505106

This Debt-Ceiling Crisis Threatens Democracy as Well as Solvency

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

7 December 2021 in the Wall Street Journal

Congress is about to begin another debt-ceiling fight, and it threatens the Constitution as well as America’s solvency.

Over the past two years, Uncle Sam has borrowed and spent trillions of dollars to address Covid-19. Coronavirus spending added nearly $3 trillion to the national debt this year alone—and that doesn’t count the recently passed infrastructure bill and the pending Build Back Better Act. The unprecedented growth in federal outlays has contributed to inflation, which has reached a 30-year high, and caused annual budget deficits to soar.

The government is about to reach its statutory federal borrowing limit of $28.4 billion. If Congress doesn’t increase the limit, Washington will run out of money to meet its legal obligations. Republicans and Democrats are at loggerheads over how much to spend and whether to enact what the Democrats call “transformational” legislation—measures that would reshape the American economy and increase government’s role in nearly all aspects of life.

The threat to the Constitution comes from one of the options lawmakers are considering: suspending rather than raising the statutory debt ceiling, thereby authorizing the executive branch to borrow an unlimited amount of money for a limited time. Suspending the debt ceiling would undermine the structure of American democracy—particularly when government spending obligations are in flux, and the future direction of key policies is being fiercely contested.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned Democrats that if they insist on enacting major and costly policy changes on a partisan basis, they will have to increase the debt ceiling without votes from Republicans. That could be accomplished through budget reconciliation, the means by which the Democrats intend to pass the Build Back Better Act with a simple majority. But Democrats are wary of unilaterally raising the debt ceiling, which isn’t popular.

In October, facing a debt-ceiling stalemate and a possible government shutdown, Republicans reluctantly supplied the votes necessary to increase the debt ceiling by $480 billion. That was constitutionally proper, but it bought only a little time. The increase will be exhausted this month, and Mr. McConnell and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have again started negotiations on the debt ceiling.

Congress usually raises the statutory debt ceiling to a new specific dollar amount, a core part of its constitutional power of the purse. Occasionally, however, Congress (with both parties in the majority) has “suspended” the debt ceiling. As we argued in these pages during the last debt-ceiling crisis, such delegations of power are constitutional only if, as Justice Elena Kagan put it in Gundy v. U.S. (2019), “Congress lays down by legislative act an intelligible principle to which the person or body authorized to exercise the delegated authority is directed to conform.”

The current unsettled budgetary environment makes the constitutional infirmity of suspending the debt ceiling acute. When suspensions were adopted in the past, there was at least a shared understanding between Congress and the executive about where the dollars were to go and how much spending there would be. Previous suspensions weren’t coupled with open attempts to transform the country’s economy and society—to upend the fundamental relationship of government to the governed.

Today’s spending plans are opaque and unpredictable. The estimated cost of Build Back Better alone ranges from $1.75 trillion to more than $5 trillion. That lack of clarity could also dramatically alter the terms upon which the Treasury can find willing buyers for new U.S. debt, greatly increasing debt-servicing costs. Suspending the debt ceiling in these circumstances would mean the executive branch is entirely unbound.

As another debt-ceiling cliff-hanger emerges, Democratic leaders appear committed to a suspension, which again would require Republican support. Giving bipartisan cover to another unconstitutional suspension would be disastrous. Decisions about the levels of spending, borrowing and taxation now under consideration require democratic accountability. Congress is almost evenly divided between the two major parties, a situation that counsels against transformative political and economic changes negotiated in back rooms.

If Democrats believe their programs are meritorious enough to burden the country with trillions of dollars in additional debt, they should accept the political risk of raising the debt ceiling without Republican votes. If Democrats are right, they’ll benefit and Republicans will pay the political price for intransigence. That’s how American democracy works, and why so many of the Constitution’s most fundamental provisions, such as Congress’s power of the purse, were adopted—to ensure accountability and the consent of the people.

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

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/debt-ceiling-crisis-threatens-democracy-budget-limit-build-back-better-mcconnell-schumer-11638718728

Biden’s Lawless Vaccine Mandate

OSHA’s job is to promote safe workplaces, not to dictate medical decisions to employees.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Robert Alt

Sept. 28, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

President Biden told unvaccinated Americans this month: “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. . . So, please, do the right thing.” He backed up this request with a series of new regulatory mandates, including one from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which directs businesses with 100 or more employees to make vaccination a condition of employment.

The Covid vaccine has been widely hailed as a modern scientific miracle. Yet as a means to increase nationwide vaccination rates, the OSHA mandate far exceeds the authority Congress granted the agency, and if the president can order private companies to dictate such terms of employment, his power to coerce citizens in the name of public health might as well be unlimited. This would both be profoundly unconstitutional and fundamentally transform the relationship between the government and the people.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 authorizes OSHA to enact rules that are “reasonably necessary or appropriate to provide safe or healthful employment and places of employment.” But the Biden mandate is unreasonably and unnecessarily broad. As announced, it applies to all employees, even those who work at home, as millions have done during the pandemic. It’s simultaneously too narrow, failing to require vaccination for contractors, customers and other nonemployees who may be present at the work site.

It’s overbroad in another way: Previous Covid infection doesn’t excuse employees from the vaccine requirement. Natural immunity tends to be more robust and longer-lasting than vaccinated immunity, according to Marty Makary of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Worse, Dr. Makary says, there is evidence that people who already have natural immunity are at heightened risk of vaccine side effects caused by an augmented inflammatory response. For these reasons, lawsuits have already been filed challenging employer vaccine mandates as applied to employees with natural immunity.

Another concern is that the administration’s interpretation of the OSHA statutory language presents a “delegation” problem. If Congress delegates discretion to an agency without a proper limiting principle, it violates the separation of powers. To avoid this constitutional problem, the courts will have to give the statute a more restrictive reading. Coming up with a meaningful judicially enforceable principle would not be easy.

Additional problems arise from the administration’s urgency. In imposing the vaccination requirement immediately, OSHA will bypass the ordinary notice-and-comment rule-making process and issue what’s known as an Emergency Temporary Standard. OSHA has used that legal authority only 10 times in 50 years. Courts have decided challenges to six of those standards, nixing five and upholding only one.

The OSH Act imposes stringent limits on emergency standards precisely so OSHA can’t easily circumvent the ordinary rule-making process. The government has to prove that “employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards” and that using the emergency process is “necessary to protect employees from such danger.” Courts subject emergency standards to a what appellate courts call a “hard look” review, a more stringent standard than for ordinary economic regulations.

The White House justifies the mandate as a proportional response to the spread of Covid’s Delta variant, which is straining hospital capacity in some states. But the mandate is nationwide and indefinite, not tied to Covid rates. The administration’s vaccine rhetoric is therefore another reason to regard the standard as legally suspect. In addition to Mr. Biden’s remark about his patience wearing thin, White House chief of staff Ron Klain retweeted a journalist’s comment that “OSHA doing this vaxx mandate as an emergency safety rule is the ultimate work around for the Federal govt to require vaccinations.”

All this suggests that the administration’s statutory reliance on workplace safety is pretextual. OSHA was established to ensure workplace safety, not to act as a “work around” for achieving other political or policy objectives. In Department of Commerce v. New York (2019), the Supreme Court struck down an otherwise defensible census regulation because the Trump administration’s grounds for instituting it were pretextual.

Beyond these statutory issues lie constitutional concerns. Many commentators are under the impression that Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), in which the Supreme Court upheld a vaccine mandate, settles all such questions. But that case involved a state law and a local regulation, not any federal action—a crucial distinction. The states have plenary police power to regulate health and safety. Congress has only those limited powers enumerated in the Constitution. That wouldn’t include the authority to impose a $155 fine (today’s equivalent of the $5 at stake in Jacobson) on an individual who declines to be vaccinated, much less to prevent him from earning a livelihood.

Defenders of the Biden mandate surely will justify it as a delegation pursuant to Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. But the actual target of the rule is individual medical choices, not commercial ones. If a personal decision not to buy medical insurance can’t be characterized as “commerce”—as the Supreme Court held in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), the ObamaCare case—how can the decision not to be vaccinated?

Further, if public-health benefits are sufficient to justify an OSHA vaccine mandate, what principle would limit the agency’s authority? Could it ban employees from smoking or consuming foods containing trans fats while working at home? The public-health profession has already characterized everything from gun ownership to social-media use as posing a serious public-health issue. Could OSHA legitimately police these, too, even away from the workplace?

Higher vaccination rates would be a public good. But our nation’s Founders understood that much mischief can be done under the theory of being “for your own good” and provided limits to government authorities accordingly. Even during a pandemic, the Biden administration would do well to respect those limits.

Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Alt is president and CEO of the Buckeye Institute, a think tank engaged in public-interest litigation and policy.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/biden-lawless-vaccine-mandate-constitution-occupational-safety-11632841737

Can Congress Tax Wealth by ‘Deeming’ It Income?

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

September 2, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

Charles and Kathleen Moore have done well, but they certainly aren’t billionaires. Yet the couple’s constitutional challenge stands to slam shut the door on a federal wealth tax like the one Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to enact.

The story is complicated, though less so than the tax code. In the 1990s Mr. Moore, a software engineer, worked at Microsoft on its Office applications and grew close to a fellow programmer, Ravi Agrawal. Mr. Agrawal dreamed of returning to his native India to do something for the small-scale farmers he knew growing up in the state of Chhattisgarh.

On a series of trips to India in the early 2000s, he saw an opportunity. Unlike the massive agricultural operations that feed the U.S., capital-poor farmers working a few acres each serve much of India. What struck Mr. Agrawal is that their tools were plainly inadequate, far less reliable and effective than what any American could buy for a few dollars at Home Depot. His idea was to close the gap by providing India’s poorest farmers with tools that would improve their livelihoods and lives, even in the face of the labor shortages in many rural areas as workers migrated to the cities.

Mr. Agrawal needed capital to get the business off the ground. He approached friends to invest in his new company, KisanKraft, and the Moores put up $40,000. It was a lot of money for them, but they believed in Mr. Agrawal and the mission. They knew they were unlikely to earn much of a financial return on their investment, because the plan was to reinvest any profits in the business and serve more of India’s rural poor.

That was the real return, and it proved massive. Mr. Agrawal had put his finger on an unmet need, and by 2017 KisanKraft had expanded to reach the entire country, with hundreds of employees, thousands of dealers and millions of customers. The Moores have never received a dime from their investment, yet it paid off beyond their greatest hope.

Then the tax bill came. As part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, Congress reworked the way multinational corporations are taxed, limiting the amount that they had to pay on foreign income. Offsetting part of the cost was a new, one-time tax on earnings that certain foreign corporations had accumulated over the preceding 30 years but not distributed to their shareholders through dividends. The law deemed those earnings as 2017 income to the shareholders and taxed them on it. The Moores’ bill amounted to $15,000. They paid and are now suing for a refund, on grounds that the new tax is unconstitutional.

The Constitution grants Congress the “power to lay and collect taxes,” but with limits. Article I requires that any “direct tax”—one that falls directly on the payer rather than being passed on to someone else, such as the consumer—“be apportioned among the several states” according to population. The idea was that taxation, like representation, should be fairly apportioned so that no state or region could be singled out for disadvantage. Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist No. 36 that tax apportionment was a key component of federalism, given that direct taxes could disrupt local economies in ways federal lawmakers couldn’t even imagine. By contrast, men of commerce would understand the effects of indirect taxes like tariffs or sales taxes, which the Constitution therefore didn’t subject to apportionment, only uniformity.

The Supreme Court held the first income tax unconstitutional as an unapportioned direct tax in 1895, and Congress eventually responded by proposing the 16th Amendment, ratified in 1913. It authorizes Congress to tax “incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment.”

So far as tax law goes, the Moores’ argument is straightforward. The new tax is a direct tax, and it isn’t on income—after all, they haven’t received any from KisanKraft. Instead, they’re being taxed on their property, the KisanKraft shares. The tax is therefore constitutionally invalid because it isn’t apportioned.

The government insists that the Moores are being taxed on income, because KisanKraft could theoretically distribute its accumulated earnings in the future. The courts, however, have consistently defined “income” to require, as the Supreme Court put it in Commissioner v. Glenshaw Glass (1955), “undeniable accessions to wealth, clearly realized, and over which the taxpayers have complete dominion.” As the Moores observe, they haven’t realized a dime in income. The government argues that the courts should abandon the realization requirement, giving the federal government carte blanche to tax “deemed” income without apportionment.

The stakes of the Moores’ case go well beyond their own tax liability. If they prevail, that would confirm that the Supreme Court’s precedents generally requiring apportionment and limiting the exception for taxes on “income” to its common understanding remain good law, clearly barring any kind of federal property tax, including a wealth tax—unless Congress apportions it, which there is no obvious way to do.

What makes the case an especially attractive vehicle to resolve this issue is the simplicity of their situation, a rarity in tax cases. There’s also the timing: If the courts confirm the 16th Amendment’s limited reach now, that would relieve them from having to do so in a politically explosive case directly challenging a wealth tax. The courts would do well to remind Congress at this opportune time that its taxing power is not without limits.

Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They represent the Moores in their refund action.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/congress-tax-wealth-courts-constitution-moore-agrawal-kisankraft-elizabeth-warren-11630529642

Let Lawyers Hunt for Covid’s Origin

By Mike Pompeo and David B. Rivkin Jr.

Aug. 26, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

Will we ever know where Covid-19 came from? Not if the last word comes from the U.S. intelligence community, which reported to the White House this week that China’s fault is plausible but unprovable. Beijing has refused to cooperate with inquiries, which it has characterized as “origin tracing terrorism.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry even denounced the equivocal intelligence report: “If they want to baselessly accuse China, so they better be prepared to accept the counterattack from China.”

For the rest of the world, getting to the bottom of the question is essential to assigning blame and preventing pandemics. Fortunately, we have an institution dedicated to getting to the bottom of thorny factual disputes: the U.S. judicial system. Our judiciary is respected globally for its impartiality and scrupulous adherence to due process. Civil discovery gives litigants the tools to compel production of evidence, backed by the threat of sanctions or even default judgment, so Beijing would be unable to stonewall. With so many losses caused by the pandemic, U.S. litigants have a powerful incentive to bring cases, prosecute them aggressively, and test liability through adversarial presentation. Several such cases have already been filed.

But those suits and others like them face a high hurdle: the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The FSIA is the reason at least eight lawsuits were dismissed or withdrawn on grounds that foreign states are generally shielded from litigation in U.S. courts. Yet that immunity isn’t a constitutional mandate, only a matter of congressional discretion. Congress can legislate exceptions, and has done so.

Lawmakers should enact a new FSIA exception denying sovereign immunity to nations that fail to inform, or deliberately misinform, the global community of the nature and scope of a local epidemic that becomes a global pandemic. Beijing’s failure in December 2019 to comply with the 24-hour notification requirement of the 2005 International Health Regulations, which China joined, should be a sufficient trigger. This would permit lawsuits to proceed so China’s culpability for the Covid-19 outbreak can be openly adjudicated.

Congress should also withdraw immunity from international organizations that aided and abetted China’s efforts to play down the virus’s transmission and health risks. Western intelligence services have suggested that Beijing instructed the World Health Organization early in the pandemic on what it should say about Covid-19. Plaintiffs could use discovery to identify other governmental and private entities that collaborated with Beijing and hold them accountable. This litigation would have an added benefit of unmasking much of the pro-China infrastructure within international organizations and Western companies, think tanks and other institutions.

To ensure that China can’t delay proceedings, the FSIA amendment should also either create a new federal tort action or give federal courts jurisdiction over Covid-related claims under state law.

Some may object that these measures could interfere with U.S. diplomacy. But Congress can address that concern. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act of 2016—which withdrew sovereign immunity from nations that provided material support to terrorist attacks on American soil—authorized the federal government to intervene in litigation to secure a diplomatic resolution that compensates plaintiffs and mitigates future harm. It makes sense to follow that model here. That would provide the Biden administration with the impetus to declassify and make available to Covid-19 litigants intelligence relating to the virus’s origin. Here, too, there is precedent, stemming from civil cases over the Iran-contra affair and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Defendants in U.S. legal proceedings are ordinarily entitled to bring counterclaims and spread liability to other potential defendants. Beijing has accused the U.S. military of creating the Covid-19 virus at the Army’s Fort Detrick, Md., lab and introducing it during the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan, in which a U.S. team participated. To ensure that Beijing is accorded every opportunity to defend itself, including bringing counterclaims against the U.S., the Biden administration should waive governmental immunity, a step it can take unilaterally without statutory changes. Let Beijing test its implausible theory in court.

China wouldn’t be able to ignore lawsuits in American courts, given its close commercial ties with the U.S. If it refused to participate, courts would enter enforceable default judgments. China would be hard-pressed to avoid complying with any court-ordered damages and injunctions. Successful plaintiffs could pursue collection actions against Chinese government-owned commercial property around the world. Corporations are not normally liable for their owners’ debts, but there is an exception when the owner is involved on a day-to-day basis in running the company. Given the Chinese Communist Party’s pervasive control over formally private Chinese companies, this shouldn’t be difficult to prove.

It should be possible to secure broad bipartisan support for these measures. Republicans and Democrats have expressed a keen desire to hold Beijing accountable, and the Biden administration has made a priority of defending and strengthening the rules-based international order. The president has repeatedly said he wants to make sure China plays by the rules.

Chinese military publications have run articles expressing interest in developing biological weapons. China understands that bioweapons are particularly effective against open societies, where stringent isolation and quarantine measures spur resistance, and could be used to incapacitate aircraft carriers and military bases, which are crucial to the U.S. ability to project power in the Indo-Pacific. Pandemics aside, upholding international norms is essential to deterring China from other malevolent acts, including against Taiwan.

Permitting Covid-19 suits would have additional strategic benefits. In its propaganda, Beijing has sought to capitalize on its supposedly superior handling of Covid-19, claiming it demonstrates the superiority of its totalitarian political system over open, democratic society. Legal discovery could unearth information puncturing these claims.

Holding Beijing accountable would also do much to dispel its assertions that the U.S. is a declining power. While Beijing still respects U.S. military power, it routinely talks down U.S. political will and economic strength. It would face a formidable foe in an army of lawyers on an honest judicial battlefield.

Mr. Pompeo is a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute. He served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (2017-18) and secretary of state (2018-21). Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/covid-19-coronavirus-origin-fsia-foreign-sovereign-immunities-act-china-lab-leak-wet-market-11629990917