Trump Can’t Be ‘Disqualified’ Over Documents

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

August 10, 2022, in the Wall Street Journal

The warrant under which federal agents searched Donald Trump’s Florida home hasn’t been made public, but press leaks suggest that it was related to the former president’s suspected mishandling of official documents. That has prompted speculation that Mr. Trump could be prosecuted under a law governing the misuse of federal government documents, which includes a provision for disqualification from federal office. According to this theory, if Mr. Trump is convicted, he would be ineligible to serve a second term as president. It won’t work. The theory is deficient on both statutory and constitutional grounds.

Presidential records were traditionally considered the former president’s personal property. Congress acknowledged this in the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, which “encouraged”—but didn’t require—ex-presidents to deposit their papers for the benefit of researchers and history.

After President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, he struck an agreement with the archivist of the United States to donate his papers, but he reserved the right to destroy certain materials, including some of the infamous Watergate tapes. To prevent this, Congress enacted the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974. That law, which applied only to Nixon, required these materials to be secured by the government and ultimately made public under appropriate regulations. It provided for financial compensation to the former president, a further acknowledgment of his property interest in the materials.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 addressed the handling of later presidents’ papers. The PRA asserts government ownership and control of “presidential records,” as defined in the statute, and requires the archivist to take possession of these records when a president leaves office, to preserve them, and to ensure public access. There are important exceptions—in particular, for qualifying materials designated by a lame-duck president to be held confidential for 12 years after he leaves office. These materials include “confidential communications requesting or submitting advice, between the president and the president’s advisers, or between such advisers.”

The law also directs presidents to “assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies” reflecting the execution of their office are “adequately documented.” Once created, these records must be preserved and managed, or disposed of, in accordance with the statute. The PRA defines presidential records to include “documentary materials” created or received by the president or his immediate staff in carrying out activities related to his official duties. Presidential records don’t include records of a “purely private or nonpublic character” unrelated to the execution of the office.

Significantly, while the PRA vests the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia with jurisdiction over any action brought by a former president claiming a violation of his rights or privileges under the act, it establishes no penalties, civil or criminal, for its violation. The statute also guarantees that “presidential records of a former president shall be available to such former president or the former president’s designated representative.”

Other federal statutes may permit the prosecution of people who improperly dispose of presidential records, which are now considered government property. The one of most interest to Mr. Trump’s foes appears to be 18 U.S.C. Section 2071(b), which imposes fines and up to three years’ imprisonment on anyone having custody of records deposited in a “public office” who “willfully and unlawfully” mishandles these records. It provides that on conviction, the defendant “shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States.”

But the Constitution forbids that result with respect to the presidency. Even assuming the government could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Trump deliberately mishandled government documents knowing this to be a violation of federal statute—a difficult task, since the PRA itself guarantees his access to his presidential records and former presidents are generally entitled to receive classified information—a court couldn’t disqualify him from serving as president.

The Constitution establishes the qualifications for election to the presidency: Only natural-born American citizens over 35 who have been U.S. residents for at least 14 years may serve. The Constitution also provides the only mechanism whereby an otherwise qualified person may be disqualified from becoming president: This penalty can be imposed (by a separate vote of the Senate) on someone who has been impeached and convicted for high crimes and misdemeanors. The proposed application of Section 2071(b) to the presidency would create an additional qualification—the absence of a conviction under that statute—for serving as president. Congress has no power to do that.

In Powell v. McCormack (1969) and U.S. Term Limits Inc. v. Thornton (1995), the Supreme Court decided comparable questions involving the augmentation of constitutionally established qualifications to serve in Congress. In the former case, the House refused to seat a constitutionally qualified and duly elected member, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, because it concluded he had diverted House funds to his own use and falsified reports of foreign-currency expenditures. The justices ruled that Powell couldn’t be denied his seat on these grounds, as that would effectively add an extraconstitutional “qualification” for office. That, they concluded, would deprive the people of an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, contrary to the Constitution’s structure. The court cited Federalist No. 60, in which Alexander Hamilton wrote: “The qualifications of the persons who may choose or be chosen, as has been remarked upon other occasions, are defined and fixed in the Constitution, and are unalterable by the legislature.”

The high court reaffirmed that conclusion in Thornton, which struck down an Arkansas ballot measure imposing term limits on the state’s U.S. representatives and senators. The justices articulated as their “primary thesis” that “if the qualifications for Congress are fixed in the Constitution, then a state-passed measure with the avowed purpose of imposing indirectly such an additional qualification”—in this case, not having already served a specific number of terms—“violates the Constitution.”

Using Section 2071(b) to disqualify Mr. Trump (or anyone else) from serving as president is unsupportable under Powell and Thornton. Such a claim would be far weaker than the one the House made in Powell, as the constitution authorizes each congressional chamber to judge the “qualifications of its own members” but gives Congress no authority over presidential qualifications. The only constitutional means to disqualify a president for wrongdoing is through impeachment and conviction.

If preventing Mr. Trump from running in 2024 was the purpose of the Mar-a-Lago search, the government wasted its time and the taxpayers’ resources.

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/trump-cant-be-disqualified-over-documents-fbi-mar-a-lago-presidential-records-act-constitution-impeachment-conviction-supreme-court-2024-11660159610

How to Avert a 2024 Election Disaster in 2023

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

April 24, 2022, in the Wall Street Journal

Pennsylvania lawmakers in 2019 decided to allow mail-in voting for the first time. They enacted a statute providing that “a completed mail-in ballot must be received in the office of the county board of elections no later than eight o’clock P.M. on the day of the primary or election.” In 2020 the state Democratic Party went to court, arguing that in light of the Covid pandemic, the deadline “results in an as-applied infringement” of the right to vote.

The Democrat-dominated Pennsylvania Supreme Court—its members are chosen in partisan elections—sided with the party and ordered a deadline extension, even as it acknowledged the statutory language was clear and unambiguous. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal, so the 2020 election was conducted under this and other new, judge-imposed rules.

Usually there’s no reason for the high court to review a state-court decision about state law. But election law is different. The U.S. Constitution mandates that state legislatures make the laws governing federal elections for Congress and the presidency. The Pennsylvania ruling was therefore unconstitutional. But the justices in Washington, perhaps chastened by the enduring political controversy over Bush v. Gore (2000), seem reluctant to take up such cases close to an election. Fortunately, they will soon have an opportunity to address the issue and to avert the possibility of an electoral meltdown in 2024.

Pennsylvania wasn’t alone in 2020. Faced with Republican control of many state legislatures, the Democrats and their allies took advantage of the pandemic to upend that year’s voting process. Longstanding wish-list items like near-universal voting by mail, ballot “harvesting,” drop boxes, extended deadlines, and loosened identification and signature-match requirements came to pass in much of the country, often by state court order.

The pandemic disruption may be behind us, but litigation over election rules continues. One reason is the success of the Democrats’ 2020 efforts, which their current cases treat as setting a new legal baseline. Returning to ordinary pre-pandemic procedures, they claim, amounts to unlawful “voter suppression.”

But there’s another reason for the state-court litigation explosion: redistricting after the 2020 Census. If state judges are willing to second-guess voting laws, why not the maps too? New maps are often litigated, but what’s different this time is the number of cases asking courts to toss out alleged partisan gerrymanders. The U.S. Supreme Court closed the door to such claims under the federal Constitution in Rucho v. Common Cause (2019), reasoning that there was no “clear, manageable, and politically neutral” standard for courts to apply. The same objection applies to suits brought under state law, but Rucho didn’t address that question.

So they proliferated. Many states where Democrats could pick up House seats with a different map have faced lawsuits based on open-ended state constitutional provisions, such as North Carolina’s proclaiming “all elections shall be free.” Several states’ top courts have tossed out legislature-enacted maps; the North Carolina justices even authorized a lower court to hire its own mapmakers. Republicans won state-court decisions against Democratic gerrymanders in Maryland and New York state.

None of this passes constitutional muster. State courts can interpret and apply laws governing federal elections and consider challenges to them under federal law, including the Constitution. But they have no authority to strike those laws down under state constitutions, let alone a freestanding power to contrive their own voting rules and congressional maps. The U.S. Constitution often assigns powers and duties to the “states” generally, but Article I’s Elections Clause directs that the “times, places and manner” of conducting congressional elections shall “be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof,” unless overridden by Congress. The Electors Clause similarly vests the “manner” of choosing presidential electors in “the legislature.”

In McPherson v. Blacker (1892), the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that the Electors Clause “leaves it to the legislature exclusively to define the method” of choosing electors and that this power “cannot be taken from them or modified by their state constitutions.” In State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (2015), it held that “redistricting is a legislative function, to be performed in accordance with the State’s prescriptions for lawmaking.”

Still, it’s no wonder plaintiffs and state judges have felt emboldened to buck these limitations. The decision of a state supreme court can be appealed only to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has shied away from such cases. Around the same time the justices declined to hear the 2020 Pennsylvania case, they turned back a request to block North Carolina officials from altering legislatively enacted mail-in ballot deadlines. This year, they denied emergency requests to block judge-made maps in North Carolina and Pennsylvania from being used in November.

Election-law cases present unique timing considerations, given the potentially disruptive consequences of changing laws or maps with an election approaching. When courts make changes weeks before a filing deadline or Election Day, the justices’ ability to right the wrong is severely constrained. There’s rarely a serious basis to press the issue after votes have been cast. Those circumstances apply in most election-law cases.

But unlike state-court orders meddling with voting procedures, which typically apply to one election only, congressional maps remain in place until they’re altered, which usually isn’t for a decade. So there’s no timing issue to prevent the court from hearing a redistricting case.

Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented from last month’s denial of the North Carolina stay application, arguing that the case was a good vehicle to consider the power of state courts to rework federal-election laws. Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote separately to say that the court should take a case raising the issue, but this one came too close to the 2022 election. North Carolina’s House speaker has petitioned the court to take the case in its next term. If it does, a decision would likely come next summer, nearly a year and a half before the 2024 election.

The court’s failure to resolve this issue could spell catastrophe. If the 2024 presidential vote is close in decisive states, the result will be an onslaught of litigation combining all the worst features of the 2000 and 2020 election controversies. The court’s precedents in this area all point toward legislature supremacy but leave the door cracked enough for canny litigants, abetted by state judges, to shove it open and seize electoral advantage. To avoid a constitutional crisis, the justices need to articulate with clarity that state courts can’t rely on state constitutions or their own judicial power to alter either congressional redistricting maps or voting rules in federal elections.

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/how-to-avert-a-2024-election-disaster-supreme-court-mail-in-ballot-drop-box-covid-election-rules-pennsylvania-new-york-north-carolina-11650820394

Congress Sowed the Seeds of Jan. 6 in 1887

The Electoral Vote Count Act lets Congress think it can choose the President, but it’s unconstitutional.

By J. Michael Luttig and David B. Rivkin Jr.

March 18, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

Congress plans to establish a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. We already know one reason for that terrible event. Members of the mob acted in the mistaken belief, encouraged by President Trump, that lawmakers had the power to determine the election’s winner. Congress itself sowed the seeds of this belief when it passed the Electoral Vote Count Act of 1887 and could destroy it root and branch by repealing that law.

The EVCA grew out of another bitterly contested presidential election. In 1876 officials in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina certified competing slates of electors, one for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and one for Democrat Samuel J. Tilden ; a single electoral vote from Oregon was similarly contested. The 20 disputed votes were enough to decide the election. A congressional commission ultimately chose Hayes in a political deal. In exchange for the presidency, Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction and withdraw federal troops from the South.

The EVCA was enacted 10 years later, largely to limit Congress’s role in determining which electoral votes to accept. Yet Congress gave itself more authority than the Constitution allows, by establishing a labyrinthine process to resolve state electoral-vote challenges. The most constitutionally offensive provision gave Congress the absolute power to invalidate electoral votes as “irregularly given,” a process that a single representative and senator can trigger by filing an objection.

Fortunately, this provision has seldom been invoked—only twice before 2021—and no objection has ever been sustained. But this year Republican lawmakers vowed to contest the results in six swing states that Joe Biden carried. Although the objections had no prospect of success in a Democratic House and those that were filed (for Arizona and Pennsylvania) were voted down overwhelmingly in both chambers, the law put Congress smack in the middle, where it uncomfortably found itself in 1876.

That’s not what the Framers intended. The Constitution’s Electors Clause gives state legislatures plenary authority over the manner of choosing electors and relegates Congress to determining on what day the Electoral College would cast its votes. The 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, reformed the Electoral College by providing for separate votes for president and vice president. It also reiterates the Article II, Section 1 language that the certified state electoral results are to be transmitted to Washington, opened by the president of the Senate, and counted in the presence of both congressional houses.

No constitutional provision empowers Congress to resolve disputes over the validity of a state’s electoral slate—or for that matter addresses who is to resolve these disputes. Significantly, the 12th Amendment gives Congress no power to enact legislation to enforce its provisions, unlike subsequent amendments expanding the franchise. The Necessary and Proper Clause doesn’t support such legislation either. The constitutional text contains further indications that the Framers chose to exclude Congress from participating in presidential elections. While Article I, Section 5 grants Congress the authority to judge the elections of its own members, no such power is given with regard to presidential elections. And Article II, Section 1 forbids members of Congress from being appointed as electors.

In fact, after much debate, the Framers deliberately chose to deny Congress any substantive role in selecting the president and vice president, except in the rare case that no candidate has an Electoral College majority. This was for compelling separation-of-powers reasons. As Gouverneur Morris explained at the time, “if the Executive be chosen by the [National] Legislature, he will not be independent [of] it; and if not independent, usurpation and tyranny on the part of the Legislature will be the consequence.”

Thus Congress’s prescribed role as audience during the process of opening and counting the electoral votes is ministerial. With electoral college votes coming from all of the states, the counting had to be performed by a federal government entity, and both the executive and judicial branches had potential conflicts of interest. That Congress has no constitutional “skin in the game” of presidential selection made it perfectly positioned for this role of official observer.

Who then does have the power to settle disputes over electoral slates, such as those in 1876 and 2020? Whether electors are validly chosen is a quintessentially legal determination, not a political one. When state legislatures select presidential electors, they exercise power vested in them by the U.S. Constitution, not by state law. As the power to say what federal law is rests with the federal judiciary, it is the federal courts that have the authority and the responsibility to resolve these disputes.

Congress should promptly repeal the Electoral Vote Counting Act. Given the tight constitutional timeline for casting and counting votes and inaugurating a president, lawmakers should enact a statute providing for expeditious federal judicial resolution of all questions relating to compliance with state legislatively established procedures for selecting presidential electors, the validity of elector selection, and the casting of electoral votes—and requiring eventual mandatory Supreme Court review.

By ridding the country of this unconstitutional and anachronistic law, lawmakers would remove themselves from the process for choosing the president and surrender back to the federal judiciary the role Congress unconstitutionally arrogated to itself almost a century and a half ago. That would go a long way toward ensuring that America never witnesses a siege on the National Capitol on a future Jan. 6.

Mr. Luttig served as a judge on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1991-2006. He advised Vice President Mike Pence on the 2020 vote certification. Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/congress-sowed-the-seeds-of-jan-6-in-1887-11616086776

Let the Electoral College Do Its Duty

By DAVID B. RIVKIN, JR. and ANDREW M. GROSSMAN
September 7, 2016, in the Wall Street Journal

To those counting the days until Nov. 8 when the presidential election campaign will finally end, some bad news: The contest won’t truly be decided until the Electoral College’s vote on Dec. 19. Then again, this could be good news for Americans who still hope to escape the dilemma presented by the major parties’ nomination of two unpopular candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—but only if the electors’ constitutionally guaranteed independence is observed in the face of state laws seeking to control their votes.

America’s method of presidential selection is as peculiar and clever as the federalism and separation-of-powers principles that fostered it. To guard against the passions of populism, the Framers interposed a college of state-based electors between voters and the actual presidential selection. To discourage political obligation and intrigue, they provided that the electors would meet just once, in their respective states, for the sole purpose of casting ballots for the next president and vice president.

And to prevent the presidency from being captured by regional interests, they required the winner to obtain a majority of the Electoral College votes. Failing that, the election is thrown to the House of Representatives, to choose among the top three vote-getters.

Today, the Electoral College vote is regarded as a nearly mechanical process: The parties nominate their slates, elector seats are awarded (in most states) to the popular vote winner’s party slate, and a few weeks later the electors certify what the people have already chosen. Read more »

Hillary’s Unlawful Plan to Overrule Voter-ID Laws

By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. and ELIZABETH PRICE FOLEY
June 11, 2015 7:26 p.m. ET

Declaring that Republican-controlled states have “systematically and deliberately” tried to “disempower and disenfranchise” voters, Hillary Clinton has called for a sweeping expansion of federal involvement in elections. In a speech last week in Houston, laying out what promises to be a major campaign theme, Mrs. Clinton called for automatic voter registration at age 18, a 20-day early-voting period and a maximum 30-minute wait period to vote.

She has also endorsed the idea of a federal law permitting convicted felons to vote and allowing individuals, such as students, who reside in one state to vote in another. All of these federal mandates would augment and make more onerous an unconstitutional election-regulating federal statute known as the “Motor Voter” law enacted during her husband’s White House tenure.

A federal takeover of election laws—and rolling back state voter-ID laws intended to discourage election fraud—is a high priority for progressives. The billionaire financier George Soros reportedly has pledged $5 million to bankroll legal challenges to laws like those that Mrs. Clinton decries. Part of the effort is intended simply to galvanize the Democratic base by stoking a sense of grievance, but the strategy should be taken seriously—and rebutted as unconstitutional.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate federal elections, not state ones. It also distinguishes between the regulation of presidential versus congressional elections. Specifically, under Article I, Section 4—the Elections Clause—while the states have primary responsibility for regulating congressional elections, Congress can pre-empt their rules by regulating “times, places and manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives,” except that Congress cannot regulate the “places of chusing [sic] Senators.”

Read more »