A guest post by Lawrence Friedman
Few observers could have been surprised by the federal appeals court’s decision in Trump v. Mazars USA, concluding that President Donald Trump cannot stop his accounting firm from producing financial information about him in response to a subpoena from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. In fact, Trump has lost every case in which access to his personal financial records has been sought. The Supreme Court has agreed to review these decisions, with oral argument scheduled for March, and the Mazars USA case may prove the most intriguing—especially to those justices who prefer an originalist approach to constitutional interpretation.
The majority in Mazars USA validated the House Committee’s rationale for the subpoena to Trump’s accountants: the information about the president’s finances was necessary to further Congress’s legitimate legislative objectives. It is well settled that congressional committees may investigate matters upon which Congress can legislate. Through investigation, Congress may determine whether existing laws are sufficient, and whether they are being adequately enforced. The results of an investigation may persuade Congress to strengthen or modify existing laws—or propose new regulatory requirements. The request of Trump’s accounting firm, for example, related to the congressional interest in the efficacy of existing financial disclosure laws.
Given that the power to investigate is, as the Supreme Court has put it, “inherent in the legislative process,” courts generally have deferred to Congress’s stated rationale for seeking certain information in connection with a particular inquiry. Indeed, Congress enjoys relatively wide discretion to decide how best to go about the business of lawmaking. Such judicial deference appropriately leaves the democratic process to serve as the check on the legitimacy of Congress’s exercise of its investigative and policymaking authority.
These principles suggest the majority in Mazars USA made the right call in respect to the information held by Trump’s accountants, but Judge Neomi Rao’s dissenting opinion is still noteworthy. Relying upon text, history and the views of the framers, Rao sees a defined and judicially enforceable line: when a congressional inquiry touches on potential presidential wrongdoing, she reasons, “it does not matter whether the investigation also has a legislative purpose,” because “[a]llegations that an impeachable official acted unlawfully must be pursued through impeachment.” Rao accordingly would have held that investigations that turn on potential criminal conduct by the president or executive branch officials can only be pursued through the impeachment process.
Rao views a strict separation between legislative and impeachment authority as necessary to ensure that the House of Representatives does not escape the accountability associated with an impeachment inquiry. It is not entirely clear why the people would be more likely to hold House members accountable for the decision to undertake an impeachment inquiry as opposed to purely legislative investigation. After all, regardless of the House’s ends, its members serve the smallest number of constituents, hold office for the shortest terms of any elected federal official and, as a result, are the most responsive to the will of the people—which is true no matter the substance of any action the House undertakes.
Nonetheless, Rao’s originalist approach might well attract the attention of justices like Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Were a majority of the Supreme Court to embrace her categorical division between legislative and impeachment investigations, Congress would face practical questions about how to exercise its lawmaking authority. On the one hand, House majorities could continue to pursue legislative investigations, and when they uncover evidence of illegal conduct by executive branch officials, the investigations could be reconstituted as impeachment inquiries. On the other, House majorities could decide to make impeachment the default mode of congressional investigation, regardless where it might lead—which could see the House operating in impeachment mode pretty much all the time.
In the end, no matter the label attached to the way in which the House chooses to pursue its constitutional lawmaking functions, the structural incentives for members of the majority to respond to constituent demands would remain unchanged. House investigations might proceed under different headings, but the questions – and the goals –in most instances would look quite familiar.
Through it all, moreover, Rao’s framework would appear to contemplate the courts policing the line between legislative and impeachment investigations. Judges, in other words, could be reviewing how duly elected members of Congress choose to go about pursuing their official responsibilities. To borrow Chief Justice John Roberts’s favorite analogy, such an approach could empower judicial umpires to go beyond simply calling balls and strikes and, instead, second-guess a manager’s strategic choices. Perhaps needless to say, such a development risks potentially dangerous judicial intrusion into the functioning of a coordinate branch of government.