The Trump Records Requests and the Potential for Judicial Intrusion into the Legislative Process

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.

Louisiana raises judicial salaries

Louisiana legislators voted overwhelmingly last week to raise the salaries of state judges by 2.5% in the coming year. If funds permit, judges would continue to receive equivalent pay raises for each of the four years after that as well.

The source of the funding struck me as noteworthy:

The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed to cover the first year of pay raises for judges — at an estimated cost of $1.8 million — from its substantial cash reserves. It’s unclear whether judges will continue to tap reserves or turn to state taxpayers to cover future raises, which could cost as much as $9.5 million per year if all five annual pay hikes are awarded.

I thought that judicial salaries typically came from funds controlled by the legislature. It’s quite interesting that salaries are to be paid (at last initially) out of the state supreme court’s “substantial” independent funds.

Massachusetts dallies with, and rejects, judicial term limits

My colleague Lawrence Freidman — a sometime guest contributor to this blog — praises the decision here:

The measure the Committee rejected proposed amending the state constitution to provide that judges be reviewed every seven years by the governor’s council. In an interview with The Lowell Sun, the author of the “Proposal for a Legislative Amendment to the Constitution Relative to the Term of Judicial Officers,” Representative Tom Golden, stated that the goal was judicial accountability, particularly for those judges “who consistently make poor legal decisions. 

There are two problems with this justification. First, it is far from clear that there ever could be universal agreement – or even agreement among the members of the Governor’s Council – as to the definition of a “poor legal decision.” It is a fact that, in every civil and criminal case, one party is bound to be disappointed by some judicial ruling, whether it concerned scheduling, procedural mattersor the admissibility of evidence—not to mention the end result. In other words, decrying a “poor legal decision” is in many instances another way of saying you simply do not agree with that particular decision. 

This is not to say that judges are infallible, or that no judicial decision can be deemed objectively wrong. But this leads to the second problem with the proposal: the notion that the only effective form of accountability is one that involves the democratic removal of constitutional officers from their posts.

Read the whole thing!

What should we expect when Justices Alito and Kagan testify before Congress this week?

Political theater, to be sure — but of the potentially useful variety.

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan will reportedly testify before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on financial services and general government on March 7, to discuss the Court’s annual budget request. It will be the first public hearing on the Court’s budget since 2015; over the last several years, Justices have met privately with Congressional leaders.

The tradition of federal judges (including Supreme Court Justices) testifying before Congress dates back at least to the 1920s, when then-Chief Justice Taft and selected colleagues repeatedly appeared before Congress to discuss pending legislation affecting the courts. But that was in an era before television cameras and Twitter. The purpose and meaning of such hearings has long changed, and the presence of Justices, sans robes, at the witness table is sufficiently unusual these days as to attract quite a bit of attention.

Even though the scheduled testimony is technically about the Court’s budget, everyone seems to understand that financial minutiae will only be a small part of the discussion. Subcommittee members are likely to use the rare opportunity for direct interaction with the Justices to broach a variety of unrelated subjects, including an ethics code for the Supreme Court, the introduction of courtroom cameras, and the federal court system’s new workplace conduct policies.

The hearing itself is unlikely to break any new ground. The Justices have a strong tradition of circling the wagons on their internal matters, and Justice Kagan in particular has a smooth temperament that helps her avoid stepping into controversy. (She did manage to effectively wrangle the Harvard Law faculty for several years, after all.) Alito and Kagan both understand the nature of the production, as well as the ultimate goal: to get out unscathed.

To the extent Congress and the courts need to coordinate on important issues, one can only hope that they are doing so behind the scenes. The courts have been understandably cautious about communicating directly with Congress on matters of legal interpretation, given separation of powers concerns. But administrative issues are a different animal altogether, and there is ample space for the courts to work with Congress on funding and operational issues which are of important interest to both branches.

Still, while Thursday’s hearing may not produce much that is immediately newsworthy, it is still an important exercise. The Supreme Court has been famously reticent to align many of its practices with modern public expectations, from failing to adopt an ethics code to rejecting calls for courtroom cameras. Congressional hearings put the Justices on the spot to justify the Court’s positions in a public forum, thereby forcing the Court to periodically reconsider whether its existing practices help or harm its public legitimacy.

Neither the Supreme Court nor the federal court system should allow itself to be bullied by Congress or public demand, but there is still room for continuous improvement. The occasional public hearing can be a useful pressure point to bring that improvement to fruition.

 

 

The PACER class action and the problem of court funding

Which is the best model for charging for access to court records: a rest stop, a bus pass, or a bake sale?

What (if anything) should the judiciary charge for public access to records, and how should that decision be made? That question is now squarely facing the federal courts and Congress.

I have blogged periodically about the 2016 class action lawsuit alleging that the federal courts overcharged users for access to its electronic public records system (known as PACER), and used the surplus to fund a variety of internal projects. Last spring, a federal district judge granted partial summary judgment to the defendants as to liability, but concluded that some of the project funding had indeed exceeded Congressional authorization. The decision is now on appeal.

Although no decision will be coming for a while, a number of recent events have returned the case to the public eye. In late January, several prominent, retired federal judges filed an amicus brief arguing that the courts should not charge any fees for public access to court records. That brief led to a story in the New Republic entitled “The Courts Are Making a Killing on Public Records.” All the while, the five-week federal government shutdown forced the courts to use up all of their “rainy day” resources and put them on the verge of operating without funding, illustrating the relative financial fragility of the courts as an organization.

I take as a given that the federal court system, as a whole, is committed to providing public access for all. But it is also a given that on an organizational level, the court system feels an obligation to protect its core activities from environmental disruption, including financial disruption. The current lawsuit provides an excellent illustration of the underlying tension between those values, and also suggests a solution. More below. Continue reading “The PACER class action and the problem of court funding”

African-American legislators protest South Carolina judicial election

South Carolina is one of only two states in which the legislature chooses the state’s judges. (Virginia is the other.) Often, the biggest concern about this form of selection is that legislators will choose their colleagues for the bench rather than seeking out the best possible candidates.

This week, however, a different issue arose in South Carolina’s judicial election process. In a contested race for the state court of appeals, private attorney Blake Hewitt was elected over Allison Renee Lee, a state trial judge with 20 years of experience. Hewitt was considered highly qualified for the position, but lacked any of Lee’s judicial experience. Hewitt is also white, and Lee is black.

After the election, several (but not all) black legislators briefly walked out of chambers in protest. Some suggested that the election was an act of racism, while others expressed concern about ensuring greater diversity on the state bench.

The state of state judiciaries

It’s the time of year for State of the Judiciary addresses in many states, an opportunity for the Chief Justice of the state to provide the new state legislature with an update on the court system, including its strategic plans and ongoing resource needs. Several State of the Judiciary speeches have been reported in the news, allowing us to get a broad sense of what state courts are planning/hoping for in the coming year. More after the jump. Continue reading “The state of state judiciaries”

For some state judges, lobbying is part of the job description

One of the most important themes of judicial interdependence is resource dependence. By conscious design, courts cannot produce or directly obtain many of the resources that they need to operate. These resources include immediate, survival-level needs like adequate funding and staffing, but they also include less tangible resources like public trust and legitimacy, and long-term needs like enabling legislation.

For better of for worse, most of the courts’ needed resources are in the hands of the legislature. Congress and state legislatures allocate funds to the judicial branch, determine the number of judges that the courts will have and the conditions upon which those judges will be selected, enact statutes granting courts jurisdiction to hear cases and authority to manage their internal affairs, and set the public tone in the way they treat the courts and individual judges.

So it should not be surprising to see judges directly asking legislatures for resources from time to time. The U.S. Courts submit a formal budget request to Congress every year, and on several occasions federal judges have testified before Congress on bills that affect the judiciary’s operations. And at the state court level, it is all the more prevalent. Many state chief justices provide a formal State of the Judiciary speech to their respective legislatures at the start of a new year, in which they lay out the work of the state courts over the previous year and lobby for resources to sustain or improve operations. That lobbying process may coincide with the speech, but often starts beforehand and continues long into the legislative session.

Consider New Mexico. Chief Justice Judith Nakamura will present her State of the Judiciary speech on Thursday, but she has already set the groundwork for the courts’ legislative “ask.” Several days ago, she sat down with the editors of the Albuquerque Journal. That access enabled the Journal to report, with considerable depth, that the state judiciary would pursue two constitutional amendments and several statutory changes in the upcoming legislative session. The constitutional changes would affect the timing of participation in judicial elections and the court’s ability to effectuate administrative transfers among courts. The statutory changes would set aside certain requirements with respect to appeals and jury service in order to make those processes more efficient. And of course, the courts are asking for additional funding for specific projects.

Chief Justices bear significant administrative responsibilities: they are the CEOs of their court systems as much as they are judges. In that capacity, a little legislative lobbying–and lobbying in the media–is very much fair game.