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.

The risk of upending settled doctrinal expectations

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

Courts strive to avoid sudden, tectonic shifts in doctrine. The legitimacy of their decisionmaking depends upon two of the values that mark the rule of law: consistency and predictability. Absent adequate justification for a doctrinal shift and judicial decisionmaking starts to look like it is based more on caprice than reason.

The U.S. Supreme Court is not immune from the risks associated with such shifts—indeed, in two separate opinions in the past few weeks, Justice Clarence Thomas has argued that the Supreme Court consider radical changes in approach to long settled constitutional doctrines.

Concurring in the denial of certiorari in McKee v. Cosby, Thomas explained that, in an appropriate case, the court should reconsider the precedents underlying the First Amendment rule that public figures cannot pursue damages for defamation absent a showing of “‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that [the statement] was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and its progeny, Thomas argued, “were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law” that the Court “should not continue to reflexively apply.”

More recently, in Garza v. Idaho, Thomas (joined this time by Justice Neil Gorsuch) dissented from the majority’s ruling that, notwithstanding that a criminal defendant has waived the right to certain bases for appeal, prejudice should be presumed when his attorney does not pursue an appeal after being requested to do so. Thomas disagreed not only with the ruling but the basic premise of Sixth Amendment doctrine—that criminal defendants have a right to effective counsel. No modern precedent, he argued, including Gideon v. Wainwright, sought to square this rule “with the original meaning of the ‘right … to have the Assistance of Counsel.’” He suggested that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused only “the services of an attorney,” and assumptions to the contrary conflict “with the government’s legitimate interest in the finality of criminal judgments.”

Justice Thomas’s originalist approaches to defamation under the First Amendment and the right to counsel under the Sixth may be criticized on substantive grounds. As to the former, consider Eugene Volokh’s conclusion that “constitutional constraints on speech-based civil liability have deep roots, stretching back to the Framing era” and Sullivan is “entirely consistent with original meaning.” As to the latter, consider the textualist argument that the very existence of a right to counsel privileges the individual’s interest over a governmental interest in finality, and that ineffective counsel undermines the integrity of this premise.

Even setting aside these substantive concerns, Thomas’s opinions preview what Chief Justice Roberts may look forward to should more justices be appointed who share not just Thomas’s interpretive approach, but his willingness to cast aside settled rules in favor of a return to the presumed original understanding of the constitution. It is not just a dispute, in other words, about meaning, but about the way in which the Supreme Court goes about the business of constitutional rulemaking.

A radical alteration in settled doctrine runs the risk that the Court’s decisionmaking is unmoored from the past, and that the justices cannot be counted on to create reasonable expectations for the future. It is not just about a loss of respect, but the dilution of a hard-earned legitimacy. One of the reasons the American people abide by the decisions of unelected judges about the meaning of our most sacred secular text is because, agree or disagree, there is in most areas of constitutional law a continuity that has allowed public and private institutions and individuals alike to rely upon expectations the Court itself has set about the boundaries of its reach—expectations that allow us to make our own plans and plot own courses.

To return to one of Roberts’s favorite analogies: no umpire who decided, one day, to honor the strike zone as it existed in baseball’s infancy would last long on the job. The players, the pitching, the equipment, the field—all are different today. Umpiring has accounted for these differences, as managers and players well know. They have expectations about the range of possible calls an umpire might make when the ball hurtles toward the catcher’s glove, and they trust that those expectations will hold true from game to game, and across the seasons. Chief Justice Roberts has intuited that Americans rightly expect the same of their Supreme Court—and that they likely would find ways to marginalize the Court if it were otherwise.