Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Executive Privilege, Contempt of Congress & One More Thought on "Partisanship"

You can listen to my segment on NPR's All Things Considered here. The most interesting thing I say in this segment involves the penalty for refusal to testify before Congress. I was asked what happens if the Senate subpoenas Karl Rove and Rove refuses to testify, invoking executive privilege. I said that one possibility would be for Congress to hold Rove in contempt. By statute, contempt of Congress can result in up to a year in prison, but Congress does not itself bring the prosecution. Instead, it refers the matter to the . . . wait for it . . . Justice Department. Ouch! Could Congress argue that just as executive privilege exists (to the extent that it does) to protect the President's independence from Congress, so Congress should be able to prosecute contempts directly, in order to protect it from over-dependence on the executive branch? If Congress itself acted as the trier of fact, that would likely violate the Bill of Attainder Clause because, except for impeachments (which do not carry criminal penalties), Congress cannot act as a court. But what if Congress were to establish a mechanism whereby it alone, without input from the executive branch, chose a prosecutor to bring a contempt prosecution in the federal courts? In upholding the since-lapsed Independent Counsel Act in Morrison v. Olsen, the Supreme Court attributed some significance to the limited role that the President, through the Attorney General, played in the appointment and removal of an independent counsel, so one might think that cutting out the executive completely would be impermissible. But the Morrison case is so conclusory in its reasoning that it's hard to extrapolate from it --- and personnel changes on the Court since 1988 have led to greater sympathy for the unitary executive theory that Morrison rejected.

Meanwhile, one of the commenters on my post on partisanship versus politics objected that he didn't buy my distinction "between 'political' and 'partisan' in this instance. If 'partisan' simply means 'benefitting the party,' then of course what Clinton did was partisan. He rewarded loyal party members with prestigious appointments, thus ensuring loyalty and dangling a carrot for the next generation of loyal dems (in that case) who want to enjoy the spoils of some future victory." This objection suggests that for my buzzword to catch on, I need to be a bit clearer. Here goes.

My claim was NOT that partisanship is never appropriate in the executive branch. Much as I dislike the spoils system, it is deeply entrenched in our political life: Presidents get to reward their political friends with plum appointments, subject to Senate confirmation for principal officers. My claim is that U.S. Attorneys are not supposed to be partisan in how they choose cases to prosecute. Likewise, it's improper for the President or AG to pressure a U.S. Attorney to act in a partisan manner in deciding which cases to prosecute, by firing or threatening to fire those who don't make prosecutorial decisions on a partisan basis. This is simply not open to reasonable debate, which explains why neither the Administration nor Republicans in Congress has flat out said anything resembling: "It's fine for prosecutions to be brought on a partisan basis." Instead, they either contend that the Gonzales 8 were fired for some other reason or obfuscate by defending the power to fire rather than the reasons for the firings. Capice?


Adam S. said...

No comprendo. I think we need still greater specificity. what's the proper level of generality? Might you overstate the point by saying that a USA should not (not cannot) be fired for deciding/refusing to prosecute specific cases? The problem seems to arise from specific interference with specific cases. Thus, "you should be doing voter fraud investigations," or, "you should not be depleting the fisc with death penalty prosecutions in your district," or similar mid-level directives are surely acceptable and even desireable. The issue is only troubling when the prosecutorial discretion as applied to specifically identified individuals is threatened, or, a fortiori, when specific cases already in the courts are interrupted in some fashion. Is this a fair fine tuning or do I go too far? If so, why? What exactly is supposed to be trumping the take care clause here---I would imagine some version/analog of due process concerns? Also, does anyone remember the dicta thrown out in old scotus cases about the issue of pendency as a constitutional limitation on the president's power to remove Art II actors?

Marty Lederman said...

If an Executive branch official were to resist a subpoena on executive-privilege grounds, and the U.S. Att'y thereafter (at the instruction of the President) refused to refer Congress's contempt citation to a grand jury under 2 USC 194, Congress would have the inherent constitutional authority to itself imprison specified individuals for (civil) contempt of Congress. See, e.g., Jurney v. MacCracken, 294 U.S. 125 (1935); Anderson v. Dunn, 19 U.S. 204 (1821).

That power hasn't been used in decades, however. More likely, one branch or the other would seek declaratory or injunctive relief in a civil action, but the courts are unlikely to act short of total impasse, i.e., unless and until the accommodation and negotiation process completely breaks down. See, e.g., 556 F. Supp. 150 (Gorsuch case).

Barry said...

I saw this evening that Pres. Bush usurped the democrats and claimed that THEY are being partisan. Nice call, Mike, but the other side made the play.

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