Thursday, July 26, 2007

Contempt for Harriet Miers?

No, that's not a question about why President Bush's second nominee to fill the seat vacated by Justice O'Connor failed to gain confirmation. (Footnote: That's right, second. Roberts was the first. He was pulled from that nomination when Chief Justice Rehnquist died. So Alito was technically a third choice, just like Blackmun and Kennedy. But I digress.)

This post is about the House memo setting out grounds for holding Miers in contempt. It states five objections to the assertion of executive privilege. Two of them are highly technical: (1) the President himself must personally assert executive privilege, but he has not; and (2) Harriet Miers must, but did not, submit a "privilege log."

The third objection rests on what strikes me as a faulty understanding of executive privilege: (3) there has been no showing that President Bush himself received advice or was even involved in the underlying decisions regarding the U.S. Attorneys. I consider this a faulty view because we have a doctrine of "executive" privilege rather than "Presidential" privilege. Rooted in separation of powers, it protects the confidentiality of communications within the executive branch. To be sure, in United States v. Nixon, the Supreme Court talked about the "privilege of confidentiality of Presidential communications," but that's because the case itself involved such communications. In Cheney v. United States District Court, although the issue was not directly presented, the Supreme Court appeared to accept that the Vice President could raise a claim of executive privilege. (VP Cheney had not yet announced that he's a member of the legislative branch.)

Moreover, precedent aside, it makes sense to extend executive privilege beyond communications directly with the President. In the same way that a claim of "judicial privilege" should protect (at least as a prima facie matter) case-related conversations among lower federal court judges or even their law clerks, rather than just those between Supreme Court Justices and their respective law clerks, so it seems that executive privilege ought to protect some discussions in which the President does not directly participate. This view may pose problems for those who believe strongly in the unitary executive—including the current occupant of the White House—but that's not a reason for the House of Representatives to adopt a faulty view of the privilege.

The heart of the House case is the fourth objection: (4) Even if the privilege were properly raised and applicable, it would be outweighed by the House's need for information relevant to investigating serious wrongdoing. As in the Nixon case, so too here, there is no plausible national security justification for keeping the material secret, and prior administrations have declined to assert executive privilege where Congress sought evidence of wrongdoing by the administration itself. Whether this objection is correct as a matter of case law depends on whether Nixon—with its demanding burden of persuasion on the administration—applies outside the context of a criminal prosecution. The Cheney case suggests that it may not, but this is an open question: We can grant that executive privilege is entitled to greater protection in civil cases than in criminal cases; it does not follow that it is entitled to less protection in a direct conflict between the House and the President.

The fifth and final objection appears technical: (5) When a private citizen faces a congressional subpoena and the White House asserts executive privilege, the proper course is for her to comply, unless the White House succeeds in obtaining a court order blocking her from doing so. This is not merely a technical objection, however. If correct, it would force the administration to go to court as plaintiff seeking a protective order rather than as a defendant against a motion to compel testimony. It's disadvantageous to be the plaintiff in these cases because a judicial decision to stay out benefits the defendant.

N.B. This post is a very slightly modified version of my opening salvo in the discussion for the Federalist Society to which I referred yesterday. The procedure we're following is a free-for-all email exchange, to be posted when it's over. I'm not posting my two follow-ups right now because, without the emails to which they respond, they don't make all that much sense.

8 comments:

Jamison Colburn said...

Mike,
Do you think the precedent, meager as it is, will really structure the issues when/if this gets to court? Obviously, starting in a lower court will mean at least some relevance for Cheney and Nixon. But it seems as though the real issue here--how distant from the President and his constitutional gravitas the "executive" privilege reaches--is much more closely governed by structure and inference as Black would call them. ?

Michael C. Dorf said...

Jamie,
I do think the precedents will shape the form of discussion: The courts will likely apply something like the Nixon balancing test, perhaps reversing the presumption. But I agree with your suggestion that the precedents (and the balancing test itself) are sufficiently open-ended to permit a well-reasoned opinion reaching almost any conclusion.

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