Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Would a Special Prosecutor Circumvent the Executive Privilege Standoff?

During yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee grilling of AG Gonzales, Senator Specter suggested that, in light of the Justice Dept's announced intention not to pursue a contempt prosecution against Harriet Miers or other current or former White House staff for their refusal to testify before Congress regarding the U.S. Attorney firings, a special prosecutor might be appointed. Specter implied that the appointment of a special prosecutor might circumvent the executive privilege impasse.

In a technical sense, Specter is probably right. Under United States v. Nixon, the existence of a criminal prosecution stands as a substantial obstacle to a successful presidential assertion of executive privilege. Conversely, Cheney v. United States District Court (the energy task force case) arguably says that absent a criminal prosecution, the courts will not override a claim of executive privilege. So a special prosecutor---and thus a criminal prosecution---could make a difference in how the courts rule on executive privilege.

But the Bush White House can read these cases as well as the Senate, and if they're unwilling to waive executive privilege directly, they're going to be equally unwilling to waive it indirectly by appointing a special prosecutor. And because the Independent Counsel Act was not renewed when it expired in 1999, the only way we could get a special prosecutor would be for the President or AG to designate one. It's true, as Justice Scalia noted in his dissent in Morrison v. Olson, that political pressure alone produced a special prosecutor during Watergate --- two actually, the one fired by Robert Bork and the one appointed to take his place --- but with President Bush's approval ratings already in the toilet, it's not clear that any political pressure can be brought to bear on him. So don't expect Specter's proposal to go anywhere.

Speaking of executive privilege, I'll be e-debating its merits on a Federalist Society soon. Watch for the links.

9 comments:

Marty Lederman said...

Mike: The Cheney task force decision does not say -- arguably or otherwise! -- that absent a criminal prosecution, the courts will not override a claim of executive privilege. That would have been a fairly radical and groundbreaking holding.

To be sure, the Cheney case suggested that executive privilege claims would be stronger in private *civil litigation* than in criminal prosecutions; but it didn't suggest that such privilege claims would always trump even in civil cases ("The need for information for use in civil cases, while far from negligible, does not share the urgency or significance of the criminal subpoena requests in Nixon."); and it said nothing at all about the context of congressional subpoenas. Indeed, the rationale of Cheney -- about preserving the functions of a coordinate branch of the federal government ("an impairment of the 'essential functions of [another] branch'" is "impermissible") -- would tend to point in the direction of treating congressional investigations more like criminal investigations than like the civil lawsuit at issue in Cheney.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Marty, I didn't mean to say that the Cheney case says the courts would NEVER override exec privilege in a civil case; just that they would "not" in the sense of "not likely." I've been talking to reporters about these issues quite a bit and so I may have slipped into speaking in the predictive voice in a way that could be mistaken for a claim about the law as such. A better way to put it is that the Cheney case could place a weaker burden of proof on the exec in civil cases. I also agree that there is a difference between a civil case brought by a citizens' group and a House subpoena, but it's not 100% clear that the current S Ct would. This is all made clear in my initial post to the Federalist Soc'y discussion in which we're both participating (and which I'll cross-post here tomorrow).

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