Tag: congress

President Trump’s Accountants Ordered to Turn Over His Financial Records to Congress (DC Circuit)

On 11 October 2019, the US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit ruled 2-1, in the case of Trump v. Mazars USA, LLPNo. 19-5142 (D.C. Cir. 2019), that President Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, LLP, must turn over his financial records to the House of Representatives in accordance with a subpoena. The case runs in parallel to Trump v Vance Jr19‐3204 (2019) concerning a similar subpoena by a New York State prosecutor, discussed here.

In April 2019, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform subpoenaed President Trump’s financial records relating to years 2011 – 2018 from his accounting firm, Mazars USA, LLP. The subpoena was justified on the grounds that the Committee was investigating whether President Trump had committed any wrongdoing and also considering whether Congress should amend ethics in-government regulations. However, President Trump sued in a federal District Court seeking to block the subpoena arguing that it was part of a campaign of harassment conducted by the legislature against the executive and, therefore, served no legitimate legislative purpose. The District Court upheld the subpoena and President Trump appealed (p2).

The US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit first summarised the case law on the issue of enforceability of Congressional subpoenas, starting with the first case considered by the US Supreme Court, Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168 (1881), where the Court invalidated a subpoena issued outside of a valid Congressional investigation (pp12-18).

Then, the US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit set the starting point – Congressional oversight powers were very broad. Nevertheless, they were also subject to important limitations. Firstly, “the power of Congress . . . to investigate” must be deemed “co-extensive with [its] power to legislate” (per Quinn v. United States, 349 U.S. 155 (1955) at 160). Consequently, “Congress may in exercising its investigative power neither usurp the other branches’ constitutionally designated functions nor violate individuals’ constitutionally protected rights.” Secondly, “Congress may investigate only those topics on which it could legislate” (per Quinn v. United States, 349 U.S. 155 (1955) at 161). Thirdly, “Congressional committees may subpoena only information ‘calculated to’ ‘materially aid’ their investigations” (per McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135 (1927) at 177) (p19).

At that point, the US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit emphasised that the case concerned a subpoena issued to President Trump’s accountant, not to the office of President of the United States directly, and, therefore, the case did not have involve the question of subpoenaing a sitting President. Consequently, the main question was “whether the Oversight Committee is pursuing a legislative, as opposed to a law-enforcement, objective.” (pp20-21).

In this respect, the US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit pointed out that “the fact that an investigation might expose criminal conduct does not transform a legislative inquiry into a law-enforcement endeavor” (per Sinclair v. United States, 279 U.S. 263 (1929) at 295). Furthermore, addressing President Trump’s claim that Congress was conducting a campaign of harassment against him, the Court explained that “in determining the legitimacy of a congressional act” Courts were not allowed to “look to the motives alleged to have prompted it” (per Eastland v. United States Servicemen’s Fund, 421 U.S. 491 (1975) at 508) (p22).

In order to determine whether the subpoena was issued pursuant to a legitimate legislative purpose, the US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit considered Chairman Cummings’s memorandum from 12 April 2019 where he set out the reasons behind the subpoena. The memorandum identified four questions that the subpoena would help answer:

  • “whether the President may have engaged in illegal conduct before and during his tenure in office”
  • “whether [the President] has undisclosed conflicts of interest that may impair his ability to make impartial policy decisions”
  • “whether [the President] is complying with the Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution”
  • “whether [the President] has accurately reported his finances to the Office of Government Ethics and other federal entities”

Furthermore, the subpoena was issued because “[t]he Committee’s interest in these matters informs [the Committee’s] review of multiple laws and legislative proposals under [its] jurisdiction.” In fact, at the time of the subpoena, the House of Representatives was working on a number of Bills that could benefit from the information supplied by President Trump’s accountants:

  • Bill H.R. 1 would require Presidents to include in their financial disclosures the liabilities and assets of any “corporation, company, firm, partnership, or other business enterprise in which” they or their immediate family members have “a significant financial interest
  • Bill H.R. 706 would require sitting Presidents and presidential candidates to “submit to the Federal Election Commission a copy of the individual’s income tax returns” for the preceding nine or ten years
  • Bill H.R. 745 “would amend the Ethics in Government Act to make the Director of the Office of Government Ethics removable only for cause” (pp25-27).

The US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit then held that the issues which were the subject matter of the legislation Congress was working on, were in fact subject to Congressional regulation. The Court, for instance, pointed to the the United States Code which contained a whole range of rules regulating Presidents’ finances and records. It also rejected President Trump’s claim that such regulation would unconstitutionally add further requirements for candidates seeking the office of the President of the United States, contrary to the judgments of the US Supreme Court in Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486 (1969), and U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995). Consequently, the Court found a valid legislative purpose related to matters which fell under the Congressional purview (pp36-45).

At the same time, the US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit rejected President Trump’s claim that the supposed legislative purpose was merely pretextual and the Committee was in fact engaged in a law-enforcement investigation. The Court held that Congress could investigate whether any criminal activity had taken place to inform itself what type of legislation it should pass to address such an activity (pp27-31).

Finally, the US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit found that the information sought by the subpoena in question was material to its legislative purpose. Even with information concerning financial records going back to 2011 (i.e. long before Mr Trump became the President of the United States), the Court held that the Committee had a legitimate interest in those records because, in theory, it could use them when deciding whether the Ethics in Government Act should require financial disclosure going back more than one year, as it was currently required (pp50-54).

Accordingly, the subpoena was upheld by the majority of the bench. However, Judge Roa dissented arguing that “when Congress seeks information about the President’s wrongdoing, it does not matter whether the investigation also has a legislative purpose. Investigations of impeachable offenses simply are not, and never have been, within Congress’s legislative power“. She argued that the subpoena could not be upheld because the Committee was investigating a sitting President (alongside exercising a legislative function), which could only be done through the impeachment process (pp1-3). Judge Roa pointed to the early practice as the best source of information as to what was permitted under the Constitution. “Founding Era practice confirms the Constitution’s original meaning—investigations of unlawful actions by an impeachable official cannot proceed through the legislative power” (p20). She agreed that “the cases cited by the majority demonstrate that during an investigation of private activity, the incidental revelation of criminal activity is tolerated when Congress has a legitimate legislative purpose,” however, the subpoena cited the investigation into a potential wrongdoing by President Trump as one of the main reasons behind it (p46). Consequently, she would have invalidated the subpoena as issued outside a valid legislative purpose.

The case of Trump v. Mazars USA, LLPNo. 19-5142 (D.C. Cir. 2019) was decided on partisan lines with Judges Tatel (appointed by President Clinton) and Millett (appointed by President Obama) voting against President Trump and Judge Roa (appointed by President Trump himself) voting in his favour. However, even beyond that, it is clearly visible from the majority and dissenting opinions that while the former put emphasis on the accountability of the executive branch as the overarching objective, the latter focused on the separation of powers as understood through the lenses of originalism.

The case of Trump v. Mazars USA, LLPNo. 19-5142 (D.C. Cir. 2019), like the case of Trump v Vance Jr19‐3204 (2019) decided by the US Court of Appeals for 2nd Circuit (discussed here), is part of a long dispute over President Trump’s financial records. With President Trump consistently refusing to release his tax returns, his political opponents have been attempting to obtain them by various legal routes, including subpoenas from the House of Representatives and a New York State Grand Jury. Both subpoenas have now been upheld by the US Courts of Appeals. However, the judgment in Trump v. Mazars USA, LLPNo. 19-5142 (D.C. Cir. 2019) will be appealed by requesting another hearing before an en benc panel of the US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit. Both cases could also be eventually appealed to the US Supreme Court.

ObamaCare Declared Unconstitutional Again (District Court)

In August 2018, The Jurist’s Corner speculated that the question of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act 2010 (ACA or ObamaCare) might be heading towards the US Supreme Court again in 2019. On 14 December 2018, a District Court for the Northern District of Texas held, in the case of Texas v the United States No. 4:18-cv-00167-O that the ObamaCare, in its entirety, was unconstitutional. This is yet another time the ACA is ruled unconstitutional, but it is the first time since Congress passed the Tax and Jobs Act 2017 eliminating the tax/penalty for a failure to comply with the ObamaCare’s Individual Mandate (i.e. the requirement to buy a health insurance).

So far the ObamaCare has withstood, albeit not in its entirety, several challenges before the federal courts. In 2012 the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius 567 U.S. 519 2012 that, inter alia, although the Individual Mandate was not a valid exercise of the Congress’s power to regulate inter-state commerce, the penalty for its breach could be read as a tax and thereby be a valid exercise of the Congress’s taxation power instead. This is because the so called ‘penalty’ for breaching the Mandate was limited to a financial fee processed by the IRS together with individuals’ income taxes. This saving construction persuaded Chief Justice Roberts who joined the 4 liberal Justices on the Court and voted to uphold the Individual Mandate.

However, the Tax and Jobs Act 2017 passed by Congress in 2017 eliminated this tax/penalty while leaving the Individual Mandate as such intact. In those circumstances, several Red States sued in a Texas federal District Court again claiming that the elimination of the tax had rendered the Individual Mandate unconstitutional as now, in the absence of any tax attached to it, it could only be construed as an exercise of the Congress’s power to regulate inter-state commerce and that would violate National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius 567 U.S. 519 2012. The lawsuit went even further claiming that the Individual Mandate was inseverable from the rest of the law, or at least from its certain parts, such as the community rating. As such, the lawsuit argued that in case of finding the Individual Mandate unconstitutional, the Court should strike down the rest of the ObamaCare with it. Shortly afterwards, the Trump Administration announced that it would not to defend the lawsuit, so several Red States led by California intervened in the case submitting briefs in defence of the ACA (The Atlantic).

On 14 December 2018, the Court issued its judgment. Judge O’Connor analysed the effect of the elimination of the tax attached to the Individual Mandate by the Tax and Jobs Act 2017 and found that in the absence of any tax, the Mandate could not possibly fall within the Congress’s taxation power (pp20-27). Next, Judge O’Connor once again considered the possibility of the Individual Mandate being a valid exercise of the power to regulate inter-state commerce but rejected it on the grounds of the Majority Opinion in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius 567 U.S. 519 2012 (pp27-34). Ultimately, “the Court [found that] the Individual Mandate is no longer fairly readable as an exercise of Congress’s Tax Power and continues to be unsustainable under Congress’s Interstate Commerce Power. The Court therefore finds the Individual Mandate, unmoored from a tax, is unconstitutional...” (p34).

At this point, the main question became whether the Individual Mandate was severable from the rest of the ObamaCare so that the rest of the ACA could remain in force. Judge O’Connor examined the approach of the Supreme Court to the question of the severability of the Individual Mandate in both National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius 567 U.S. 519 2012 and King v. Burwell 576 U.S. ___ (2015) and summarised:

“The ACA’s text and the Supreme Court’s decisions in NFIB and King thus make clear the Individual Mandate is inseverable from the ACA. As Justice Ginsburg explained, “Congress could have taken over the health-insurance market by establishing a tax-and-spend federal program like Social Security.” Id. at 595 (Ginsburg, J., joined by Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor, JJ.). But it did not. “Instead of going this route, Congress enacted the ACA . . . To make its chosen approach work, however, Congress had to use . . . a requirement that most individuals obtain private health insurance coverage.” Id. (citing 26 U.S.C.§ 5000A). That requirement—the Individual Mandate—was essential to the ACA’s architecture. Congress intended it to place the Act’s myriad parts in perfect tension. Without it, Congress and the Supreme Court have stated, that architectural design fails. “Without a mandate, premiums would skyrocket. The guaranteed issue and community rating provisions, in the absence of the individual mandate, would create an unsustainable death spiral of costs, thus crippling the entire law.” BLACKMAN, supra note 3, at 147; accord NFIB, 567 U.S. at 597 (Ginsburg, J., joined by Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor, JJ.) (noting the mandate was essential to staving off “skyrocketing insurance premium costs”). Congress simply never intended failure.” (p47)

Next, Judge O’Connor analysed the potential effect of retaining the rest of ObamaCare, in the absence of the Individual Mandate, on other major provisions of the ACA:

Even if the Court preferred to ignore the clear text of § 18091 and parse the ACA’s provisions one by one, the text- and precedent-based conclusion would only be reinforced: Upholding the ACA in the absence of the Individual Mandate would change the “effect” of the ACA “as a whole.” See Alton, 295 U.S. at 362. For example, the Individual Mandate reduces the financial risk forced upon insurance companies and their customers by the ACA’s major regulations and taxes. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 18091(2)(C), (I). If the regulations and taxes were severed from the Individual Mandate, insurance companies would face billions of dollars in ACA-imposed regulatory and tax costs without the benefit of an expanded risk pool and customer base—a choice no Congress made and one contrary to the text. See NFIB, 567 U.S. at 698 (joint dissent); 42 U.S.C. § 18091(2)(C) and (I).” (p48)

“Similarly, the ACA “reduce[d] payments by the Federal Government to hospitals by more than $200 billion over 10 years.” NFIB, 567 U.S. at 699 (joint dissent). Without the Individual Mandate (or forced Medicaid expansion), hospitals would encounter massive losses due to providing uncompensated care. See BLACKMAN, supra note 3, at 2–4 (discussing the freerider and cost-shifting problems in healthcare).” (p48)

“The story is the same with respect to the ACA’s other major provisions, too. The ACA allocates billions of dollars in subsidies to help individuals purchase a government-designed health-insurance product on exchanges established by the States (or the federal government). See, e.g., 26 U.S.C. § 36B; 42 U.S.C. § 18071. But if the Individual Mandate falls, and especially if the pre-existing-condition provisions fall, upholding the subsidies and exchanges would transform the ACA into a law that subsidizes the kinds of discriminatory products Congress sought to abolish at, presumably, the re-inflated prices it sought to suppress.” (pp48-49)

“Nor did Congress ever contemplate, never mind intend, a duty on employers, see 26 U.S.C. § 4980H, to cover the “skyrocketing insurance premium costs” of their employees that would inevitably result from removing “a key component of the ACA.” (Ginsburg, J., joined by Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor, JJ.). And the Medicaid-expansion provisions were designed to serve and assist fulfillment of the Individual Mandate and offset reduced hospital reimbursements by aiding “low-income individuals who are simply not able to obtain insurance.” Id. at 685 (joint dissent).” (p49)

“The result is no different with respect to the ACA’s minor provisions. For example, the Intervenor Defendants assert that, “[i]n addition to protecting consumers with preexisting medical conditions, Congress also enacted the guaranteed-issue and community-rating provisions to reduce administrative costs and lower premiums.” Intervenor Defs.’ Resp. 35, ECF No. 91; see also id. at 34 (“Congress independently sought to end discriminatory underwriting practices and to lower administrative costs.”). But Congress stated explicitly that the Individual Mandate “is essential to creating effective health insurance markets that do not require underwriting and eliminate its associated administrative costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 18091(2)(J) (emphasis added). At any rate, to the extent most of the minor provisions “are mere adjuncts of the” now-unconstitutional Individual Mandate and nonmandatory Medicaid expansion, “or mere aids to their effective execution,” if the Individual Mandate “be stricken down as invalid” then “the existence of the [minor provisions] becomes without object.” Williams, 278 U.S. at 243.” (pp49-50).

On that basis Judge O’Connor held:

“…Congress was explicit: The Individual Mandate is essential to the ACA, and that essentiality requires the mandate to work together with the Act’s other provisions. See 42 U.S.C. § 18091. If the “other provisions” were severed and preserved, they would no longer be working together with the mandate and therefore no longer working as Congress intended. On that basis alone, the Court must find the Individual Mandate inseverable from the ACA. To find otherwise would be to introduce an entirely new regulatory scheme never intended by Congress or signed by the President.” (pp47-48).

“In the face of overwhelming textual and Supreme Court clarity, the Court finds “it is ‘unthinkable’ and ‘impossible’ that the Congress would have created the” ACA’s delicately balanced regulatory scheme without the Individual Mandate. Alton, 295 U.S. at 362. The Individual Mandate “so affect[s] the dominant aim of the whole statute as to carry it down with” it. Id. To find otherwise would “rewrite [the ACA] and give it an effect altogether different from that sought by the measure viewed as a whole.” Alton, 295 U.S. at 362. Employing such a strained view of severance would be tantamount to “legislative work beyond the power and function of the court.” Wallace, 259 U.S. at 70.” (pp50-51)

Finally, Judge O’Connor rejected the argument that in 2017, when passing the Tax and Jobs Act 2017, Congress indicated that the Individual Mandate was severable from the rest of the ObamaCare because it did not repeal the rest of the ACA while eliminating the tax attached to the Individual Mandate (pp52-54). In conclusion, the Court held that:

“In some ways, the question before the Court involves the intent of both the 2010 and 2017 Congresses. The former enacted the ACA. The latter sawed off the last leg it stood on. But however one slices it, the following is clear: The 2010 Congress memorialized that it knew the Individual Mandate was the ACA keystone, see 42 U.S.C. § 18091; the Supreme Court stated repeatedly that it knew Congress knew that, see, e.g., NFIB, 567 U.S. at 547 (Roberts, C.J.) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 18091(2)(F)); King, 135 S. Ct. at 2487 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 18091(2)(I)); and knowing the Supreme Court knew what the 2010 Congress had known, the 2017 Congress did not repeal the Individual Mandate and did not repeal § 18091.” (pp54-55)

The ruling is now bound to be appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and then probably to the US Supreme Court. The appeal proceedings will likely focus on the question of the severability of the Individual Mandate from the rest of the ObamaCare. With the new judgment and the prospects of future appeals, it seems that the ObamaCare has now become the most litigated issue of our time.