Tag: trump

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.

President Trump’s Accountants Ordered to Turn Over His Tax Records to NY Prosecutor (2nd Circuit)

On 4 November 2019, the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled unanimously, in the case of Trump v Vance Jr19‐3204 (2019), that Mazars USA LLP, a firm which handles President Trump’s taxes, must turn over his tax records to Mr Vance Jr, who is the District Attorney of New York County, as part of an ongoing Grand Jury investigation. The case runs in parallel to the proceedings before the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, No. 19-5142 (D.C. Cir. 2019) concerning a similar subpoena issued by the House of Representatives.

The District Attorney of the County of New York is currently pursuing investigation which “targets New York conduct and has yet to conclude as to specific charges or defendants” and, as part of that investigation, in August 2019, he served subpoenas on behalf of the Grand Jury on the Trump Organization and Mazars USA LLP. The subpoenas sought records, including tax records, relating to suspected ‘hush money’ payments made to two women between June 2015 and September 2018 (pp4-7).

In September 2019, President Trump sued in the District Court for the Southern District of New York seeking injunction against the subpoena on the basis of a presidential immunity from State criminal process. President Trump argued that his accountants must be barred from producing any records without his consent until the he is no longer in office. In October 2019, the District Court ruled that it had no jurisdiction to hear the case under the doctrine of federal abstention per Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971) and the case was dismissed (pp7-8). President Trump appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.

The US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit first dealt with the federal abstention doctrine. The doctrine kicks in when a claim is brought before a federal Court while there are ongoing proceedings before a State Court concerning the same subject matter. In those circumstances, the case of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), “preclude[s] federal intrusion into ongoing state criminal prosecutions. Second, certain civil enforcement proceedings warrant abstention. Finally, federal courts [must] refrain from interfering with pending civil proceedings involving certain orders uniquely in furtherance of the state courts’ ability to perform their judicial functions” (per Sprint Commc’ns, Inc. v. Jacobs, 571 U.S. 69, 72 (2013)). However, the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit pointed to an exception to federal abstention where a federal actor is involved in the proceedings claiming that “allowing federal actors to access federal courts is ‘preferable in the context of healthy federal‐state relations’” (per Leiter Minerals, Inc. v. United States, 352 U.S. 220, 226 (1957)) (pp9-13).

Having established the it had jurisdiction, the Court moved to consider whether “presidential immunity does [or does] not bar the enforcement of a state grand jury subpoena directing a third party to produce non‐privileged material, even when the subject matter under investigation pertains to the President.” The Court examined historical precedents concerning subpoenas served on Presidents, including a subpoena issued to President Jefferson by Chief Justice Marshall, sitting as the trial judge, in the prosecution of Aaron Burr in 1807 (United States v. Burr, 25 F. Cas. 30, 34–35 (C.C.D. Va. 1807) (No. 14,692D)), and a subpoena for samples served on President Clinton in the Lewinski inquiry (Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681, 703 (1997)). However, the Court focused primarily on the case of United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974) where President Nixon was subpoenaed to “produce certain tape recordings and documents relating to his conversations with aides and advisers” to be used a criminal trial of his advisers. In this case, the US Supreme Court held unanimously that such communications were not privileged materials and that the separation of powers did not “insulate a President from a judicial subpoena in an ongoing criminal prosecution” (pp17-22).

The US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit also distinguished between producing written materials and more direct forms of participating in judicial proceedings. It held that “historical practice suggests that a court may not compel the President to personally attend trial or give live testimony in open court” (per Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681, 703 (1997)) and is not “liable to arrest, imprisonment, or detention, while he is in the discharge of the duties of his office” (per Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)). However, neither of those examples applied in the case of President Trump (pp22-23).

Furthermore, the Court rejected President Trump’s argument that his “case is distinguishable from Nixon and related cases because this subpoena comes from a state rather than a federal court.” It held that the subpoena did not involve “direct control by a state court over the President”, it did not interfere with his duty
to faithfully execute the laws under Article II of the Constitution, nor did it subordinate federal law in favor of a state process (p24). Finally, the Court also rejected President Trump’s argument that his “case is unlike Nixon because he is a ‘target’ of the investigation, which carries a ‘distinctive and serious stigma’ that is not present when the President is merely a witness in another person’s trial.” The Court held that the subpoena was part of nothing more than a Grand Jury investigation which had not, so far, resulted in any criminal charges and was not directed at President Trump specifically. Nevertheless, the Court ruled that “even assuming, without deciding, that a formal criminal charge against the President carries a stigma too great for the Constitution to tolerate, we cannot conclude that mere investigation is so debilitating” (p25). Consequently, the Grand Jury subpoena for President Trump’s tax record was upheld.

The overall scope of the judgement in Trump v Vance Jr19‐3204 (2019) is rather narrow as it only concerns 3rd party evidence subpoenaed by a Grand Jury. In fact, in its judgment, the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit does not address some wider principles concerning Presidential immunity. In the end, the Court held that “the President may be correct that state courts lack the authority to issue him orders—a question we have no need to address today—that provides no basis to enjoin the enforcement of a subpoena issued to a third party simply because the President is implicated in the subject matter of the investigation” (p25). Nor did the Court address the question whether a sitting President could be subject to a criminal trial. However, it ruled that “there is no obvious reason why a state could not begin to investigate a President during his term and, with the information secured during that search, ultimately determine to prosecute him after he leaves office” (p28).

The case of Trump v Vance Jr19‐3204 (2019) is yet another case concerning the issue of President Trump’s tax records. With President Trump consistently refusing to release his tax returns, his political opponents have been attempting to obtain them by various legal routes, one of which is a Grand Jury investigation in the State of New York. Another route was taken by the House of Representatives which issued its own subpoenas, upheld in October 2019 by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, No. 19-5142 (D.C. Cir. 2019). Both cases could now be appealed to the Supreme Court or reheard by en benc benches.

Citizenship Question on 2020 Census Blocked (SCOTUS)

On 27 June 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled in Department of Commerce v. New York, No. 18–966, 588 U.S. (2019) that the Trump Administration could not add a citizen question to the upcoming 2020 national census. In a convoluted decision, Chief Justice Roberts, together with the four liberals, held the Trump Administration’s rationale for adding the citizen question was merely pretextual and therefore in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act. In other words, Chief Justice Roberts sent a strong signal that he did not like being lied to.

At the Supreme Court, the Majority (Chief Justice Roberts joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh) held that the Enumeration Clause (Article 1, sections 1 & 2 of the Constitution) permitted a citizen question on a census. Therefore, in theory, there was nothing preventing a presidential administration from adding the question to the 2020 census (pp11-13).

Secondly, the Majority (joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan and Kavanaugh) held that a decision to add the citizen question was reviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act. The Administrative Procedure Act empowers the Courts to invalidate decisions of executive agencies which are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law” (5 U. S. C. §706(2)(A)). Although the Administrative Procedures Act does not allow for a review in cases where a decision is “committed to agency discretion by law” (§701(a)(2)), this exception does not apply to a national census. In this case, the Census Act does not leave an unfettered discretion and, therefore, a decision to add any question to any national census remains subject to judicial review under Administrative Procedures Act (pp13-16).

Thirdly, the Majority (Chief Justice Roberts joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh) held that the Trump Administration’s decision to add the citizen question to the 2020 census was supported by evidence, made following a proper examination of the Census Bureau’s analysis of various methods of collecting data and overall reasonable. The decision was not ‘arbitrary’ or ‘capricious’ under the Administrative Procedures Act (pp16-20).

Nevertheless, ultimately, the Majority (Chief Justice Roberts joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan) ruled that the Trump Administration’s decision was unlawful because the rationale given was pretextual. The Majority believed that “the decision to reinstate a citizenship question cannot adequately be explained in terms of [the Department of Justice]’s request for improved citizenship data to better enforce the [Voting Rights Act].” This is because the Secretary of Commerce began preparations for adding the citizenship question a week into his tenure, at the point when no argument was being raised regarding the Voting Rights Act. In fact, there was evidence that the Director of Policy at the Commerce Department was eliciting requests for citizenship data from the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security before invoking the Voting Rights Act. The Majority agreed that, normally, an agency could have both stated and unstated reasons for any decision but, in the case of the census question, the Trump Administration provided only one argument (the argument based on the Voting Rights Act) and this argument turned out to be false. Consequently, the decision to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census violated the Administrative Procedures Act because it breached the requirement to offer a genuine justification behind the agency’s action (pp23-28).

Justices Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh submitted a partly dissenting opinion criticising the ultimate decision of the Court to invalidate the decision to add the citizenship question on the grounds that the rationale offered by the Trump Administration was pretextual. The dissenters argue that “for the first time ever, the Court invalidates an agency action solely because it questions the sincerity of the agency’s otherwise adequate rationale” (p1) and that “the Court engages in an unauthorized inquiry into evidence not properly before us to reach an unsupported conclusion” (p5). They remind the Majority that the US Supreme “Court has never held an agency decision arbitrary and capricious on the ground that its supporting rationale was ‘pretextual’” (p6). They also claim that the Majority’s reasoning is contrary to the long-standing precedent on the ‘presumption of regularity’ dating back to United States v. Chemical Foundation, Inc., 272 U. S. 1, 14–15 (1926) (p7). Finally, the dissenters also warn that the Majority “has opened a Pandora’s box of pretext-based challenges in administrative law” (p13).

The case of Department of Commerce v. New York, No. 18–966, 588 U.S. (2019) is yet another example of Chief Justice Roberts trying to find a common ground between the liberals and conservatives on the Court. Beyond that, however, the Chief Justice appears also to be sending a message to the Trump Administration that he will not accept apparent lies. The Court is ready to give the Administration some degree of deference, but providing a rationale which could easily be disproven will not fly. With this highly politicised case, Chief Justice Roberts attempts to stay above politics and, in the process, is positioning himself as a new Swing Vote. More about Chief Justice Roberts and his position on the Court could be found here: The Jurist’s Corner.

Border Wall Funding Upheld (SCOTUS)

On 26 July 2019, in Trump v. Sierra Club, 588 U. S. (2019), the US Supreme Court stayed an injunction blocking President Trump’s allocation of funds for a border wall with Mexico. The decision was supported by Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Thomas and Kavanaugh and Chief Justice Roberts, with Justice Breyer concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Trump Administration had “made a sufficient showing at this stage that the plaintiffs have no cause of action to obtain review of the Acting Secretary’s compliance with Section 8005.” The injunction was lifted on the grounds that the Trump Administration would suffer ‘irreparable harm’ if the injunction had been left in force. This was based on the fact that if the funds had not been released, the Trump Administration would not have been able to finalise contracts with building companies by 30 September 2019, meaning that the funds would have had to be “returned to the Treasury and the injunction [would] have operated, in effect, as a final judgment.” The injunction is stayed pending the appeal before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and a potential appeal from that Court to the US Supreme Court, if pursued.

In his partly-concurring and partly dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer, the least liberal of the four liberals on the US Supreme Court, argued that the injunction should have been stayed in so far as to allow the Trump Administration to finalise the contracts but not to begin construction. According to Justice Breyer, this would have allowed the Trump Administration to use the funds before they expire on 30 September 2019, yet at the same time, it would have prevented the wall from being erected before the case was properly decided on the merits.

The original injunction was prompted by Proclamation 9844 declaring a state of emergency at the Southern border issued by President Trump under the National Emergencies Act 1976 on 15 February 2019. The National Emergencies Act 1976 contains a list of special 136 emergency powers which can be relied on once an emergency has been declared. Under Proclamation 9844, the Trump Administration relied on section 8005 of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2019 allowing the Secretary of Defense to transfer funds for military purposes if the Secretary determines that the transfer is “for higher priority items, based on unforeseen military requirements” and “the item for which funds are requested has [not] been denied by the Congress.” Under Proclamation 9844, the Trump Administration moved $8 billion from the Department of Defense to the Department of Homeland Security to finance the construction of the wall at the US-Mexico border after Congress had refused to allocate more than $1.375 billion for that purpose (NY Times).

As soon as Proclamation 9844 was issued, the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition, two advocacy groups represented by the ACLU, sued claiming that Proclamation 9844 violated the Appropriation Clause of Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution which identifies Congress as the only body responsible for the allocation of funding. In May 2019, in Sierra Club v Trump, 19-cv-00892-HSGthe District Court for the Northern District of California imposed a preliminary injunction declaring that the redirection of the funds towards the construction of the wall violated the Appropriation Clause. Then, in June 2018, in a second decision, the same Court made the injunction permanent. The Trump Administration appealed against the injunction, but in a 2-1 decision, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit declined to lift the injunction pending a full appeal. Now, that the US Supreme Court has stayed the injunction, the construction of the wall will proceed while the case is being considered by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on the merits.

However, the case of Sierra Club v Trump is not the only Court case against Proclamation 9844. On the announcement of Proclamation 9844, the House of Representatives, being co-responsible for the allocation of funding under the Appropriate Clause, sued in the District Court for the District of Columbia seeking to block the redirection of funds for the wall. On 3 June 2019, the Court ruled, in US House of Representatives v Mnuchin, 1:19-cv-00969, that the House of Representatives had no legal standing to sue the President and, therefore, it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. No decision on the merits was issued (The Washington Post).

Interestingly, the decision in US House of Representatives v Mnuchin, 1:19-cv-00969 can be contrasted with a recent case of US House of Representatives v. Burwell, 130 F. Supp. 3d 53, 81, where, in September 2015, the same District Court for the District of Columbia (although a difference Judge) held that the House of Representative (with a Republican majority) had a legal standing to sue the Obama Administration for unauthorised payments under a cost-sharing program under the ObamaCare. In fact, in its subsequent decision on the merits in May 2016, in US House of Representatives v. Burwell, 185 F. Supp. 3d 165, the Court ruled that those payments had in fact violated the Appropriate Clause. However, the ruling was stayed while the Obama Administration pursued an appeal before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In December 2017, with the 2016 presidential election intervening, the lawsuit was settled with the new Administration. Nevertheless, when it comes to the question of the House of Representatives’ legal standing to sue for unauthorised spending, the case produced a definite positive answer at the District Court level (HealthAffairs).

SCOTUS to Hear Citizenship Question Case Bypassing Court of Appeals

On 15 February 2019, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the census case on whether the Trump Administration could add the citizenship question to the 2020 census. The Court’s decision comes after, on 15 January 2019, the District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in State of New York v US Department of Commerce, 18-CV-5025 (JMF) that Commerce Secretary’s decision to add the citizenship question violated the Administrative Procedure Act governing the creation of new regulations by administrative agencies. Following the ruling, the Justice Department asked the US Supreme Court to bypass the ordinary appellate stage at the US Court of Appeals and take the case in light of the approaching June deadline for printing census forms. The Court will hear the case in April 2019 and the ruling is expected to be delivered in June 2019, before the Justices adjourn for the summer (CNN).

Adding the citizenship question to the upcoming 2020 census became very controversial after some groups, such as the ACLU, had said that it would deter many illegal immigrants from participating in the census. This in turn would lower the official population numbers for States with a large portion of illegal immigrants, mainly California. This could have a considerable impact on the apportionment of federal funds and seats in the House of Representatives which directly depends on population numbers (US Constitution, Article 1, Clause 3). ACLU claims that adding the citizenship question would stop about 6.5 million people from entering their details in the census which could lead to the State of California loosing billions of dollars in federal funding as well as between one and three seats in the House of Representatives (The Hill).

The Trump Administration argues that the citizenship question is necessary in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act and that this question has been asked during all but one census from 1820 to 2000. But in January 2019, a District Judge (an Obama appointee) disagreed, holding that the rationale was ‘pretextual’ and the decision was made in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act because it had failed to ‘consider all important aspects of a problem’ as required by the Act, implying also that the true intentions behind the citizenship question was to deter participation (Bloomberg).

Ordinarily, the decision of the District Court for the Southern District of New York would have to be appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. However, as with many other unfavorable judicial rulings, the Trump Administration petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the appeal bypassing the Court of Appeals. For the first time, the Court agreed. The Court’s decision is clearly motivated by the urgency of the matter given that census questionnaires must be ready in the summer of 2019. With an ordinary appellate procedure, it would not have been possible to meet this deadline. Given how rare it is for the Supreme Court to accept cases bypassing the Courts of Appeals, it is understandable that the Trump Administration is holding this decision as a small victory.

President Trump Unable to Flip Appeal Courts Circuits

President Trump has made clear on several occasions that judicial nominations are one of his top priorities. In terms of Appeal Courts, as of 15 September 2018, he has successfully appointed 26 Circuit Judges, with further 10 nominations pending before the Senate and another 3 positions awaiting his nomination (13 vacancies in total). Many commentators have been pointing out that President Trump might not only change the constitution of the US Supreme Court by appointing Judge Gorsuch (and most likely Judge Kavanaugh) to its bench, but also flip majorities of at least some Appeal Circuits. However, upon a closer examination, this seems rather unlikely, at least in President Trump’s first term in office.

The US Courts of Appeals are grouped in 11 Circuits in addition to the so called special DC Circuit. As of 15 September 2018, the 1st Circuit is the only one which has not had any vacancies since the last general election and as such it has a stable 4-2 Democratic majority. The 2nd Circuit has 3 vacancies but even if filled by President Trump, it will retain a Democratic majority of 7-6. The 3rd Circuit has 2 vacancies and it has already seen 1 judge appointed to its bench by President Trump in addition to 4 judges appointed by previous Republican Presidents so assuming President Trump fills those 2 empty seats, the Circuit will be evenly split 7-7 between the Republican and Democratic appointees. The 4th Circuit has also had 2 judges appointed to its bench by President Trump on top of 4 judges appointed by previous Republican Presidents but it retains a stable Democratic majority of 8-6. The 5th Circuit currently has 1 vacancy, 5 Trump appointees and 6 other Republican-appointed judges making its overwhelmingly Republican 12-5. The 6th Circuit is also overwhelmingly Republican with 4 Trump appointees on top of 7 other Republican-appointed judges adding up to a strong 11-5 Republican majority. The situation is similar in the 7th Circuit which has 4 Trump appointees in addition to other 5 judges appointed by previous Republican Presidents adding up to a stable 9-2 Republican majority. This is again seen in the 8th Circuit where President Trump has appointed 3 judges on top of 7 other Republican-appointed judges adding up to an overwhelming Republican majority of 10-1. The most liberal of all the Circuits, the famous 9th Circuit currently has 7 vacancies, 1 Trump appointee and another 5 Republican-appointed judges but even assuming all those vacancies are filled by President Trump, the Circuit will nevertheless retain a stable Democratic majority of 16-13. A stable Democratic majority of 7-5 will also hold in the 10th Circuit where President Trump has appointed 2 judges on top of another 3 appointed by previous Republican Presidents. The 11th Circuit is another Circuit which is evenly split 6-6 between the Democratic and Republican appointees after President Trump has appointed 3 judges in addition to another 3 Republican-appointed judges already on the bench. Finally, the DC Circuit consisting of 1 Trump appointee and 3 other Republican-appointed judges also retains a stable Democratic majority of 7-4.

Given the structure of vacancies inherited by President Trump, it is unlikely that his appointments will be able to flip any Appeal Circuit. As of 15 September 2018, despite any appointments made so far, and any other likely to be made in President Trump’s first term, Democratic-appointed judges hold majorities in 6 Circuits (1st, 2nd, 4th, 9th, 10th and the DC Circuit) and Republican-appointed judges hold majorities in 4 Circuits (5th, 6th, 7th and 8th). The only difference made by President Trump’s appointments to the Appeal Courts could be observed in the 3rd and 11th Circuits which moved from stable Democratic majorities to being evenly split. In any event, with the appointment of Judge Gorsuch and the likely appointment of Judge Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, it is not the Appeal Courts where President Trump intends to make his judicial legacy most visible.

Justice Ginsburg Has no Plans to Retire

On 29 July 2018, Justice Ginsburg, who is currently 85 years old 
declared that she planned to remain on the Supreme Court for at least 5 more years (The Guardian). The Justice is already the oldest sitting Justice of the Court. She was originally appointed by President Clinton in 1993 at the age of 60 as the second woman ever appointed to the US Supreme Court. She is a known liberal who openly opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election (CNN). In fact, it is common knowledge that Justice Ginsburg will not voluntarily retire during a Republican president. Given her age, she was pressured to retire during the second term of the Obama’s presidency in case his predecessor turned out to be a Republican but she did not cave (e.g. NY Times here). Now that President Trump appoints strictly conservative judges to the federal benches, Justice Ginsburg embraces herself to wait out his term in office. During the next presidential election in 2020, the Justice will be 87 but her retirement plans will necessarily depend on whether President Trump is re-elected or not. If President Trump wins again in 2020, Justice Ginsburg will have no choice but to endure yet another 4 years on the bench. If successful, this would bring her to over 91 thereby beating the current record-holder, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who stepped down at the age of 90 years and 10 months. She would also beat her former colleague Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010 at the age of 90 years and 2 months. Justice Ginsburg, despite her history of cancer and regular nodding-off during official events, remains active both as an opinion writer on the bench as well as a public speaker outside the Court. Given her spirit, she might as well be capable of achieving the title of the oldest ever sitting Justice of the US Supreme Court, that is provided nothing unexpected happens of course.

President Trump’s ‘Record-breaking’ Number of Judicial Appointments

With the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh for Justice Kennedy’s seat at the Supreme Court, some commentators raised the issue of President Trump rapidly transforming the Federal Courts by appointing a record number of District and Circuit Court Judges (e.g The Guardian here and here). This claim is based mostly on the fact that a record number of such Judges have been appointed in President Trump’s first 1,5 years in the office comparing with previous Presidents (e.g. The Hill here). In as much as this is probably true, the claim that President Trump will appoint an unprecedented number of lower Courts Judges is rather misleading.  As of 25 July 2018, President Trump has nominated 137 Judges of the so called Article III Courts (USCourts.gov). Although this seems like a high number for only 1,5 years into the presidency, so far the US Senate has confirmed only 44 of those 137 nominations (including 1 Justice of the Supreme Court, 23 Judges for the United States Courts of Appeals and 20 Judges for the United States District Courts). This is still claimed to be one of the highest numbers for any presidency after only 1,5 years. However, even if this pace is maintained, and President Trump is re-elected in 2020, he will have only appointed around 234 Judges throughout his two terms. This is not even close to his predecessor, President Obama, who appointed 308 Judges between 2008 and 2016. It is also far from the three record-holders in this regard, President Clinton, President Reagan and President W. Bush, who appointed 357, 347 and 310 Judges, respectively.

Even this calculation is based on the assumption that (a) President Trump will be re-elected and (b) that the Republicans are able to retain the Senate majority of at least 51 votes throughout the two presidential terms. Both assumptions are easy to displace. In fact, the Republicans might as well lose the Senate majority in the November mid-term elections and, given the degree to which the judicial confirmation process has been politicised, none of President Trump’s nominees awaiting a confirmation hearing might receive his or her judicial commission after all. It is clear that a Democratic Senate will not help President Trump elevate conservative Judges to the Federal Courts. In such case, President Trump might end up on the lower end of the SCOTUSBlog ranking with no more than 50 judicial appointments in total.

Judge Kavanaugh to Replace Justice Kennedy

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On 09 July 2018 President Trump nominated Judge Kavanaugh for the US Supreme Court vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Kennedy. Judge Kavanaugh is a Judge of the Court of Appeals for the powerful DC Circuit and has been serving in this capacity for 13 years. He had been initially appointed to this Court by President Bush after having served under him as a White House staffer. Even more interestingly, in the 1990s, Judge Kavanaugh worked with Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr investigating business deals of then President Bill Clinton in relation to the Whitewater development which famously led to the impeachment and then the eventual acquittal of President Clinton on the charges of perjury and the obstruction of justice in 1999.

Judge Kavanaugh is known to be an originalist with a strong record on gun laws (Heller v. District of Columbia (2011)) and the separation of powers (PHH Corp. v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (2017)). On the other hand, many conservative members of the Senate point out that he helped save ObamaCare’s individual mandate when the case was before the Court of Appeals by construing it as a tax (Seven-Sky v. Holder (2011)) and voted to uphold massive data collection by the NSA outside the Fourth Amendment’s protection of privacy (Klayman v. Obama (2015)). Finally, Judge Kavanaugh seems to have no clear record on the right to abortion (but see Garza v. Hargan (2017)) – the most crucial issue for the vast majority of progressive Senators.

In the incoming months, Judge Kavanaugh will face a Senate confirmation hearing and will be asked to answer multiple questions about his judicial and administrative past. The hearing will most likely be a contentious one with many Democratic Senators already vowing to vote against him. However, with a 51 majority, the Senate Republicans are likely to confirm Judge Kavanaugh in time for a new session of the Supreme Court beginning in October 2018. The vote will probably go down along the party lines with a few Democrat Senators from typically Red States perhaps voting for Judge Kavanaugh to strengthen their position before the November mid-term elections.

Justice Kennedy Retires (SCOTUS)

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The most powerful man in America has finally retired. There was no one in the country’s past 30 years who had a bigger impact on the law of the United States than Justice Kennedy. No President, no Majority  Leader, no State Governor had power coming even close to that of Justice Kennedy, aka the Swing Vote. The number of cases Justice Kennedy single-handedly decided is breathtaking. He is the man who allowed gay people to marry (Obergefell v. Hodges 2015) and buy firearms (District of Columbia v Heller 2008) at the same time. It seems that President Trump is now likely to appoint another young judge in the vein of Justice Gorsuch, his first pick. Whoever President Trump chooses to replace Justice Kennedy will be subjected to the most vicious confirmation process this country has ever seen. Probably even more vicious than the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork or Clarence Thomas. The President is set to announce his pick on Monday, 9 July.