Extortion, deprivation of rights, and the myth of the Twitter counter-punch: Part I

I rarely comment on the President’s tweets, unless they implicate a legal or constitutional issue of relevance.  And I am confident that everything has been said already about the President’s repugnant tweets concerning Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.  There is a follow-up issue on which I prefer to focus, but I will add only these thoughts on the tweet itself.

First, using a Twitter account to insult people is a rather pathetic form of “counter-punching,” and probably should not count as such.  In this context, “counter-punching” would be appearing in person on Morning Joe and saying to Joe and Mika’s faces exactly what the President said via Twitter.  Second, even if it is “counter-punching,” our civil society — and notably our criminal law — has always taken an unkind view of certain disproportionate forms of “counter-punching.”  If someone pushes me on the subway, or insults me on the street, or slaps me in the face, I do not have the right to shoot him in the forehead with a rifle.  Proportionality matters.

That said, another issue arose yesterday during Morning Joe that has received some attention.  During yesterday’s broadcast, Joe and Mika described a story in which, according to them, the President — through one or more of his staff at the White House — threatened to permit the publication of a story in the National Enquirer about Joe and Mika’s personal life together if they refused to call the President and apologize for their negative commentary on him.  If they called and apologized, Joe’s account goes, the President would use his influence and connections with the Enquirer to kill the Enquirer story.  The President denies the account as it was told on the show, but Joe claims to have documentary evidence to prove the version he told.

Several commentators have explored whether this amounts to criminal extortion or reputational blackmail.  I want to add just a bit more to the criminal law angle, but I will reserve a discussion of the extortion statutes for a separate post.  Instead, I will focus this post on the potential deprivation of constitutional rights and conspiracy to do so, both of which are serious federal crimes.

For purposes of this legal discussion, I will assume the accuracy of Joe’s description of the events, though we still do not know for certain what exactly happened and it is possible that Joe’s account leaves out salient details that could affect the legal analysis here.  I also interpret his account as not simply an effort by the President to seek an apology, but also to induce Joe and Mika to stop making negative comments about the President and to cover the President in a positive light (otherwise, what’s the point?).  So based on this, here are the legal issues that I think could be relevant that concern the potential criminal deprivation of civil rights.

If Joe’s account is accurate, then it is possible that the President has endeavored to coerce the media into doing something with its coverage, or refraining from doing something with its coverage, by threatening reputational or financial harm to television hosts based on the content of their speech (or, worse still, the viewpoint expressed).  If so, this has very serious First Amendment implications, and raises the question of whether the President has willfully deprived Joe and Mika of their First Amendment — and perhaps equal protection — rights under color of law, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 242.

As always, in any section 242 case, there is the question of what “willfully” means.  The Supreme Court said in Screws v. United States that this includes “open defiance or reckless disregard of a constitutional requirement which has been made specific and definite.”  There may also be some question as to whether the President was acting “under color of law,” if he was relying simply on his private relationship with the Enquirer rather than on any official power as President.  But there is case law holding that an official acts “under color of law” when he uses the victim’s fear of his power as a public official to induce the victim to do something or refrain from doing something.  See United States v. Giordano, 442 F.3d 30 (2nd. Cir. 2006).

And that connection is strengthened if the President used White House staff to communicate his threats.  Indeed, if Joe’s account is accurate, then the use of White House staff would seem to implicate 18 U.S.C. 241, which says that it is a crime for “two or more persons to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person . . . in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same.”  The conspiracy problem is worse still if the President formed an agreement with the folks at the Enquirer in this regard, though the Enquirer denies any contact with the White House on this specific matter.  The conspiracy against rights statute does not require color of law, nor does it require an overt act in furtherance of the agreement.  Criminal liability attaches the moment that the agreement is formed.

Of course, presidents and other politicians often use their position to influence media coverage (granting special access, etc.).  Doing so is not typically thought to implicate the First Amendment.  The question here is whether, assuming the veracity of Joe’s account, there is something different — and constitutionally pernicious — about coercing a change in viewpoint by threatening to allow publication of potentially damaging information about a media figure’s personal life.  The act-omission distinction might also be important here under section 242 (if the allegation is simply that the President failed to do something), although the theory could be that the threat itself constitutes the deprivation.

All of this is subject to the usual caveats that, first, it is not clear that the President violated a criminal law; and second, even if he committed a criminal offense, he likely would not be prosecuted while in office.  Still, as I have said before, this would not immunize him from a congressional investigation or impeachment.  Some may think that further discussion of this story makes a mountain out of a molehill.  But if Joe’s account is true — if the President used his office, and those in his charge, to communicate to prominent cable news hosts that he would greenlight, or at least not intervene to stop, a potentially damaging story about their personal lives as a way of coercing them into apologizing for negative content and giving him more positive coverage — then it is hard to imagine how this would not constitute a serious abuse of power and a threat to the First Amendment of the Constitution.  And it is surely worthy of a congressional inquiry.

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When does robbery of a local brothel substantially affect interstate commerce? Apparently, pretty much always.

Last year, I posted about the Supreme Court’s review of, and unsurprising decision in, Taylor v. United States.  That case, up from the Fourth Circuit, held that the jurisdictional element of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. 1951, is satisfied where there is a robbery involving a drug dealer.

This past week, the Fourth Circuit issued another opinion raising a similar question about the application of the “affects commerce” element of the Hobbs Act to an unlawful business operation.  This time, rather than drug dealers, the court in United States v. Lopez considered the 2007 robbery of a Maryland brothel.

As the court described the facts of the case, the Prince George’s County brothel was located in a first-floor apartment, staffed by a Adelaida Garcia-Calderon and a doorman/money collector.  Two young men entered, demanded money, tied the doorman’s feet and hands, and then one of them raped Garcia-Calderon at knife-point.  Another man, Carlos Cordon, walked in on the robbery and was stabbed to death by one of the perpetrators; Cordon’s body was found behind the apartment building.  Garcia-Calderon and the doorman survived, but the case remained unsolved for several years.  Finally, local police were able to match the DNA from the crime scene to Miguel Ramon Cerros-Cruz, an MS-13 member, and Alexsi Lopez.  Police also had the testimony of an MS-13 member who was incarcerated with Lopez and overheard Lopez confess to the brothel robbery and killing, while also implicating Cerros-Cruz.

Lopez was indicted for violating, and conspiring to violate, the Hobbs Act.  (Although he was 17 at the time of the crime, Lopez was 24 at the time of trial, and was subject to trial in federal district court; the five-year statute of limitations was also extended because of the DNA testing, see 18 U.S.C. 3297).  Cerros-Cruz pleaded guilty; Lopez went to trial and was convicted.  The court sentenced Lopez to 20 years in prison.  (Though I remain curious: if there was evidence that the perpetrators committed the robbery, rape, or killing in order to maintain or increase their standing with MS-13, why not charge the case under VICAR, 18 U.S.C. 1959?).

The Fourth Circuit rejected Lopez’s claim on appeal that there was insufficient evidence to show the required effect on commerce.  Citing the familiar line that the Hobbs Act requires only a de minimis effect on commerce, the court noted that a brothel — like drug dealing — is an “inherently economic enterprise.”  Moreover, the court noted, in many cases, including this one, the brothel workers will travel across state lines.  The Government also provided evidence that the brothel used condoms manufactured out-of-state, and that Lopez and Cerros-Cruz targeted the brothel because of its nature as an illegal business that dealt in cash.

Although this case feels much like Taylor, that case expressly limited its holding to situations involving drug dealers as targets and to “drugs or drug proceeds,” because the federal government has jurisdiction over those markets.  “We do not resolve what the Government must prove to establish Hobbs Act robbery where some other type of business or victim is targeted,” the Court said.  After Taylor, it is worth asking whether a small-scale, local brothel engages in the kind of commercial activity over which the United States exercises jurisdiction the way that it does with respect to the controlled substance market.  After all, the Taylor decision was arguably inevitable in light of Gonzales v. Raich, which expressly decided that Congress had the power to regulate the interstate drug marketplace by reaching even wholly intrastate, locally grown marijuana.

The Fourth Circuit did not have a similar precedent on which it could rely with respect to federal jurisdiction over an interstate brothel marketplace.  Still, existing Hobbs Act case law seems to support the Lopez holding. This includes the more general rationale offered in Taylor — citing Raich — with respect to aggregation of economic activity and Congress’s ability to reach intrastate incidents of an activity that is part of a broader class of activity that is within Congress’s reach.  See also Perez v. United States.  Just as drug dealing is a “moneymaking endeavor,” as Taylor described it, so, too, is prostitution.   To reach this activity through the Hobbs Act, though, one must conclude that robbery of a brothel would also effect an interstate brothel marketplace over which the United States exercises jurisdiction.

In addition, multiple lower federal court cases recognize that where the robbery depletes the assets of a commercial establishment, then this is enough to satisfy the jurisdictional element.  But does the Lopez case involve the depletion of assets of a business, or simply of the individual sex worker or brothel manager?  Presumably, of course, someone else  — to whom Garcia-Calderon answers — is getting a cut of the cash.  But is that cash used for purposes connected with the business (such as to buy condoms, or bed linens, or other items associated with pursuing a business that involves sexual activity)?  Also, the fact that the condoms came from out-of-state provides a thin basis for satisfying what should be a more demanding jurisdictional analysis, unless the robbers took condoms, as well.  Nonetheless, federal courts have found the Hobbs Act satisfied on much thinner grounds than exist in Lopez.

Still, it is worth considering the gravamen of Justice Thomas’s Taylor dissent, and the efforts that Justice Alito made to limit the reach of the Taylor holding (perhaps to satisfy some of Justice Thomas’s concerns).  If the Fourth Circuit is correct that the brothel’s character as a commercial establishment, even an unlawful one, is by itself sufficient to satisfy the Hobbs Act (and thus the Commerce Clause), then it would seem that any robbery of any business — no matter how small, or how local, and no matter the volume of its business nor the amount of money that it makes — would be enough to justify the exercise of federal jurisdiction under the statute.  One wonders whether that rule would be consistent not only with the statutory definition of “commerce,” but also with a Constitution that denies a general police power to the federal government.

Perhaps the Fourth Circuit, even if ultimately correct, could have offered a more substantial analysis with respect to the effect on commerce.  It is one thing to acknowledge that the Hobbs Act incorporates all of Congress’s commerce power.  It is quite another to interpret the Hobbs Act in a way that gives Congress more than that.

 

Revitalizing Congress

Congress does not work for the President.  Congressional staff do not work for the President (let’s set aside the detail problem for now).  Just as Congress should not endeavor to destroy the President, neither should it seek to protect him.  It is not Congress’s duty to clear a path for the President or to help him deliver on presidential campaign promises.  It is, rather, the responsibility of Congress to check the President and to assert its own institutional prerogatives, using the limited tools that the Constitution has afforded it.  Unfortunately, loyalty to the president or to a political Party has usurped what should be the Senator or Representative’s ultimately loyalties: the legislative branch they serve, and, chiefly, the Constitution.

The entire enterprise of congressional oversight and investigation of the executive branch depends upon accepting the premise of institutional defense.  Senators and Representatives must accept that Congress must gather facts and evidence from the President and his subordinates in order for Congress to fulfill its constitutional role in the separation of powers.  That is, congressional oversight and investigation of the executive depend upon a recognition that the institutional interests of Congress are paramount to any loyalties owed to the President or to the Member’s political Party.

When congressional oversight and investigation are viewed merely as extensions of Party politics and political campaigning, however, oversight and investigation become meaningless as legislative prerogatives.  Congress consequently becomes weakened institutionally.  While there are certainly important bipartisan exceptions, Members of both Parties, over time, have too often either abused or ignored their responsibilities to conduct effective and meaningful oversight and investigation in aid of Congress’s constitutional functions, instead serving as blockers for the president during the opposition’s pass-rush.

Madison, in Federalist 51, described legislative power as the predominant authority in a republic.  He explained that this requires dividing legislative authority (into distinct bodies) and fortifying the executive (as with a veto). Hamilton, too, acknowledged in Federalist 73 the “superior weight and influence of the legislative body in a free government.”  (Hamilton, in fact, spent considerable time in The Federalist defending the veto, worrying about the accumulation of legislative power, and explaining how the executive could defend itself against the legislature, even noting the “hazard to the executive in a trial of strength with that body.”  How quaint.)  And the Supreme Court has consistently recognized that the power to investigate is a function of Congress’s power to legislate.  But modern politics have changed the way the institution operates, the way it is perceived, and the way the executive relates to it.

The over-sized modern presidency has far greater national stature than even the most high-profile Senator or Representative, and exerts tremendous influence over individual Members, influence that enables the President to dictate the content of national legislation and, often, the path of legislative oversight.  For its part, the modern Congress has contributed to the weakening of its place in the constitutional system.  The “dysfunction” of Congress is a subject well-covered in the literature, and although it is likely the case that many Democrats and Republicans privately enjoy cordial relationships, that privately held goodwill rarely manifests itself in the day-to-day public work of the institution.   The end result is that the venerable institution of Congress appears to be a mere wing of each Party’s national political infrastructure.  And when the majority in either chamber shares the President’s Party, that chamber’s majority appears to be transformed into a mere clerk of the executive.  This persistent quiescence with the executive further weakens the institution and minimizes its public stature.

But Congress can, at long last, fight back.  Oversight and investigation offer a good place to start, because this is an area in which Members from different parties can coalesce in defense of institutional interests.  Congress can also staff up, and increase the budget for congressional staff, so that Congress can compete with the other branches (especially the executive branch) in securing and keeping highly-qualified professionals.  Via our friends at Leg Branch, this recent piece in the Washington Post explains some of the difficulties.

The current controversies have given the Congress the opportunity to revitalize itself, to assert its institutional independence from the President and the dominant Parties.   If it does not (and there are signs that many individual Members are not interested in doing so), it will remain feckless and weak.  Madison and Hamilton were right to worry about the legislature’s ability to absorb the powers of the other departments.  The President, as Hamilton argued, should have tools for his defense.  But the accumulation of power into the executive is no better than accumulation in the Congress.  And Hamilton properly explained in No. 73 that the partitioning of power among the branches also teaches us that the branches should be independent.  Congress does not work for the President — and its Members should not be satisfied with perpetuating the appearance that it does.

 

Can the President commit a crime or an impeachable offense even when exercising constitutional power?

America’s civic education continues.  Although much of what we have endured recently is not particularly good news for the Nation, it should at least be heartening that nearly 20 million people watched the (underwhelming) Comey hearing.  If only that many Americans took such an interest in congressional hearings more generally.

We have also heard lately about the theory of the unitary executive, which some observers have used to explain why the President’s actions with respect to James Comey are neither criminal nor otherwise improper.    Former Speaker Newt Gingrich asserted something like this recently when he said that the President “cannot obstruct justice,” citing the fact that the President is the chief executive  (as others have duly noted, such as in the linked article from The Hill, Gingrich voted to impeach President Clinton on obstruction of justice grounds).  Gingrich’s quote calls to mind President Nixon’s 1977 assertion to Sir David Frost that, “when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

At its core, the unitary executive posits both an obvious textual notion (that the executive power is vested in “a” president) and a structural one (that the president enjoys all executive power and thus controls anyone who assists him in exercising such power).  But the unitary executive model does not really answer two critical questions that have been raised by the Trump-Comey saga: first, when, if ever, does the exercise of constitutional power by the president amount to a punishable crime?; and second, at what point does the exercise of a constitutional power constitute an abuse of such power?  These two questions are at the heart of a distinction that has become lost in the debate over criminality, and that is the distinction between violations of the existing federal criminal law and the political world of impeachable offenses (see my earlier post here).

Because the President has the power to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” he has the power to determine who will be prosecuted and investigated.  Therefore, as some have argued, the President had the authority to instruct Comey not to continue pursuing former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, and doing so cannot be obstruction of justice.  And, the argument continues, because the President has the appointment power, as well as the Take Care Clause power, firing the FBI Director also cannot be obstruction.  I have before elaborated (in the above linked post) upon the obstruction statutes and explained why I think reliance on those statutes is problematic in this case.  But let’s set aside the applicability of the statutes as a matter of statutory interpretation and federal prosecutorial practice, and focus instead upon the question of how far the President’s power extends.  Do his motives matter when exercising his powers?

Suppose, as a hypothetical example, that the President gathered the FBI Director and Attorney General in the Oval Office and gave the following order, pursuant to his Take Care Clause powers: in an effort to root out terrorists, the FBI shall enter and search, without a warrant and without any particularized suspicion, the home of any Muslim living in the United States.  The FBI and AG agree and the order is carried out.  Such action would implicate not just the Fourth Amendment, but also the federal civil rights statute relating to willful deprivations of rights, 18 U.S.C. 242, as well as the civil rights conspiracy statute.  18 U.S.C. 241.  Is the President immune from subsequent criminal prosecution merely because he has the power to direct federal investigations and prosecutions?  Could the President be impeached for issuing such an order, on the ground that even though he has the power to direct investigations, this was a serious abuse of that power?

Let’s take another example.  Suppose the President agrees with a representative of Defendant D that the President will order the Justice Department not to prosecute D for a crime that D has committed.  In exchange for that official act, the President accepts from D one million dollars.  Is this conduct bribery, notwithstanding the fact that the official act for which there is a quid pro quo is a constitutional power vested in the President?  Is it impeachable? (remember that the Impeachment Clause of Article II, section 3 specifically lists bribery as impeachable).

Or, to take the example of another power vested solely in the President — the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States — suppose the President granted a pardon to D in exchange for a payment of one million dollars.  Is the President’s motive for the official act of granting the pardon irrelevant simply because the corrupt motive, and the quid pro quo, are tied to the exercise of a constitutional power vested in the President?

I ask these questions because I think it is important to note that even if we accept the unitary executive model, and even if we believe that directing criminal investigations and prosecutions is a core executive function over which the president should have control, we can still acknowledge that what motivates a President in carrying out that function could still have legal significance.  In my bribery examples, for instance, the power of ordering the DOJ not to prosecute, or the power of actually granting the pardon, are not, without more, the problem; the problem is that those exercises of power were intended to facilitate bribery.  Indeed, because bribery requires an official act, it seems clear from its inclusion in the Impeachment Clause that the Framers understood that a President can still be held legally accountable even when the offense arises from an exercise of official power.

It may very well be that President Trump has committed neither a crime nor an impeachable offense.  But whether he has committed either cannot, I think, depend merely upon whether his action was based on the exercise of a constitutional power.  Perhaps the President’s state of mind matters.  After all, implicit in an “abuse of power” is the existence of an official power that can otherwise be legitimately used.

Which leads to a final point about the distinction between criminality and impeachment.  Much of the attention will fall upon the Special Counsel.  But the congressional investigations here are also important because, unlike the Special Counsel’s investigation (which is criminal in nature), the Congress can gather facts and evidence regarding abuses of power that may not meet the defined elements of a crime or be prosecutable.  The congressional investigative power is at once broader and more narrow than the Special Counsel’s work — Congress cannot criminally prosecute the President, but it can engage in oversight of the executive, which includes the power to impeach and convict.  That distinction is critical if one assumes that a sitting President cannot be criminally prosecuted.  Problem is, would a Republican Congress ever allow impeachment to proceed?  To answer that, we need to take a deeper dive into the existing dynamics of a Senator or Representative’s institutional loyalty to Congress, rather than to the President or the Party.

 

Could the President assert executive privilege to block Comey’s Senate testimony?

Now that James Comey is slated to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee next week, there has been some speculation as to whether President Trump will try to block Comey’s testimony with an assertion of executive privilege.  To be precise, such an assertion would only apply to testimony involving presidential communications; it would not cover any and all aspects of Comey’s testimony about his work as FBI director, so “blocking” is not entirely accurate.  Though I believe in a robust executive privilege where appropriate, I am skeptical of the use of executive privilege under these circumstances.  Still, I think it is fair to say that we are entering (mostly) uncharted waters next week.

The leading case on executive privilege is United States v. Nixon.  Although it recognized the constitutional dimensions of executive privilege, the Court ultimately found that the privilege is not absolute and rejected President Nixon’s assertion of the privilege.  This, of course, set the stage for Nixon’s resignation, after the House Judiciary Committee had adopted articles of impeachment.  The reasons for the Court’s ultimate decision are instructive.  According to the unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Burger, “when the privilege depends solely on the broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest in the confidentiality of such conversations, a confrontation with other values arises.”  The Court then stated, “[a]bsent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, we find it difficult to accept the argument that even the very important interest in the confidentiality of Presidential communications is significantly diminished” by requiring in camera review by a federal district court.

Much of the Nixon case proceeds from there to explain why a generalized assertion of presidential confidentiality should yield to the demands of justice in a criminal investigation.  The privilege is rooted in the separation of powers and should ordinarily be accorded deference, but, again, is not absolute.  There is also, the Court acknowledged, constitutional dimension to the need for evidence in criminal cases.  Consequently, the Court held, where the claim of privilege is merely generalized (not specific to a particular military, diplomatic, or national security secret), “it cannot prevail over the demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice.  The generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.”

Nixon’s application to the Comey testimony is therefore imperfect, but useful.  Two dimensions of executive privilege, as understood in Nixon, are important in relation to the upcoming Comey testimony: first, the nature of the proceeding; and second, the subject matter underlying a claim of privilege.

Nixon is really about the role of the privilege in criminal cases.  Comey is testifying in a congressional investigation, not a criminal one.  It is not clear precisely how Nixon is to apply in the congressional committee setting.  Because of the constitutional dimension of executive privilege that derives from the separation of powers, and the need to not simply protect the prerogatives of the presidency but also to protect against Congress, to quote Madison in Federalist No. 48, “drawing all power into its impetuous vortex,” there is a natural concern about compelling the disclosure of presidential communications to the legislative branch.

And yet, while executive privilege is constitutionally based, so is Congress’s power to investigate.  Congress has institutional prerogatives, too.  Claims of executive privilege therefore have often conflicted with claims about the need for information in a congressional inquiry; the implications for the separation of powers are obvious.  These conflicts are normally handled through a process of mutual accommodation and compromise by the legislative and executive branches.  Judicial review in such situations is not unheard of, but is rare.  And the Supreme Court has never had occasion to address the matter specifically.

Still, the relationship between this particular congressional investigation and the existing criminal investigation being conducted by the Special Counsel is undeniable, and likely close.  Moreover, although the congressional investigative setting is not strictly criminal, it can display attributes that look much like a criminal inquiry.  Congressional committees must respect legitimate invocations of the privilege against compelled self-incrimination; can grant immunity to witnesses; and have even referred individuals for criminal prosecution.  There is often a Congress-as-Prosecutor quality to congressional investigation and oversight, even though Congress lacks any formal criminal prosecution powers (even inherent contempt is not strictly criminal, though it looks the part).

So while it is tempting to distinguish Nixon by relying upon the formal difference between a criminal proceeding and a congressional investigative hearing (and there is a difference), the nature of this particular hearing and its connection to an ongoing criminal probe in the executive branch suggests that this scenario may be more like Nixon than it first appears.  Nevertheless, there is something to the notion that a claim of executive privilege should be taken quite seriously when the legislative branch is seeking to pierce the deliberative processes of the presidency.

This brings us to subject matter.  To make any assertion of the privilege palatable, the President would likely have to be very specific about the subject matter of his claim — he would have to assert that some military, diplomatic, or national security secret would be divulged as a result of Comey’s testimony, or, at a minimum, that the testimony relates to the decision-making functions of the presidency.  An assertion of privilege is also complicated here by the fact that the President has spoken openly and publicly about his private conversations with Comey.  This also raises the question of whether the President has waived any claim of privilege because he spoke publicly on the subject matter (I personally think this is a dubious argument as it has been couched by some, though it is a stronger argument with respect to testimony about very specific subjects; in other words, public statements about one subject would not necessarily serve as a waiver with respect to all conversations with Comey).

But waiver is not the only concern with respect to those public statements.  Rather, another major concern is that the President has implicated Comey’s own credibility (which Comey should have the right to defend), and has made statements that vaguely suggest, if not criminality, at least the possibility that the President has failed to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” as required by Article II.  That is a subject worthy of congressional oversight and inquiry.  Nixon’s concern about an undifferentiated claim of confidentiality conflicting with “other values” therefore seems useful in this context, given what we know about the need for information in this particular congressional investigation and the need to explore the veracity and implications of the President’s own public comments on the matter.

As a practical matter, Comey is likely to prefer to keep his testimony narrow, so as not to compromise the Special Counsel’s investigation.  But to the extent that it could cover his communications with the President, it remains unclear whether the President will attempt to intervene with a claim of executive privilege.  I suspect that doing so would be politically unwise, further contributing to an already damaging “what-is-the-Trump-Administration-hiding-now?” narrative.  Legally, the question is more complicated.  But if the Nixon decision is an authoritative guide in this situation, then that decision, along with the rule of law concerns that animate it, likely militates against recognizing the privilege here, unless the President can show something more than a mere general interest in confidentiality.

Criminality and impeachment after the Comey firing

James Comey is, by all objective accounts, a man of integrity, intelligence, and honor.  Like all of us, he is imperfect.  And like anyone serving the public at a high level, he has perhaps made judgments — in difficult and complicated, even untenable, situations — that are subject to legitimate criticism.  No one questions the President’s power to remove him from his position as FBI Director.  The question, rather, is whether it was appropriate under the circumstances to do so.

If the President’s removal of Director Comey was based on the President’s desire to influence or impede an investigation that he disfavors, and in which he could conceivably be implicated, that raises very serious, but also very complicated, legal questions. (Do not be distracted by the President’s claim that he is not under investigation; though he may not be the target of the investigation, one who is not the target can still become ensnared or implicated in an investigation.  It is difficult to believe that investigators are not also looking — or will not eventually look — into the President’s role, what he knew, and when he knew it.)

Four questions arise: 1) does the criminal law apply to the President when he commits an act that might otherwise be criminal but that is done in the exercise of a constitutional function?; 2) assuming the criminal law would apply, can a sitting President be prosecuted while in office?; 3) assuming the President can be prosecuted while in office, would the Justice Department do so?; and 4) criminality and criminal process notwithstanding, could the president be impeached for his conduct?

I will leave specific responses to the first three questions for a subsequent post, though it is worth noting here that, as some may recall from the legal discussion surrounding the (Bill) Clinton scandals, there is some question as to whether a sitting President can be criminally prosecuted.  Some respected constitutional scholars say no, criminal prosecution must wait until the President formally leaves office (and there is substantial support in constitutional history for this view).  See, for example, Akhil Amar’s work here.  Others say doing so is constitutionally permissible.  But the question I want to next explore is this: if the President does something that is an abuse of his power, or a substantial violation of his presidential duties, or even violates the Constitution, but does not actually violate the criminal law, is impeachment available?

Lots of recent commentary has focused on 18 U.S.C. 1505, one of the federal obstruction of justice statutes.  On its face, it looks like it applies to the President’s conduct.  Problem is, federal prosecutors are instructed, based on decided cases, that an FBI investigation does not constitute a “proceeding” for purposes of this statute.  See USAM CRM 1727. If the President is to be subject to an obstruction statute, it will have to be a different one, say, 18 U.S.C. 1512(c)(3) (but courts are split as to whether an FBI investigation is an “official proceeding” under this statute, and the statute requires that the person act “corruptly” — can the President be acting “corruptly” if he believes in good faith that his action was a legitimate exercise of constitutional power?).  So, proof of criminality in these circumstances is tricky.

This leads to a discussion of impeachment.  Does impeachment require the commission of a crime?

The President, according to Article II, section 4 of the Constitution, “shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”  Treason and bribery are familiar as crimes (each has a well-established definition in criminal law).  But “other high crimes and misdemeanors” remains vague.  There is a fair amount of scholarship on impeachable offenses and I won’t endeavor to summarize it all here.  But a couple of sources are noteworthy.

Raoul Berger’s terrific book, Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems, concludes that this phrase — “high crimes and misdemeanors” — was drawn not from the English criminal law but from the impeachment of the Earl of Suffolk in 1386.  He explains that use of this standard was necessary because “the objects of impeachment were beyond ordinary criminal redress.”  Whereas “misdemeanors” were private wrongs punishable by the state, “high crimes and misdemeanors” were political offenses, against the state.  Consequently, according to Berger, high crimes and misdemeanors are not derived from ordinary criminal law, but are unique to the impeachment context.

Charles Black’s excellent Impeachment: A Handbook, attempts to clarify the standard a bit by further considering the relationship between criminal law and impeachable offenses.  Black relies upon the ejusdem generis canon to evaluate how “high crimes and misdemeanors” could be like treason and bribery, but ultimately Black appears skeptical of a definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that would require actual criminality (though he concedes that most actual presidential misdeeds would also be crimes).  He gives the following examples: a President announces that he will not appoint any Roman Catholic to any office.  This violates the clear command of Article VI of the Constitution, but is it criminal?  Or, suppose a President legally travels to a foreign country and conducts all business from there.  He wouldn’t be committing a crime, but surely his “gross and wanton neglect of duty,” as Black describes it, would be impeachable.  By the same token, merely committing a crime should not subject the President to impeachment, and Black gives a few examples on that ground, too.  In short, the President need not commit a defined crime to be impeached, but even if he does, mere criminality is not necessarily impeachable.

There is, then, substantial historical and scholarly authority for the proposition that a President can be impeached for abuses of office that do not formally constitute criminal offenses.

The problem for this President’s critics, of course, is that — for now, at least — neither criminal prosecution nor impeachment seems likely.

As to prosecution, again, there is the threshold problem of whether any crime has been committed under an applicable statute; the constitutional questions of whether he was simply exercising a constitutional function, and whether it is even permissible to indict or criminally try a sitting President; and even if so, the question of whether Trump’s own Justice Department would do so (which is precisely why the claims for a special counsel have been increasing).

That leaves impeachment, and only the House of Representatives can impeach the President.  Most Republicans in Congress have not exactly been profiles in courage when it comes to asserting their own prerogatives, defending the separation of powers, and resisting the charms of this President.  Efforts to distance themselves from the President have been tepid and ambiguous.  For now, congressional Republicans (generally) appear to be calculating one or both of the following: they need the President politically, and do not want to damage him; and/or, they fear the damage the President could do to them, with his Twitter account or otherwise.  The President, I suspect, knows this, which might explain his brazen, middle-finger-held-high recounting of his interactions with, and firing of, Comey.  He, too, calculates.

I do not contend here that President Trump has committed any offense, criminal or impeachable.  But that is clearly where the public conversation over Comey’s firing is, and where it will continue to go.  I thought some legal context might be helpful as we head — hopefully prudently — down each of those paths.  And I will hope to have more to say on each.  For now, I think much of how this conversation will proceed depends upon who the President selects to head the Bureau.

Can you evade federal prosecution if your heroin distribution is a religious exercise?

From the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, an interesting case on the limits of religious freedom in America, particularly at a time when we are debating the scope of statutes designed to enhance protections for religious exercise.  According to the court’s recent opinion in United States v. Anderson, the defendant (Timothy Anderson) was indicted for violating the Controlled Substances Act and admitted to distributing heroin.  But,  Anderson said, he is “‘a student of Esoteric and Mysticism studies’ who created a ‘religious non-[p]rofit’ to distribute heroin to ‘the sick, lost, blind, lame, deaf, and dead members of Gods’ [sic] Kingdom.'”  Relying upon the protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Anderson argued that his heroin distribution amounted to exercising a “sincerely held religious belief.”  He also said he had no intention of stopping such distribution because to do so would compromise his religious faith.

The Eighth Circuit (correctly) rejected the claim and affirmed the conviction.  That seems unremarkable.  What is remarkable about the case, though, is that the court still required the Government to prove a compelling interest, and the use of the least restrictive means, under RFRA.  It is important, then, to remember the difference between the constitutional standard for religious exercise and the statutory standard that RFRA established.  The First Amendment standard remains governed by Employment Division v. Smith, which says that the Government need not satisfy strict scrutiny as long as it is applying a neutral and generally applicable law, even where the application of that law burdens religious exercise.  Under Smith, there is no question that application of the CSA to drug traffickers would be generally permissible, as having a rational basis.  RFRA, however, added a new layer to religious freedom law, increasing the Government’s burden.

Still, in Anderson, the Eighth Circuit said it had no difficulty finding a compelling interest, holding that “prosecuting Anderson under the CSA would further a compelling governmental interest in mitigating the risk that heroin will be diverted to recreational users.”  The chief ground for the court’s decision, then, was that Anderson distributed the heroin to those who were not sacramental users.  So note that even if Anderson has a sincere religious belief about the distribution of heroin, that belief is not enough to protect him once he distributes the drug to others for recreational use — the compelling interest relates to the end users, not Anderson himself.

Therefore, Anderson’s case is distinct from cases like Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, in which the Supreme Court affirmed a preliminary injunction granted to a Brazilian-based Christian sect that uses a sacramental tea (hoasca) during communion.  One of the ingredients in the tea is dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is a Schedule I controlled substance.  Customs officials intercepted the tea on its way to New Mexico, and threatened the church with prosecution.  But the Supreme Court affirmed an injunction on enforcement against the church, holding that the Government had failed to meet its burden under RFRA.  Consequently, rather than distinguish O Centro based on the comparative dangers of heroin as compared to hoasca (or peyote), the Eighth Circuit in Anderson instead distinguished O Centro on the ground that the heroin was not being distributed for sacramental usage.

What if, though, the end users claimed they were using the heroin for some sacramental purpose?  What if dealers, or co-conspirators in the trafficking, claimed that it was their understanding that the heroin would go only to those who would use it for sacramental purposes?

That, of course, is a very different case, but not one that is entirely unforeseeable. Indeed, the Eighth Circuit cited United States v. Christie, a Ninth Circuit case in which the operators of the “Hawaii Cannabis Ministry” distributed cannabis to its members (apparently, membership was not difficult to achieve).  But in that case, the ministry did not tell members that the cannabis was only for religious use, as opposed to recreational use.  What if it had?  If the Government has a compelling interest in preventing the use of cannabis for recreational, as opposed to religious, purposes, then doesn’t this require a fairly searching inquiry into the nature of the use and the sincerity of the user’s beliefs?  Otherwise, the Government could always simply say that there is a risk that even ostensible religious use would become recreational, and therefore carry its burden under RFRA, in light of Christie’s theory.  Indeed, the Anderson court noted that the district court in St. Louis did not evaluate the sincerity of Anderson’s religious beliefs, but rather assumed the sincerity of those beliefs and applied RFRA.

Is there a meaningful risk that drug traffickers and users will often, or increasingly, employ a religious-based defense to drug prosecutions, based on RFRA?  Probably not.  And even in cases in which RFRA is used as a tool for drug defendants, like Anderson, the Government’s interests in combating drug abuse are likely to carry the day.  Still, it is notable that statutory religious freedom law places the Government in such a defensive posture in serious drug cases.

Hat tip to IJ’s “Short Circuit” for spotting this one.