Helpful commentary on the constitutionality of Syrian airstrikes

Despite the relative popularity of the President’s use of airstrikes last week in Syria, the argument continues as to whether the President’s action was constitutionally problematic.  The Congress has not debated, much less approved, a new authorization for force in Syria, whether against the Syrian government or ISIL (and it is notable that we have now taken hostile action against both sides of the conflict there).  And there is no question that the President could not rely upon the existing AUMFs for last week’s airstrikes.  Therefore, his only reservoir of power for this action is Article II of the Constitution.  The President’s report to the Congress pursuant to the War Powers Act is here.

The folks at Lawfare have typically excellent commentary on the matter.

John Bellinger’s piece on the War Powers Report is here.

Andrew Kent’s piece is here (with a good discussion of originalist views on war powers allocation).

Jack Goldsmith’s piece is here.

If the President has a longer-term military strategy in Syria, his ability to engage there without approval from Congress is, legally, probably substantially limited.  But because a federal court is unlikely to police the allocation of constitutional war powers, it is for Congress to defend its own prerogatives.  Even without seeing a plan from the President, Congress should long ago have been debating the American military role in the Syrian conflict, or, at a minimum, the scope of presidential powers to attack ISIL.  As long as Congress remains silent, however, it will continue to send a signal to this and other Presidents that it acquiesces in any military action.  It is possible that members of Congress are reluctant to take a position on the use of force abroad, fearing being stuck with their vote if the mission goes poorly.  But the use of American military force — and the blood and treasure of the American people — is not a matter on which the legislative branch should be perpetually silent.

 

Is Russia an “enemy”?

The NYT posted an intriguing opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof this week, comparing the Trump-Russia controversy with the controversy over revelations that President Nixon tried to sabotage diplomatic efforts to end the Vietnam War.  Kristof explores the Trump campaign’s Russia connections, conceding that no smoking gun yet exists but piling up the circumstantial evidence as he makes the case for a robust investigation.  He asks, straightforwardly: “Was there treason?”  He ends by quoting historian Douglas Brinkley, who recently said, “There’s a smell of treason in the air.”

Let’s concede that the matter is still wide open, and that no direct evidence of criminality or collusion has yet been made public, if it exists.  But let us take the theory in its current incarnation: operatives associated with the Trump campaign, the theory goes, may have colluded with Russian operatives to obtain and disseminate information about Hillary Clinton that would weaken her candidacy and strengthen Trump’s chances of winning (or, to be more precise, strengthen Clinton’s chances of losing, which is what Russia really wanted).  This may have been done on Trump’s own orders, or with his knowledge (or, at a minimum, his willful blindness).  It may have even involved complicity in broader Russian efforts to affect our political system.  In other words, this theory of the case goes, the Trump campaign may have colluded with agents of an adversarial foreign power to win an election and assist that foreign power in getting the result it desired.

If this theory — and it is as yet only conjecture — plays out as true, then Kristof’s question is a compelling one.  Is this treason?  I have written before that treason is an oft-used epithet, often describing conduct that is serious and compromises American security or values in some way, but is not — legally speaking — treasonous.  Recall that Article III of the Constitution tells us that American treason consists only of levying war against the United States, or adhering to its enemies, giving them aid and comfort.  Although one can argue about the ways in which modern warfare has changed, as a matter of original understanding of the Constitution, I think it unlikely that we would say this kind of collusion constitutes “levying war.”  The only other option then, is what I have called “Adherence Treason,” the giving of aid and comfort to the enemy, with the intent to betray the United States.

Let’s assume, purely hypothetically, that Trump, or someone from his team, provided assistance to the Russians in their efforts to influence the presidential campaign.  And let us assume that they did so with the intent to betray the United States, presumably by undermining the processes of American democracy to the benefit of a private individual (Trump) and of the Russian government, whose leadership despised Clinton and did not want Clinton to win the presidency.  This leaves a critical problem if “treason” is the right description of what occurred: is Russia an enemy of the United States?

Aiding a foreign power may violate some other law, but it is not “treason” unless the aid is given with an intent to betray the United States and the foreign power is an “enemy.”  My current research is exploring this problem, though I confess that when I began exploring it, I did so in the context of the Islamic State and al Qaeda, wondering whether the original understanding of “enemy” in the Treason Clause included non-state actors or those against whom no formal declaration of war has been issued.  We have not formally declared war against ISIL.  Indeed, we have not even debated (much less passed) a new authorization for the use of force to target ISIL (we should do that).  But we have engaged in hostile action against ISIL, and it has engaged in hostile action against us.  Perhaps that is enough to make ISIL an “enemy” and to prosecute for treason those with allegiance to us who give aid and comfort to ISIL.

But what about Russia?  We have had a diplomatic relationship with Russia (though that relationship has recently been a frosty one, it seems) and are not engaged in military violence or other hostilities against the Russians.  Yet senior American law enforcement, intelligence, and military leaders confirm that Russia is an “adversary” of the United States.  Defense Secretary James Mattis made such an observation earlier this year (see here), before he joined the cabinet.  Just this past week, at the House Intelligence Committee hearing during which FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers testified, both men acknowledged that Russia is an adversary of the United States.  The critical question for purposes of the Treason Clause, though, is whether an “adversary” is the same thing as an “enemy.”

The modern dictionary makes these two words synonyms, as does Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 (see here). But does the Constitution?  Are armed hostilities necessary to make a foreign power an “enemy”?  Does the Constitution account for the modern ways in which non-violent action by a foreign power can corrupt and harm American persons and institutions?  Perhaps this is an example of how the original public meaning of a word, as of 1787, can still apply to contemporary problems.

I sympathize with those wishing to further explore the Trump campaign’s relationships with the Russian government, or with private individuals working under the influence of the Russian government.  I also think such an investigation should fully explore the intelligence, military, diplomatic, and criminal law consequences of any such relationships that are uncovered.  Of course, maybe there is no there there.  But even if there is, whether such conduct would constitute treason depends upon satisfying the constitutionally-defined elements of that offense.  To make it treason, we must be prepared to identify Russia not just as an adversary, but as an “enemy,” as that term is understood not just in common parlance but in the Constitution.  I suspect that many Americans and American political leaders are prepared to say this.  But is the Trump Administration?

 

Would the Speech or Debate Clause protect a sitting Senator in confirmation hearings for a Cabinet post?

With the news that at least one poll shows a majority of Americans believe that Attorney General Jeff Sessions committed perjury and should resign, the question of General Sessions’s criminality has not yet entirely died, though it has weakened significantly since the President’s tweet about being “wiretapped” by President Obama.  As I explained previously here, I am confident that no prosecution will result.  Still, the lingering question about whether he lied to Congress and what his answers meant raises — as I mentioned last time — another interesting issue: because he was a United States Senator when he met with the Russian Ambassador, and when he testified at his confirmation hearings, would the Speech or Debate Clause of Article I, section 6 protect him from prosecution arising from his confirmation testimony?

To be clear, I think he is safe from prosecution, but for other reasons.  So here is my admittedly quick and ugly Speech or Debate Clause analysis.  Steven Calabresi has a very good piece here at The Hill, and Michael Stern has a characteristically thoughtful piece here at Point of Order.  I could be wrong about this particular constitutional problem, so, as always, I welcome other wisdom.

The Speech or Debate Clause says that for “any Speech or Debate in either House,” a Representative or Senator “shall not be questioned in any other place.”  It covers more than floor speeches, but it only protects “legitimate legislative activity,” according to the Supreme Court.  Activities beyond floor speeches, “must be an integral part of the deliberative and communicative processes” by which Senators and representatives fulfill their constitutional functions.  See Hutchinson v. Proxmire.  It is arguable that when then-Senator Sessions met with the Russian Ambassador in Cleveland, this was not a legislative act protected by the Clause.  That, of course, might depend upon what they discussed, which we do not know.  But a stronger argument exists that the meeting in Sessions’s Senate office was covered by the Speech or Debate Clause to the extent that it related to his work on the Armed Services Committee or otherwise to American foreign policy.  Of course, as the Court said in Gravel v. United States, not every act that is performed by a Senator or Representative, even in his official capacity, is a protected act.  See also United States v. Brewster.  But let us assume for the sake of this piece that each meeting was within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity covered by Article I, section 6.

Then there is the question of his testimony: would his testimony before the Judiciary Committee be protected?  I think not, because his testimony before the committee did not constitute an integral part of his legislative functions as a Senator.  So while his questioners would be protected because they were fulfilling their constitutional role of advice and consent, Sessions’s statements before committee were unrelated to his constitutional role as a Senator and therefore not “legitimate legislative acts.”

So here’s the problem: the Sessions controversy does not concern a prosecution for the meetings themselves; it concerns his testimony about those meetings.  Could it be, then, that as long as an activity is within the scope of the Speech or Debate Clause, a Representative or Senator does not have to truthfully answer questions about that activity under oath in a congressional committee?

It’s a complicated issue.  First, the Clause is essentially a separation of powers provision.  It protects the legislative branch against vindictive or abusive prosecutions by the executive branch.  See Gravel.  It also constitutionalizes a testimonial privilege, id., so that even the judiciary cannot compel a Senator or Representative to give over testimony or evidence arising from his or her legitimate legislative acts.  But in the Sessions case, the questioning was not done by the other branches.  It was done by the Senate itself.  Not only do the words “any other place” suggest that the Clause does not forbid questioning by the legislative branch, the separation of powers concerns underlying the Clause also suggest that the Clause should be read to limit only the executive and judicial branches from questioning members of Congress.

So one plausible reading of the Clause, based on both text and history, is that it does not forbid a Senator from questioning another Senator about his or her legislative acts and using those answers as a ground for decision-making.

This raises the next problem: while it is true that the initial questioning was done by the legislative branch, a perjury or false statements prosecution would be done by the executive, and would use his answers about a legislative act as evidence.  Is that forbidden?  This is much trickier.

The Court has said that the Clause would be undermined by admitting against a Senator or Representative evidence that references a past legislative act.  See United States v. Helstoski.  Still, if my premise above is correct, then one could argue that the evidence of Sessions’s alleged criminality derives from a proceeding in which he lacked the protection of the Speech or Debate Clause.  Again, using this line of argument, he had no testimonial privilege under the Clause when answering either Senator Franken’s question or Senator Leahy’s.  Therefore, on this line of argument, his answers to those questions — quite apart from the substance of his meetings with the Ambassador —  should be admissible against him.  I confess, though, this is a harder problem because it means using evidence (his testimony) concerning a presumptively (for these purposes) legislative act, which the Supreme Court has expressly forbidden.  If his meetings with the ambassador were legislative acts, then there is a good chance, as others have argued, that the Clause would forbid the Justice Department from using any evidence about those meetings, even derivative use.

A final question arises, though it is a different one than I have addressed above: can the Speech or Debate Clause protection be waived?  If his activities were protected, did Sessions waive the privilege by voluntarily testifying about those activities?  The Supreme Court assumed, without deciding, in Helstoski, that the Clause could be waived.  But the Court said even if a waiver is appropriate in this context, it requires “explicit and unequivocal renunciation” of the Clause’s protection.  See Helstoski (also describing the standard as “clear and unambiguous”).

In Attorney General Sessions’s case, if the above analysis is correct, it might be unnecessary to decide whether he waived the privilege because, at least in the Judiciary Committee, he did not have its protection in the first place (and thus there was nothing to waive).  But in an ordinary legal proceeding in which he was subject to questioning (under oath or not), or investigation, what would such a waiver look like?  Based on the language in Helstoski, it would seem not encompass implied waivers (such as in the Miranda context; in fact, the standard is more like invocation, rather than waiver, in the Miranda context).  So if, arguendo, Sessions had the protection of the Clause, merely agreeing to answer questions would not be adequate for a waiver of Speech or Debate protection.  He would have to offer a clear and unambiguous statement that he was not relying on the protections of Article I, section 6.

Still, the threshold question is the most important one: were Sessions’ meetings with the ambassador legitimate legislative acts?  To know that, in this context, we would have to have evidence of what was discussed.  Barring testimony from someone else, or some other evidence, it is almost as if, to establish protection under the Clause, Sessions would have to agree to reveal the substance of the meetings.  In other words, Sessions would have to agree to waive the Speech or Debate privilege in order to assert its protections.  To avoid this dilemma, it might be better to simply start with the presumption that the meetings were covered by the Clause — but nothing in the Supreme Court’s cases suggests that such a presumption applies to any and all acts by a sitting member of either house.

Again, this problem is of mostly academic interest, for now.  Still, given the frequency with which members of Congress are nominated for Administration posts, it is a problem worth considering in future confirmation hearings.

The Sessions controversy, or, why mens rea is so important in the criminal law

What had the potential to be a corner-turning week for the President was marred late Wednesday, and for the last few days, by revelations that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, while a Senator, met on two occasions with the Russian Ambassador during the 2016 election.  This was newsworthy because first, there is concern that perhaps Sessions had conversations about the campaign, the election, or a future Trump foreign policy; and second, Attorney General Sessions had claimed during his Senate testimony, and in written responses to questions, that he did not have any contact with Russian officials during the campaign.  While General Sessions has now recused himself from certain Russia-related investigations, some Democrats are calling for his resignation.  Others are saying he may have committed a crime.  Before Democrats savor the opportunity to chant “Lock Him Up!,” consider the applicable criminal laws more closely.

Is it a crime to give false or misleading testimony to a congressional committee?  Yes, and no.  Two statutes are relevant.  One is the general perjury statute, 18 U.S.C. 1621, which prohibits “willfully” giving a statement under oath that the witness “does not believe to be true.”  It is punishable by up to five years in prison.  The other statute is the false statements statute, 18 U.S.C. 1001.  Section 1001 provides that whoever, “in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch” of the federal Government “knowingly and willfully . . . makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” or “makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry” commits an offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

So, to be precise, it is a crime to give a false statement to a congressional committee (whether or not under oath), but only where the statement is made knowingly and willfully.  Statements made with a faulty memory, or when the witness is confused about what is being asked, or that are simply mistaken, are not criminal.  See United States v. Dunnigan (with respect to perjury).  That is why the context and circumstances in which these statements are made matter a great deal, because they bear directly on Sessions’s state of mind and thus the mens rea elements of the statutes.

General Sessions appears now to be claiming that he believed that the questions he was asked referred only to whether he met with the Russian Ambassador about the campaign — that is, other than in his capacity as a Senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee.  General Sessions has claimed that he could not recall the substance of the conversations (strange, given the other details he seemed to remember; and if he cannot recall the substance of the conversation, how does he know he did not discuss the campaign or the election?).  Still, if his assertion now is made in good faith, that would likely be enough to negate the mens rea of the perjury and false statements statutes, meaning those provisions could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

That is probably the likely result here.  It is not unusual for a witness to give statements before a congressional committee, or during a government investigation, that may be misleading or incomplete.  Giving the witness an opportunity to walk back, and explain, the statement more fully should usually be sufficient to satisfy the investigating entity in Congress, unless some intervening harm has been done by the earlier statement (and that does not appear to be the case here).    It is therefore exceedingly rare that someone will be prosecuted for lying to Congress.  That is typically less true when applying section 1001 in the context of a criminal investigation being conducted by a law enforcement agency, and section 1001 is often used as a basis for prosecution.  Moreover, as the Supreme Court held in Brogan v. United States, section 1001’s text does not leave room for an “exculpatory no.”  Still, federal prosecutors must consider the strength and plausibility of the defendant’s explanation of what he believed he was being asked, in light of all of the surrounding circumstances.  And in many cases — including this one — the explanation will not be an implausible one.

One may not accept General Sessions’ after-the-fact explanation as being truthful, but if it is, he is not guilty of a crime.  Of course, there are two very distinct possible explanations here: is it that, at the time, Senator Sessions did not remember his meetings with the Ambassador, or that he remembered but did not think those meetings were covered by the questions asked?  Either explanation could serve as a basis for avoiding criminal liability.  But note that those are very different explanations, and both cannot be true.

One other issue has arisen, though it would be relevant only if we are seriously talking about a federal prosecution here (which, again, I think is highly unlikely).  Would then-Senator Sessions be protected in committee by the Speech or Debate Clause of Article I, section 6 of the Constitution?  More on that in a subsequent post.

It seems unlikely that Sessions is at the heart of the Russia-contacts controversy.  Making him a target may be satisfying to those who did not want him to be AG in the first place, but it likely will not yield much.  A better rabbit hole to explore might be this: did anyone in the campaign or the Trump transition instruct, command, induce, or request that staff and officials deny contacts with the Russians if they are ever asked?  If so, the range of potential criminality with in the Administration could greatly expand.  Will an investigation pursue that question?

Judge Gorsuch and the “mainstream”

There is plenty of commentary on Judge Neil Gorsuch, the President’s nominee for the Supreme Court.  I won’t repeat it here.  The President has had a rough couple of weeks, but last night he stopped the bleeding, even if only temporarily.  Judge Gorsuch appears to be an excellent, if rather conventional, choice.  Chalk one up for the hated Establishment.

Now the fun part begins.  Democrats are already promising a filibuster, which will no doubt prompt Republicans to consider the Nuclear Option against which they so aggressively argued in the past.  Hypocrisy will be alleged on each side.  We have seen this movie repeatedly.

But be on the lookout for the following term: “mainstream.”  Democrats will likely say that they are concerned with whether Judge Gorsuch’s views and decisions are outside of the “mainstream.”  And this will become a convenient rhetorical tool for opposition on the merits.  But, “mainstream” as compared to what?  As compared to the views of Liberals?  As compared to the decisions of William Brennan or Ruth Bader Ginsburg?  As compared to all circuit judges?  As compared to other judges on his circuit?

Federal appeals court judges do not have the same law development function that Supreme Court Justices do.  Except when addressing issues of first impression, federal appeals court judges are typically bound both by Supreme Court precedent, and the precedent of their circuits.  Moreover, circuit precedent can vary from one circuit to another.  What is the accepted rule of law in one circuit may not be the rule followed in another circuit.  There is no question that Judge Gorsuch has reached results with which the Left will disagree.  But that cannot possibly be the test of whether a judge’s views are extremist or radical.  Very often legal precedent dictates, or at least points strongly in the direction of, a result that will be contrary to the preferred views of the legal Left.  So if the “mainstream” is important (and, as I say, we must determine what that means), then it is important to ask, among other questions, whether Judge Gorsuch’s work is within the “mainstream” of existing decisional law from the Supreme Court and his own circuit.

Furthermore, this hardly seems like a standard that Senate Democrats would follow faithfully.  For example, Thurgood Marshall held the view that the death penalty was in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment. That view was so far outside of the mainstream of American legal thought, only one other Justice in the history of the Supreme Court at the time actually agreed with it (Brennan).  Of course, over time, the view has gained greater adherence, but is still a minority view in the judiciary.  Are we to believe that Senator Schumer, for example, would have opposed Thurgood Marshall’s nomination to the Court?

Other Democrats may oppose Judge Gorsuch as simple revenge for the Republican-controlled Senate’s failure to consider Merrick Garland last year.  I covered that ground after Garland’s nomination, here and here and here. Of course, Democrats may forget that it was their Party that was complicit in a similar act earlier in the Court’s history.  Justice Robert Trimble died in 1828, and President John Quincy Adams nominated Whig U.S. Attorney John Crittenden to replace Trimble.  But before Crittenden could be confirmed, Adams lost re-election to Democrat Andrew Jackson, and the Jackson supporters in the Senate refused to confirm Crittenden during the lame-duck period.  Instead, President Jackson eventually filled the seat in 1829 with Postmaster General John McLean (and to add insult to injury, removed Crittenden as U.S. Attorney; McLean would later write a famous dissent in Dred Scott v. Sandford).  That historical note aside, however, it is hard to see how one can oppose Judge Gorsuch now simply by arguing that the seat should have been filled by Judge Garland last year.  And if the result on this nomination process angers Democratic voters, perhaps they will remember that the next time they have to decide whether to get to the polls on Election Day.

Finally, beware the “Robert Bork’s America” attack.  This refers to Senator Edward Kennedy’s notorious slander of Judge Bork on the Senate floor, and represents a now all-too-conventional method for opposing a nominee: recite a hyperbolic litany of horrific results for vulnerable people if the nominee is confirmed, not the least of which will be a return to “back-alley abortions.”  (Of course, it is hard to see how the “back-alley abortions” claim works here, as there would still be a 5-vote majority on the Court for abortion rights; Justice Scalia’s death did not affect the Court’s alignment on that issue).  This kind of rhetoric is among the lowest forms of political dissent from a nomination, and it is this kind of rhetoric that should be considered out of the mainstream.  But don’t count it out this time.

Given the anger and impressive mobilization of the political Left in light of President Trump’s ascendancy, Senate Democrats will likely slouch toward any argument they can muster to oppose Judge Gorsuch, who surely knows of the bloody battle that is coming.  None of it is his fault, and he is likely to survive it anyway.   But “out of the mainstream”?  Hardly.

 

Day One

I have gone quiet for awhile.  It seems like everything I could say has been said by the various talking heads throughout the 24-hour news cycle.  And my work responsibilities have prevented me from having much time to write, here or elsewhere.  But a few thoughts might be appropriate here on Inauguration Day.

I never voted for Barack Obama.  I believed John McCain and Mitt Romney to be better suited to the presidency, and I had too many disagreements with Obama on substance.  But I never understood why Republicans treated him with such disdain and disrespect.  I attribute most of that to the bare-knuckle, zero-sum game of American politics in which every member of the opposing party must be painted, characterized, demonized, and rejected.  I think very little of that brand of politics, and regret that it dominates so much of American life today.  I also think President Obama did little to endear himself to Republicans, especially in the early years when the Blame Bush strategy seemed to be stamped to his team’s every move.  Still, President Obama was an elegant, thoughtful, intelligent man who brought his own brand of gravitas to the office.  I agreed with him at times; disagreed more often.  But he tackled difficult moments with grace and understanding, and demonstrated respect for his office and his role in American life.  In turn, he has earned the respect and gratitude of Americans, even those of us who questioned and criticized him at times.

I am hopeful that President Trump will embrace the constitutional presidency, even more strongly than did his predecessor.  Day One did not raise my confidence in that.  His uninspiring inaugural address made no mention – not one – of the Constitution, or even of the Congress (constitutional references were a regular practice among early inaugural addresses, but have been largely abandoned by contemporary chief executives).  “America First” is a catchy campaign slogan but it is not a policy.  More importantly, it conveys no relationship of the president to his place in our system of constitutional government, nor does it convey anything about the role of constitutional government in securing liberty, justice, and tolerable order for the American people to whom the President pledged his loyalty.  He said his oath was an oath of allegiance to all Americans, but neglected to note that it is chiefly an oath of fidelity to the Constitution.  The address was not memorable, at least not for the right reasons.

The most important thing that happened on November 8 was not the election of Donald Trump, important as that was.  Rather, it was the election of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.  The President’s pre-inaugural actions, including his cabinet choices, would perhaps have looked much different if Democrats had won one or both chambers.  The burden is now on congressional Republicans to assert the prerogatives of their respective institutions, rather than serve as errand boys for the President.  Standing up to the President will be much easier if the President’s approval numbers remain low.  Their challenge will be to defend their own institutional roles even if the President becomes more popular.  The meaning of the Constitution does not change with the President’s poll numbers.

President Trump has the chance to deploy his notorious private charm in service of the presidency’s soft powers, persuading allies and adversaries alike.  That can be useful.  But he should not confuse the soft powers of the office with the hard ones, those set forth in the formal arrangements of the Constitution.  And it is his fidelity to those arrangements – rather than his Party affiliation – that conservative constitutionalists, and congressional Republicans, should be giving their attention.

 

The rise of Joan Larsen

I learned over the past year or so that predicting Donald Trump’s next move is often a fruitless exercise. I therefore will not venture a definitive prediction about Trump’s upcoming pick for the Supreme Court.  Instead, I will simply say this: keep an eye on Justice Joan Larsen of the Michigan Supreme Court.

In some ways, Justice Larsen looks like an obvious choice to fill Justice Scalia’s seat.  She clerked for Scalia (and David Sentelle on the D.C. Circuit), she is a high-profile Republican lawyer who also served in the last Bush Administration, and her appointment would represent one more notable appointment for a Michigander, as Michigan was key to securing Trump’s election — Betsy DeVos (Education) is also from Michigan, and Ben Carson (HUD) grew up here.  And she is comparatively young (48).

In other ways, though Justice Larsen might not fit the mold to which we have become accustomed, her appointment would represent a welcome change.  Justice Larsen would break the Harvard/Yale stranglehold on the Court.  She went to law school at Northwestern, where she was first in her class and won several prestigious awards.  Notably, she received her undergraduate degree from Northern Iowa, which would make her the only Justice besides Justice Thomas not to have a bachelor’s degree from either Stanford or an Ivy League school (Thomas has a bachelor’s from the excellent Holy Cross).  So her appointment would certainly diversify the educational backgrounds of the current Court.  Moreover, like Scalia (and Elena Kagan, on the current Court) she brings the background of a full-time law professor (she taught at Michigan).

Of course, one might consider it a strike against her that she does not serve on a federal court.  Federal courts have generally been the proving ground for every appointment since Sandra Day O’Connor, the last appointee to serve on a state court but never a federal court (David Souter served on the New Hampshire Supreme Court, but then served on the First Circuit; Justice Kagan never served as a judge on any court; William Rehnquist had never served as a judge before his initial appointment, but became Chief Justice after 14 years as an associate justice).  But that is all the more reason to see Justice Larsen as a potential pick: Trump likes to buck trends and conventional wisdom.  Still, in addition to her impressive federal clerkships, she served as a deputy assistant at the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and worked at Sidley & Austin, so she has high-level federal law practice experience on her resume.  Indeed, the combination of federal and state experience might make her even more desirable.

Of course, it remains true that the likes of judges Diane Sykes and Bill Pryor will continue to garner the lion’s share of attention.  But regardless of who it is that ultimately gets the nod for the Court, it is important to remember two other positions that Trump must fill that also can help to shape the Administration’s approach to constitutional law.  Trump will need to pick a Solicitor General and the head of OLC.  Given Justice Larsen’s previous time as a DAAG at OLC, her background in separation of powers questions, and her current work on a state supreme court, she might be regarded as a good fit for either position.  Indeed, President-elect Trump needs to be surrounded by lawyers with, shall we say, heightened knowledge of separation of powers and constitutional structure.  And whoever gets SG could be naturally well-positioned for the next SCOTUS opening, should it occur during Trump’s term.  So even if Justice Larsen is not Trump’s pick for Scalia’s seat, she remains an attractive choice for other key legal positions in the Administration.

Trump would be wise to make his pick soon.  Place the Senate in the position of having to confirm the Cabinet and the SCOTUS pick all at once.  Senate Democrats will have limited political capital, and will need to decide where to use it: the appointments for State, EPA, Justice?  Or the Court?  So long as Trump’s SCOTUS pick is sensible and well-qualified, Democrats may be willing to forego a fight over the Court and focus their resources on a couple of picks for the Cabinet.

Again, this is not a prediction, just an observation: watch for the rise of Justice Joan.