In a swift and sweeping win for House investigators, D.C. District Judge Amit P. Mehta denied the Trump administration’s attempt to quash a House Committee on Oversight and Reform for President Trump’s accounting records from 2011 forward from his accounting firm Mazars USA LLP.
The ruling can be digested down to four key passages:
Pg 3: The Court affirmed Congress’ broad oversight and investigatory authority.
Courts have grappled for more than a century with the question of the scope of Congress’ investigative power. The binding principle that emerges from these judicial decisions is that courts must presume Congress is acting in furtherance of its constitutional responsibility to legislate and must defer to congressional judgments about what Congress needs to carry out that purpose. To be sure, there are limits on Congress’s investigative authority. But those limits do not substantially constrain Congress. So long as Congress investigates on a subject matter on which “legislation could be had,” Congress acts as contemplated by Article I of the Constitution.
Applying those principles here compels the conclusion that President Trump cannot block the subpoena to Mazars. According to the Oversight Committee, it believes that the requested records will aid its consideration of strengthening ethics and disclosure laws, as well as amending the penalties for violating such laws. The Committee also says that the records will assist in monitoring the President’s compliance with the Foreign Emoluments Clauses. These are facially valid legislative purposes, and it is not for the court to question whether the Committee’s actions are truly motivated by political considerations. Accordingly, the court will enter judgment in favor of the Oversight Committee.
Pg 23-24: The Court rejects the President’s outrageous assertion that Congress could not investigate criminal conduct by the President.
Finally, a congressional investigation into “illegal conduct before and during [the President’s] tenure in office,” Cummings’ April 12th Mem. at 4, fits comfortably within the broad scope of Congress’s investigative powers. At a minimum, such an investigation is justified based on Congress’s “informing function,” that is, its power “to inquire into and publicize corruption,” Watkins, 354 U.S. at 200 n.33. It is simply not fathomable that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a President for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct—past or present—even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry. On this score, history provides a useful guide. Cf. Tobin v. United States, 306 F.2d 270, 275–76 (D.C. Cir. 1962) (relying on historical practice to determine the scope of a congressional investigation). Twice in the last 50 years Congress has investigated a sitting President for alleged law violations, before initiating impeachment proceedings. It did so in 1973 by establishing the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, better known as the Watergate Committee, and then did so again in 1995 by establishing the Special Committee to Investigate Whitewater Development Corporation and Related Matters. See S. Res. 60 (93rd Cong., 1st Session) (Feb. 7, 1973) [hereinafter Watergate Res.]; see also S. Res. 120 (104th Cong., 1st Session) (May 17, 1995). The former investigation included within its scope potential corruption by President Nixon while in office, while the latter concerned alleged illegal misconduct by President Clinton before his time in office. Congress plainly views itself as having sweeping authority to investigate illegal conduct of a President, before and after taking office. This court is not prepared to roll back the tide of history.
Pg 29-30: The Court explains that investigations into criminal conduct has often led to corrective legislation.
History has shown that congressionally-exposed criminal conduct by the President or a high-ranking Executive Branch official can lead to legislation. The Senate Watergate Committee provides an apt example. That Committee’s express mandate was to investigate “the extent, if any, to which illegal, improper, or unethical activities were engaged in by any persons, acting either individually or in combination with others, in the presidential election of 1972, or in any related campaign or canvass conducted by or [o]n behalf of any person seeking nomination or election as the candidate . . . for the office of President . . .” Watergate Res. at 1–2. As a consequence of the Committee’s work, Congress passed numerous pieces of legislation—among them, the Ethics in Government Act, the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, the War Powers Resolution, and the Independent Counsel Statute—with objectives to “open up the operation of the presidency to greater public oversight, subject the presidency to legal
checks by other branches or institutions of government and, more generally, impose rule of law principles to more and more types of presidential decision making.” Michael A. Fitts, The Legalization of the Presidency: A Twenty-Five Year Watergate Retrospective, 43 ST. LOUIS UNIV. LAW J. 725, 726 (1999). The Teapot Dome Scandal provides another illustration. That congressional investigation . . . motivated Congress to enact several good-government reforms, including the Revenue Act of 1924 and the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1925.
Pg 39: The Court refuses to grant stay pending appeal since Trump’s objections lack merit.
Plaintiffs have not shown that their challenge to the Mazars subpoena
presents “serious legal questions going to the merits, so serious, substantial, difficult as to make them a fair ground of litigation and thus for more deliberative investigation.” Population Inst. v. McPherson, 797 F.2d 1062, 1078 (D.C. Cir. 1986) (quoting Holiday Tours, 559 F.2d at 844). None of the three grounds upon which Plaintiffs challenge the subpoena rests on “potentially persuasive authority.” John Doe Co. v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 849 F.3d 1129, 1131 (D.C. Cir. 2017). Indeed, Plaintiffs have cited no case since Kilbourn from 1880 in which the Supreme Court or the D.C. Circuit has interfered with a congressional subpoena—because it either intrudes on the law enforcement prerogatives of the Executive or Judicial branches, seeks personal information unrelated to a legislative purpose, or demands records that lack “pertinency.” This case does not merit becoming the first in nearly 140 years
The full opinion is below.