A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday sided with House Democrats in their ongoing battle to obtain financial records relating to the Trump Organization’s lease of the Old Post Office building owned by the federal General Services Administration (GSA). The GSA leased the building to the president’s private business for a term of nearly 100 years and is currently the site of the Trump International Hotel.
In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that a minority bloc of lawmakers on the House Oversight and Reform Committee has standing to sue the executive agency for information demanded by at least seven members of the committee. Overturning a lower district court decision, the majority based its ruling on an obscure statute unique to the Oversight Committee that explicitly empowers a coalition of its members to utilize a subpoena-like power regardless of whether the group constitutes a majority of the panel.
The provision, 5 U.S.C. § 2954 was passed in 1927 and states in part [emphasis ours]:
An Executive agency, on request of the Committee on Government Operations of the House of Representatives [now the Committee on Oversight and Reform], or of any seven members thereof […] shall submit any information requested of it relating to any matter within the jurisdiction of the committee.
The lawsuit was initially filed more than three years ago when Republicans held a majority in the House and thus on the committee. Democrats on the panel sought documents to reveal “whether the office of the presidency [was] being used for private gain,” and why the GSA reversed its own interpretation of laws prohibiting elected officials from sharing in the benefits that may arise from its leases.
The Trump administration had argued that a minority of the committee lacked standing to sue an executive agency for withholding requested information.
“A rebuffed request for information to which the requester is statutorily entitled is a concrete, particularized, and individualized personal injury, within the meaning of Article III,” wrote Circuit Judge Patricia Millet, an appointee of Barack Obama. “That traditional form of injury is quite distinct from the non-cognizable, generalized injuries claimed by legislators that are tied broadly to the law-making process and that affect all legislators equally. And nothing in Article III erects a categorical bar against legislators suing to enforce statutorily created informational rights against federal agencies.”
Millet, joined by Circuit Judge David Tatel (a Bill Clinton appointee), also emphasized the separation of powers dynamics at play in failing to enforce a law dictating the relationship between the legislature and the executive branch.
“The separation of powers, it must be remembered, is not a one-way street that runs to the aggrandizement of the Executive Branch,” Millet wrote. “When the Political Branches duly enact a statute that confers a right, the impairment of which courts have long recognized to be an Article III injury, proper adherence to the limited constitutional role of the federal courts favors judicial respect for and recognition of that injury.”
Senior Circuit Judge Douglas Ginsburg, a Ronald Reagan appointee, penned a dissent declaring that the majority’s decision would have disastrous consequences and lead to harassment of executive agencies.
“The consequences of allowing a handful of members to enforce in court demands for Executive Branch documents without regard to the wishes of the House majority are sure to be ruinous,” Ginsburg wrote. “Judicial enforcement of requests under § 2954 will allow the minority party (or even an ideological fringe of the minority party) to distract and harass Executive agencies and their most senior officials; as the district court said, it would subject the Executive to ‘the caprice of a restless minority of Members.’”
Read the full ruling below:
[image via YouTube screengrab]
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