U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden, in a 24-page opinion on Monday, ruled that House Democrats lack standing to sue the Trump Administration over the diverting of billions of dollars to bypass Congress and build a border wall. This means that the suit is dismissed because McFadden cannot hear the merits of the dispute.
By way of background, President Donald Trump originally requested $5.7 billion in wall funding, of which Congress appropriated $1.375 billion toward constructing border fence projects. Trump declared a national emergency in February, claiming approximately $8 billion for his wall by redirecting approximately $600 million in Treasury Department forfeiture funds, $2.5 billion in Defense Department drug interdiction funds, and $3.6 billion from the military construction budget.
House Democrats responded by filing a lawsuit against the Trump Administration in April, contending that the president usurped Congress’ legislative authority by using an emergency declaration as a way to reappropriate border wall funding, despite Congress’s lack of approval. In the complaint, the House argued that Trump demonstrated “a shocking disregard” for the Constitution’s appropriations clause, which empowers Congress to distribute money from the Treasury.
The Department of Justice went on to argue that Congress lacked the authority to sue the president — period. McFadden made clear at the end of his opinion that this was not so, writing, “To be clear, the Court does not imply that Congress may never sue the Executive to protect its powers.” Despite that, McFadden ruled that Congress lacked “standing” to sue.
There are three parts to the standing test:
1) The plaintiff must have suffered an “injury in fact,” meaning that the injury is of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent
2) There must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct brought before the court
3) It must be likely, rather than speculative, that a favorable decision by the court will redress the injury
McFadden, a Trump-appointed judge, wrote that Congress failed the first part of the test (citations removed).
“To establish standing, the House must allege an injury that is ‘concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent; fairly traceable to the challenged action; and redressable by a favorable ruling,'” he wrote. “For an injury to be legally cognizable, the dispute must be ‘traditionally thought to be capable of resolution through the judicial process.’”
“The Administration concedes, and the Court agrees, that only the first prong of the standing analysis—injury that is concrete and particularized—is at issue here,” he continued. “Applying the ‘especially rigorous’ analysis required, the Court finds that the House has failed to allege such an injury. So the Court must deny the House’s motion.”
Along the way, McFadden did use some colorful language.
At various points you will find lines like “This is a case about whether one chamber of Congress has the ‘constitutional means’ to conscript the Judiciary in a political turf war with the President over the implementation of legislation”; “This slender reed will not sustain the House’s burden”; “The availability of institutional remedies also militates against finding that the House has standing”; “Congress has several political arrows in its quiver to counter perceived threats to its sphere of power.”
At another point, McFadden, pushing back against the idea that the House had demonstrated “injury,” noted that the House has “at least 50” ongoing investigations into the president, agencies etc., and can hold hearings on spending:
More still, the House can hold hearings on the Administration’s spending decisions. As it has recently shown, the House is more than capable of investigating conduct by the Executive. See, e.g., Alex Moe, House Investigations of Trump and his Administration: The Full List, NBC News (Mar. 27, 2019) (detailing “at least 50” ongoing House investigations into the President, federal agencies, and members of the Administration). And it has other tools it can use against Officers of the Executive Branch for perceived abuses of their authority.
“The availability of these institutional remedies”–and others–“shows that there is no ‘complete nullification’ of the House’s power,” McFadden wrote.
Some legal experts ahead of the curve on the standing issue have suggested that “similar roadblocks” may pop up again in other ongoing cases.
I've been trying to tell folks that standing will be problem in congressional lawsuits … keep an eye out for similar roadblocks in any House lawsuits to get Trump's tax returns, the unredacted Mueller report, and so on. https://t.co/yPqXYLjRXy
— Andy Grewal (@AndyGrewal) June 3, 2019
Jerry Lambe contributed to this report.
[Image via SAUL LOEB_AFP_Getty Images]