Possible Amendments to the New Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) 

As reported in a prior post, on September 28, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly voted to override President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) even though the Chair (Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN)) and Ranking Member (Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., MD)) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senator Diane Feinstein expressed deep reservations about the wisdom of this law.

Immediately after the adoption of this law, Senator Corker and others expressed desires to change the new law.[1] Let us look at these concerns and efforts to amend JASTA.

Certain Senators’ Concerns

Senator Corker said he thought the issues could be addressed in the “lame-duck” /Senator session of Congress after the November election and that possible fixes included limiting the bill’s scope just to the Sept. 11 attacks, changing some of the technical definitions or thresholds in the bill and establishing a tribunal of experts who ‘could first determine if there was culpability there.’”

Without specifics Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said there could be “potential consequences” of JASTA that are “worth further discussing.” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Congress might have to “fix” the legislation to protect U.S. troops in particular. Trent Lott, a former Republican Senate Majority Leader and now a lobbyist for the Saudis, said, “I do feel passionately this is a mistake for a variety of reasons, in terms of threats to troops, diplomats, sovereignty, there’s serious problems here. Hopefully we can find a way to change the tenor of this.”

 Saudi Arabia’s Reactions

On October 3 Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet released a statement criticizing the adoption of JASTA.[2] It said the new law was “a source of concern to the international community in which relations are based on the principle of equality and sovereign immunity, as this law came to weaken the immunity of the world guaranteed by the United Nations, its agencies and councils which were formed to preserve the legal sovereignty of all its member countries across the universe. Weakening this sovereign immunity will affect all countries, including the United States. [The cabinet] expressed hope that wisdom will prevail and that the U.S. Congress would take the necessary steps to avoid the bad and dangerous consequences that may result from the JASTA legislation.”

On October 20 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Afterwards the two of them held a joint announcement at the State Department.[3] With respect to JASTA, Kerry said:

  • We “did discuss [JASTA’s] very negative impact on the concept of sovereign immunity. And the interests of . . . [the U.S.] are at risk as a result of the law that was passed in Congress in the final days. And we discussed ways to try to fix this in a way that respects and honors the needs and rights of victims of 9/11 but at the same time does not expose American troops and American partners and American individuals who may be involved in another country to the potential of a lawsuit for those activities. Sovereign immunity is a longstanding, well-upheld standard of law, and unfortunately this legislation – unintentionally, I think – puts it at great risk and thereby puts our country at great risk. So we’re talking about ways to try to address that.”

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s comments about JASTA were the following:

  • “I . . . want to add my voice to what the Secretary said about the importance of sovereign immunities. Sovereign immunities have been a cardinal principle of the international legal order that was established after the Treaty of Westphalia in the 1600s. The objective is to bring order to the international system. And where sovereign immunities are diluted, the international system becomes chaotic, and no country, and no government, is able to conduct its official business without having to worry about lawsuits. The United States, as the country with the biggest footprint in the world, of course has the most to lose by this, because you have operations all the way from Japan to South America to the Pacific, and I think that is why the vast majority of countries have come out vehemently and very strongly against . . . JASTA . . . for its dilution of sovereign immunities. And there have been a number of countries that are looking at reciprocal measures, and if this issue takes hold, we will have chaos in the international order, and this is something that no country in the world wants.”

However, neither gentleman provided details about so-called “fixes for JASTA.

Moreover, there already are “9/11 lawsuits” brought by 9,000 plaintiffs against Saudi Arabia consolidated in federal court in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan that had been dismissed, but will be resurrected under JASTA. Already there is talk about potential discovery and other pre-trial activity in the cases. This includes plaintiffs’ efforts to reinstate Saudi Arabia as a defendant. And on September 30 a new Sept. 11 lawsuit against Saudi Arabia was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the widow and daughter of a Navy officer killed in the attack on the Pentagon.

However, Raj Bhala, a professor of international and comparative law at the University of Kansas Law School, opines that the “deck remains stacked against the plaintiffs” with their biggest challenge: persuading a court there is solid evidence of a direct Saudi government role in the 9/11 attacks.[4]

Other Reactions

On October 10 China’s Foreign Ministry said China opposes all forms of terrorism and supports the international community on anti-terrorism cooperation, but that such efforts should “respect international law and principles of international relations, including fundamental principles of nations’ sovereign equality.” Therefore, every country “should not put . . . [its] domestic laws above international law and should not link terrorism with any specific country, religion or ethnicity.” The Foreign Ministry also noted that China’s people and assets at home and around the world face a growing risk from terrorism, but it has a foreign policy of non-interference in other countries’ affairs.[5]

Many other countries oppose JASTA. France considers that laws such as JASTA would lead to a “legal chaos” at the international level. Russia has slammed the legislation as undermining international law. Turkey views JASTA as a law against the principle of individual criminal responsibility for crimes and expects it would be reversed shortly. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry warned that JASTA could have a dire effect on US international relations.[6]

Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said JASTA was an example of “legislative fecklessness.” Immediately after the bill’s passage, Republican congressional leaders talked about the need to “fix” the bill and tried to blame President Obama for the problems by falsely claiming he had not made a strong case against the bill. But the president had vetoed the bill, publicly articulated the reasons for the veto and personally and through Administration officials had warned congressional leaders about the adverse implications of the bill. Thus, a “’stupid bill’ that adversely affects American national interests is now law.”[7]

A New York Times editorial, agreeing with Professor Drezner, said that the adoption of the bill over a presidential veto, was a new example of congressional “craven incompetence” and that JASTA should be repealed. A Wall Street Journal editorial also called for repeal.[8]

Conclusion

The only specific suggestions of ways to “fix” JASTA that I have seen are Senator Corker’s. The idea of creating a new tribunal presumably to assess whether a specific state has sponsored or aided and abetted acts of terrorism in the U.S. sounds too complicated, but there are not enough details about such an idea to have a detailed response. The same is the case for his other suggestion about changing some of the technical definitions or thresholds in the bill. The idea of limiting the law to 9/11, however, might be a way to see how such a law works out in practice before it is expanded to include any other situation as the law now stands.

Instead, I offer the following initial suggestions for amending JASTA on the assumption that repeal is not currently feasible:

  1. Assign exclusive jurisdiction over all civil actions under JASTA to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and require or suggest that all such cases be assigned to a designated District Judge. That will assist the U.S. Departments of State and Justice, the White House and foreign governments in monitoring any such actions and eliminate the risk of inconsistent decisions at the District Court level and at the level of the federal courts of appeal. There is no reason to have any other federal courts involved in such cases and absolutely no reason to have any state courts so involved.
  2. Make the U.S. Government a necessary party to any such civil action.
  3. There should be limitations on permissible pre-trial discovery in such cases. Here is one way to do so. After answers to any complaint in any such civil action have been served and filed and before any other proceedings in the case, require the U.S. Government to provide its opinion as to whether the foreign state in any such case has sponsored or aided and abetted any acts of terrorism in the U.S. If the U.S. Government states that the foreign state has not sponsored or aided and abetted any act of terrorism in the U.S., then the civil action should be dismissed. If the U.S. Government states that the foreign state has so sponsored or aided and abetted, then the case should proceed to assess damages with appropriate discovery. If the U.S. Government states that it does not know whether the foreign state has so sponsored or aided and abetted, then the U.S. Government should propose a plan for discovery in the case to attempt to resolve that question as quickly and as inexpensively as possible with a prohibition of any discovery that is not included in such a plan.

Now we wait to see what bills will be introduced in Congress to amend JASTA.

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[1] Reuters, U.S. Lawmakers May change Sept. 11 Law After Rejecting Veto, N.Y. times (Sept. 30, 2016); Peterson & Lee, Congress Looks to Narrow Bill Allowing Terror Victims to Sue Foreign Governments, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

[2] Reuters, U.S. Sept. 11 Law Weakens International Relations, Saudi Cabinet Says, N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2016); Saudi Press Agency, Press Release regarding JASTA (Oct. 4, 2016); Hubbard, Angered by 9/11 Victims Law, Saudis Rethink U.S. Alliance, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2016).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Remarks with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir After Their Meeting (Oct. 20, 2016) Reuters, U.S. Urges Houthis to Keep Ceasefire, Discusses JASTA With Saudi, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2016). No additional details about any proposed “fixes” to JASTA were provided in response to questions at the State Department’s October 21 Daily Press Briefing.

[4] Mazzetti, Claims of Saudi Role in 9/11 Appear Headed for Manhattan Court, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2016); Bravin, Lawyers Move Quickly After Congress Enacts Bill Allowing Suits Against Saudi Arabia, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

[5] Reuters, China Backs Sovereign Immunity After U.S. Sept. 11 Bill Becomes Law, N.Y. Times (Oct. 10, 2016).

[6] Fotouh, JASTA: Real threats and hidden opportunities, Egypt Daily News (Oct. 24, 2016).

[7] Drezner, The unbearable idiocy of Congress, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2016).

[8] Editorial, Congress Has Itself to Blame for 9/11 Bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2016); Editorial, Instant Senate Remorse, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

Courts Reject Lawsuit Challenging U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

Today is Election Day in the U.S. Most public opinion polls and political commentators say that the Republican Party is likely to emerge from the election with at least a simple majority in the U.S. Senate, i.e., more than 50 Senate seats. As a Democrat I lament this likely result and probably should be glad that the Senate’s filibuster rule will provide the Democrats in the Senate with a means to block at least some of the Republican-backed measures in the next Session of Congress. But I am not pleased with the possible use of the filibuster by the Senate Democrats. I have believed, and still believe, that the filibuster rule is an abomination and should be eliminated, as has been discussed in many prior posts.

Such elimination, however, will not come from the courts.

As discussed in a prior post, on May 14, 2012, Common Cause, a non-profit organization, joined by four members of the U.S. House of Representatives and three private citizens commenced a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of U.S. Senate Rule XXII that requires at least 60 votes to stop debate and proceed to a vote on the merits of a bill or other proposal. In other words, the rule that permits filibusters.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia on December 21, 2012, dismissed the complaint in the case. (Common Cause v. Biden, 909 F. Supp. 2d 9 (D.D.C. 2012).) The court held that none of the plaintiffs had standing to bring the case and that the case presented a non-justiciable political question. This decision also was covered in a prior post.

On April 15, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Colombia Circuit unanimously affirmed the dismissal of the complaint, but on different grounds.

According to the Court of Appeals, the plaintiffs failed to sue the proper defendant: the U.S. Senate or a U.S. Senator. The reason this was not done is apparent. The U.S. “Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause provides that ‘for any Speech or Debate in either House,’ Senators and Representatives ‘shall not be questioned in any other Place.’ U.S. CONST. art I, § 6. The Clause confers immunity for any act that falls ‘within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity.’ Eastland v. U.S. Servicemen’s Fund, 421 U.S. 491, 503 (1975); see also Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168, 204 (1880) (the Clause covers all ‘things generally done in a session of the House [or Senate] by one of its members in relation to the business before it’). And it protects not only elected legislators but their aides, to whom legislative work is delegated. See Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606, 616-18 (1972). That is, the Clause covers aides when their conduct ‘would be a protected legislative act if performed by the Member himself.’ Id. at 618.”

As a result, the Court of Appeals held it had no jurisdiction to decide the case on the merits.

On November 3, 2014, the case ended with the U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of the plaintiffs’ petition for a writ of certiorari, i.e., refusal to hear the case on the merits. (Common Cause v. Biden, No. 14-253 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Nov. 3, 2014).)

Common Cause immediately issued a statement criticizing the Supreme Court’s action. Its President, Miles Rapoport said, “The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Common Cause’s case challenging the constitutionality of the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule is both shortsighted and ominous. Instead of protecting debate, the 60-vote filibuster rule has shut down discussion on important legislation, from a living wage to addressing climate change.” Rapoport added, “the extreme use of the filibuster has led to partisan gridlock and dysfunction that ultimately robs the American people of a Senate that should be responsive to the needs of our country.” Moreover, “the Supreme Court let stand a DC Circuit Court of Appeals decision that makes it logically impossible to challenge Senate rules that violate the Constitution.”

Although I share Common Cause’s disappointment in the failure to have the filibuster rule eliminated, I am not surprised by the courts’ refusal to treat the issue on the merits. Indeed, courts in our constitutional system should not be deciding issues like this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

District Court Dismisses Lawsuit Challenging Constitutionality of U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

On December 21, 2012, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule.[1]

The court did not reach or discuss the merits of the constitutional issues even though it said that the filibuster rule was “an important and controversial issue” and that “in recent years, even the mere threat of a filibuster is powerful enough to completely forestall legislative action.” (P. 2.)[2]

Instead, there were two jurisdictional grounds given by the court for the dismissal. First, none of the plaintiffs, the court stated, had the necessary standing to sue. Second, the court found that “this case presents a non-justiciable political question.[3]

No Standing To Sue

In the introduction of the opinion, the Court said it “cannot find that any of the Plaintiffs have standing to sue,” which is a “bedrock requirement of an Article III court’s jurisdiction to resolve only those cases that present live controversies.” (P. 2.) This conclusion was elaborated in the “Analysis” portion of the opinion.

According to the court, there is a doctrine of “procedural standing” when (i) “the government violated [the plaintiff’s] . . . procedural rights designed to protect their threatened, concrete interest” and (ii) the violation resulted in injury to their concrete, particularized interest.” (P. 15.) However, the plaintiffs in this case “are unable to demonstrate that any alleged procedural right to majority consideration of proposed legislation is designed to protect [their] . . . particularized, concrete interests.” (P. 18.)

Quoting a Supreme Court case, Judge Sullivan said for an “irreducible constitutional minimum” showing of Article III standing, a plaintiff must show “(1) he has suffered an ‘injury in fact’ which is (a) concrete and particularized, and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) there is a causal connection between the alleged injury and the conduct complained of that is fairly traceable to the defendant; and (3) it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.” (P. 14.)

The plaintiffs in this case, however, concluded the court, “cannot show that the invalidation of the Cloture Rule [the filibuster rule] has any connection to, or will have any connection to, their ability to benefit from a particular piece of legislation.” (P.27.)

Non-Justiciable Political Question

The opinion’s introduction stated, “the Court is firmly convinced that to intrude into this area would offend the separation of powers on which the Constitution rests. Nowhere does the Constitution contain express requirements regarding the proper length of, or method for, the Senate to debate proposed legislation. Article I reserves to each House the power to determine the rules of its proceedings. And absent a rule’s violation of an express constraint in the Constitution or an individual’s fundamental rights, the internal proceedings of the Legislative Branch are beyond the jurisdiction of this Court.” (P. 3.)

In the detailed analysis of this issue, the opinion appropriately quotes the relevant U.S. Supreme Court precedent of Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 210 (1962). Judge Sullivan said that the “nonjusticiability of a political question is primarily a function of the separation of powers.” The Judge then concluded that three of the six circumstances listed by the Baker decision for such political questions were presented by this case.

First, there was “a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department.”  Here, Article I, § 5(2) of the Constitution grants each House of the Congress the power to “determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” Moreover, there is no constitutional provision that explicitly limits this power. (Pp. 37-43.)

Second, according to Judge Sullivan, “no judicially manageable standards exist against which to review the Senate’s rules governing debate.” (Pp. 43-44.)

Third, it was impossible for “a court’s undertaking independent resolution [of the case] without expressing lack of respect due coordinate branches of government.”  Indeed, said the court, “reaching the merits of this case would require an invasion into internal Senate processes at the heart of the Senate’s constitutional prerogatives as a House of Congress, and would thus express  a lack of respect for the Senate as a coordinate branch of government.”  In short, “it is for the Senate, and not this Court, to determine the rules governing debate.” (Pp. 45-46.)

Conclusion

Immediately after the decision, Common Cause, the lead plaintiff, said it would appeal the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.


[1] The complaint in this case was the subject of a prior post.

[2] A prior post discussed the merits of the constitutional challenge to the filibuster rule.

[3]  A prior post reviewed the jurisdictional arguments raised by the dismissal motion while the hearing on the motion was mentioned in another post.

Update on Changing the U.S. Senate Filibuster Rule

Prior posts have discussed the internal Senate movement for reforming its filibuster rule that now requires 60 of the 100 Senators to agree to vote on the merits of most proposed legislation and confirmation of presidential appointments. Other posts have covered the pending federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of that rule.

There have been further developments on both fronts.

Internal Senate Efforts

Jeff Merkley, Democratic Senator from the State of Washington and the leader of the filibuster reform effort, is building a simple majority (at least 51 votes) for reforming the filibuster rule on January 3, 2013, when the new session of Congress opens. His basic proposal is the so-called “talking filibuster” with these major points according to his December 12, 2012 memo to fellow Senators:

  • If at least 41 Senators voted for additional debate on a legislative proposal, there would be additional debate.
  • Such additional debate would require at least one Senator to be on the floor presenting arguments on the proposal.
  • If there were no Senator present to speak to the proposal, the presiding officer would rule that extended debate was over, and the Majority Leader would schedule a simple-majority cloture vote to end all debate after an additional 30 hours of debate,

Approving such a change by a simple majority vote has been called “the nuclear option” or “the constitutional option.”

In response to a simple majority coalescing to support such a reform, some of the leading Senate Republicans (John McCain, Lamar Alexander, Jon Kyle and Lindsay Graham) are trying to convince Democratic Senators (Mark Pryor, Carl Levin and Chuck Schumer) who are reluctant to use the “nuclear” or “constitutional” option to embrace a more limited reform that could be supported by 67 Senators (the number required by the existing Senate rules). The exact nature of such a more limited reform has not been disclosed. Nor has the likelihood of enlisting 67 Senators to support such a more limited reform been assessed.

Moreover, many observers are skeptical about the ability of the “talking filibuster” proposal put forward on December 12th by Senator Markley to stop the dysfunctionality of the Senate. They point out that the proposal does nothing to prevent “holds” by individual Senators that prevent Senate action or to prevent the offering of amendments during a debate. Nor does this proposal ban filibusters on motions to proceed with consideration of a bill or nomination or require any Senator’s remarks to be germane to the matter at hand. Moreover, who doubts the willingness of the Republican Senators to talk and talk?

As we come closer to January 3rd, a failure to resolve the “fiscal cliff” stalemate may preempt attention to filibuster reform that day and politically eliminate the possibility of changing the filibuster rule by a simple majority.

Litigation over the Filibuster Rule

In May 2012 Common Cause, four members of the U.S. House of Representatives and three private citizens sued certain Senate officers. The complaint alleged that the filibuster rule was unconstitutional, and the defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on various grounds.

On December 5th the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an order asking that at the upcoming hearing on the dismissal motion the parties should be prepared to discuss all arguments set forth in the briefs and in particular to address Plaintiffs’ vote nullification theory of standing for the plaintiffs who are members of the House of Representatives.[1] The following are the parties’ arguments on that theory from their previously filed briefs:

  • According to the plaintiffs, the House member plaintiffs were in the majority when the House passed the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (the DREAM Act) on December 8, 2010, only to have it die in the Senate when it subsequently failed to invoke cloture of the debate 55-41. So too the House member plaintiffs were in the majority when the House passed The Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act (the DISCLOSE Act), 219 to 206, on June 24, 2010 only to have it die in the Senate when a vote for cloture of the debate failed, 59-39 on September 23, 2010. As a result, it is contended, these plaintiffs’ legislative votes were nullified by the Senate’s filibuster rule, and they have standing to sue under Raines v. Byrd, 521 U.S. 811 (1997); Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433, 438 (1939); and D.C. Circuit cases.
  • The defendants, on the other hand, assert that the House members lack standing under Raines because they have not been individually deprived of something they are personally entitled to  and because their votes would not have been sufficient by themselves to defeat or enact a bill if they had not been nullified.

The December 10th two-hour hearing itself apparently focused on the issue of whether the plaintiffs had standing to bring the lawsuit. Judge Emmit G. Sullivan said the case raised difficult issues and at the end of the hearing asked defense counsel to submit a short brief on certain questions. Later that same day, however, the court limited the request for an additional brief to whether the court could address the political question doctrine without reaching the issue of standing.

The defendants’ supplemental brief of December 11th cited precedents from the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit holding that a federal court may address the issue of lack of justiciability under the political question doctrine without first addressing the issue of the plaintiffs’ standing to bring the lawsuit.

The next day the plaintiffs filed their supplemental brief agreeing with that legal proposition. However, they argued, the case was justiciable on the grounds of U.S. Supreme Court cases holding that rules of the Senate or the House are subject to judicial review. In short, said the plaintiffs, there was no “political question” foreclosing the courts from considering this case.

We now await the court’s ruling on the dismissal motion.


[1] Perhaps related to the standing of the Congressmen in the filibuster case is the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to review a case challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act in which a so-called “Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group” of Congressmen intervened to defend that statute, and the Supreme Court’s order for the parties in that case  to address whether or not this Group has Article III [constitutional] standing in this case.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jurisdictional Issues for Lawsuit Challenging Constitutionality of U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

Common Cause on May 14, 2012, started a lawsuit alleging that the U.S. Senate’s filibuster Rule (Rule XXII) was unconstitutional.  Other prior posts reviewed the history of that rule and the argument as to why that rule was unconstitutional.

Now we look at the jurisdictional issues raised by the July 20, 2012, motion by defendants[1] to dismiss the complaint;[2] the August 27th plaintiffs’[3] opposition to the motion,[4] and the September 18th defendants reply to that opposition.[5] The hearing on the dismissal motion has been scheduled on December 3, 2012, before Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia.

The following are the three jurisdictional issues: (1) whether the plaintiffs have standing to bring this suit; (2) whether the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause bars this suit; and (3) whether the complaint presents a non-justiciable political question.

Standing To Sue

Defendants’ Argument

Article III of the Constitution sets forth provisions regarding the “judicial Power of the United States” and extends such Power to “Cases” and “Controversies.” A necessary part of any such “Case” or “Controversy” is a plaintiff with standing to bring suit.

To satisfy this standing requirement a plaintiff must show that: (1) the plaintiff “has suffered an injury in fact (an invasion of a legally protected interest which is concrete and particularized and actual or imminent); (2) the injury was caused by the defendant’s challenged conduct; and (3) the injury is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision by the court.

All of the plaintiffs fail to meet this standing requirement because, defendants argue, none of the plaintiffs has alleged a cognizable injury in fact and the alleged injuries are not traceable to the defendants’ actions and are not redressable by the court in this lawsuit.

Indeed, the courts have dismissed three prior lawsuits attacking the filibuster rule over the last two decades because those plaintiffs lacked standing to sue.

Plaintiffs’ Argument

The plaintiffs cannot and do not challenge the major legal premise of this argument. Instead, they argue that they satisfy the requirement for various reasons and that the three prior cases are distinguishable.

Speech or Debate Clause

Defendants’ Argument

Article I of the Constitution sets forth provisions regarding the Legislative powers of the United States and provides in Section 6(1) that “for any Speech or Debate in either House [of Congress], they [Senators and Representatives] shall not be questioned in any other Place.”

The Supreme Court has consistently read this Clause broadly to effectuate its purposes to provide immunity from lawsuits for all actions within the sphere of legitimate legislative activities. This is true for federal legislators themselves and for congressional officers and employees.

Here, defendants assert, all of the alleged actions by the Senate officers fall within the scope of that legitimate legislative activity. The Powell  case discussed below, they say, is distinguishable because it concerned non-legislative conduct.

Plaintiffs’ Argument

Vice President Biden as President of the Senate is not covered by the Clause because he is not a Senator; his duty is to preside over the Senate is derived from the Constitution, not from the Senate; the Vice President may not speak or debate on the Senate floor; and his membership in the Senate is prohibited by the Constitution (Art. I, § 6 (2)).

The other defendants are not protected by the Clause. In Powell v. McCormick, 395 U.S. 486, 503-08 (1969), the Supreme Court held that the House of Representatives’ Clerk, Sergeant-at-Arms and Doorkeeper were not protected in a lawsuit alleging that member-elect Adam Clayton Powell was unconstitutionally excluded from the House even though they were acting pursuant to the express orders of the House.[6]

Political Question

Defendants’ Argument

Under U.S. Supreme Court precedents, claims that raise political questions are not judicially cognizable and must be dismissed.

According to those precedents, such a political question arises when (1) the claims involve a matter textually committed by the Constitution to another branch, here the Senate; or (2) there is a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving the claims; or (3) resolution of the claims would require the court to intrude into another branch’s internal proceedings and thereby express a lack of respect for that branch.

Each of those alternative requirements is satisfied in this case.

First, the Constitution in Article I, Section 5(2) provides, “Each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” Moreover, the Supreme Court has determined that to present a justiciable challenge to such rules, the plaintiff must identify a separate constitutional provision limiting those rules. Here, however, the defendants argue, there is no such separate provision.

Second, according to the defendant s, there are no judicially manageable standards to determine appropriate limits on debate in the Senate or whether or how such debate could be terminated.

Third, again per the defendants, this case would require the court to make an invasive inquiry into internal Senate processes–scheduling of legislative business, establishing and interpreting its rules, allowing debate within the Senate, determining how long such debates may continue and deciding when and how to schedule votes.

Plaintiffs’ Argument

The validity of a Senate rule is not the kind of political question that is nonjusticiable, and the Supreme Court has resolved many cases with political implications.

The validity of a Senate rule is not textually committed solely to the Senate by the Constitution like its “sole Power” to try impeachments (Art. I, § 3(6))(emphasis added))

Indeed, the Court has reviewed the validity of other Senate rules in resolving other cases. In the Powell case, for example, the Court held that the Constitution’s delegation of power to each house of the Congress to be the “Judge of the  . . . Qualifications of its own Members” (Art I, § 5(1)) did not reflect a “textual commitment to the House, in its own discretion, to determine whether a Member-elect could be seated.”

The plaintiffs merely ask the court to declare that the super-majority vote necessary for cloture be declared unconstitutional. Such a declaration would leave Rule XXII in place as a procedure for closing debate, but with a simple majority vote required. Therefore, there is no problem of having judicially manageable standards.

Finally judicial review of Senate Rules XXII and V would not reflect any lack of respect for the Senate. Instead, it would show respect for the Constitution.

Conclusion

Although I have some familiarity with these issues from my years of practicing law and have expressed my personal opinion against this Senate Rule , I have not read or re-read the many legal authorities cited by the parties. Therefore, I am not able to make a quasi-judicial evaluation of the relative merits of these arguments.

With that caveat, I think the dismissal motion should be denied with two exceptions. First, the four members of the House of Representatives and three “Dream Act” plaintiffs should be dismissed for lack of standing. This would leave Common Cause as the sole plaintiff. Second, the case against Vice President Biden should be dismissed on the basis of the Speech or Debate Clause.


[1] The defendants are Vice President Joseph F. Biden (as the Senate’s President), Nancy Erickson (as the Senate’s Secretary), Elizabeth MacDonough (as the Senate’s Parliamentarian) and Terrance W. Gaines (as the Senate’s Sergeant-at-Arms).

[2]  Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendants’ Motion To Dismiss at 15-45, Common Cause v. Biden, No. 12-cv-0075 (D.D.C. July 20, 2012).

[3]  In addition to Common Cause, the plaintiffs are four members of the U.S. House of Representatives (John Lewis, Michael Michaud, Henry (“Hank”) Johnson and Keith Ellison) and three so-called “Dream Act” plaintiffs (Erika Andiola, Celso Mireles and Cesar Vargas).

[4]  Brief of Plaintiffs in Opposition to Motion To Dismiss at 22-70, Common Cause v. Biden, No. 12-cv-0775 (D.D.C. Aug. 27, 2012).

[5]  Reply Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendants’ Motion To Dismiss at 3-25,, Common Cause v. Biden, No. 12-cv-0075 (D.D.C. September 18, 2012).

[6]  As previously mentioned, I was a junior attorney for the House of Representatives in this case.

Are the U.S. Senate Rules on Filibuster and Changing Those Rules Unconstitutional?

Common Cause on May 14, 2012, started a lawsuit alleging that the U.S. Senate’s filibuster Rule (Rule XXII)[1] was unconstitutional.

On September 18th, the plaintiffs in that case provided the U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia and the defendants with a legal argument as to why Rule XXII and Senate Rule V that continues the Rules from one Congress to the next were unconstitutional.[2] Let us look at that argument.

Rule XXII Is Unconstitutional

1. The Constitution was adopted to remedy the defects of the Articles of Confederation, including its supermajority provisions.

Under the Articles of Confederation, no action could be taken without the approval of delegates from nine of the 13 states. This was true for a quorum and for approval of legislation.

These provisions made the government under the Articles ineffective and unable to act. As a result, the Constitutional Convention was convened to create a new governmental structure without these and other defects.

First, the Convention rejected proposals for supermajority requirements for quorum and for passage of legislation. Instead the Convention approved the Constitution that required the presence of “a Majority of each [house of Congress] [to] . . .  constitute a Quorum to do Business” (Art. I, § 5(1)) and that “every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall . . . be presented to the President” (Art. I, § 7(2)).

Second, the Constitution was specific as to when a super-majority was required. That is the case in the following six circumstances:

  • two-thirds vote of Senators present for conviction of impeachment (Art. I, § 3(6));
  • (ii) two-thirds vote of each house of the Congress to expel one of its members (Art. I, § 5 (2));
  • (iii) two-thirds vote of each house to override a presidential veto of a bill (Art. I, § 7(2));
  • (iv) two-thirds vote of each house to override a presidential veto of an order or resolution (Art. I, § 7(3));
  • (v) two-thirds vote of Senators present to provide Advice and Consent to treaties (Art. II, § 2 (2)); and
  •  (vi) two-thirds vote of both houses to propose constitutional amendments (Art. V).[3]

2. The Constitution’s framers expressed their intent to reject general super-majority requirements.

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in The Federalist Papers emphasized that the “fundamental principle of free government” was majority rule. Moreover, they said that general super-majority requirements would lead to “impotence, perplexity and disorder.”

3.  Senate Rule XXII violates the Constitution’s Quorum Clause.

The Constitution’s Quorum Clause (Art. I, § 5(1))) provides that “a Majority of each [house of Congress] shall constitute a Quorum to do business.” (Emphasis added.)

But under Rule XXII a majority of the Senate cannot do business–it cannot debate, deliberate or vote– without the presence of 60 Senators to vote in favor of a motion for cloture if even one Senator wants to engage in a filibuster.

Therefore, it is unconstitutional.

4. Senate Rule XXII violates the Constitution’s Presentment Clause.

The Constitution’s “Presentment Clause” (Art. I,  § 7 (2)) sets forth the same procedure for the passage of bills by both the House of Representatives and the Senate: passage by a majority of those voting. This is mandatory.

Rule XXII, however, requires a supermajority (60 votes) in order for the Senate to pass a bill if even one member objects to ending debate on the matter.

Therefore, it is unconstitutional.

5. Senate Rule XXII violates the Constitution because it is not included in one of the Constitution’s specific super-majority requirements.

As previously mentioned, the original Constitution has six specific situations calling for super-majority votes for certain actions by the Senate.

This specific enumeration of supermajority votes precludes the Senate from adding another in Rule XXII.[4]

Therefore, it is unconstitutional.

6. Senate Rule XXII violates the “grand compromise” of the Constitution.

The “Great Compromise” of the Constitution provided each state with equal representation in the Senate and, therefore, when in the majority with the power to pass laws.

Rules XXII violates that fundamental principle of the Constitution and, therefore, is unconstitutional.

Rule V and Rule XXII Are Unconstitutional

Rule V states that “the rules of the Senate shall continue from one Congress to the next Congress unless . . . changed as provided in these rules, and Rule XXII requires a two-thirds vote to amend those rules.

These two rules in combination violate the Constitution for the reasons previously stated for Rule XXII alone.

Conclusion

This argument apparently is supported by six law review articles or comments.[5] The defendants in this case, however, have not yet responded to this argument. Nor has the court ruled on the argument.

Therefore, the legal argument set forth in this post is just that–a legal argument. It is not a legal precedent.


[1] The history of the Senate’s Rule XXII or filibuster rule was discussed in a prior post. Another post voiced my opinion that the Senate Rules were abominable.

[2] This argument was set forth in the plaintiffs’ opposition to the defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint for lack of jurisdiction. (Brief of Plaintiffs in Opposition to Motion To Dismiss at 16-21, Common Cause v. Biden, No. 12-cv-0775 (D.D.C. Aug. 27, 2012) [Plaintiffs’ Brief”].) Those jurisdictional issues will be discussed in a subsequent post.

[3]  There are two other super-majority requirements in constitutional amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment, Section 3 requires a vote of two-thirds of each house to remove an individual’s disability from holding any federal or state office for having “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against same or given aid or comfort to their enemies.” The Twenty-Fifth Amendment, Section 4  provides that a two-thirds vote of both houses is necessary to determine that a President “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

[4] Analogous support for this conclusion is provided by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Powell v. McCormick, 395 U.S. 486 (1969) involving the power of each house of Congress in Article I, Section 5 (1) to “be the judge of the . . . Qualifications of its own Members.” The House of Representatives had excluded Member-elect Adam Clayton Powell from Harlem because of his personal conduct outside of Congress and even though he satisfied the qualifications for membership set forth in Article I, Section 2(2): attainment of the age of twenty-five years plus seven years as a U.S. citizen and being an inhabitant of the state in which he was chosen. The Court held that “in judging the qualifications of its members, Congress is limited to the standing qualifications prescribed in the Constitution.” As previously mentioned, I was a junior attorney for the House of Representatives in this case.

[5] Plaintiffs’ Brief, at 16, n.30.

 

The History of the U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

As discussed in a prior post, Common Cause on May 14, 2012, started a lawsuit alleging that the U.S. Senate’s filibuster Rule (Rule XXII) was unconstitutional.

On July 20, 2012, the defendants provided the U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia and the plaintiffs with a history of Rule XXII as part of the motion to dismiss the complaint on jurisdictional grounds.[1] This post will summarize that historical record.

Majority Ability To Halt Debate, 1789-1806

From the First Session of the First Congress in 1789 through 1806, the Senate provided for a motion for the “previous question,” which permitted a majority to determine whether a matter should be immediately considered on the merits or postponed.[2]

No Ability To Halt Debate, 1806-1917

From 1806 through 1917, there was no mechanism for the Senate to close debate over the objection of a single Senator who wished to speak.[3] There, however, was only one instance in the first half of t he 19th century when a minority of the Senators sought to block the Senate’s consideration of a matter on the merits. That concerned a resolution to expunge from the body’s journal its 1834 vote to censure President Andrew Jackson, but that attempt failed after the opponents had “talked and talked.”

In the early 20th century there was increased use, intensity and success of what came to be called filibusters. In 1917 such a filibuster prevented Senate passage of a bill authorizing President Woodrow Wilson to arm American merchant ships.

Adoption of Cloture Rule, 1917

Immediately after the blockage of the bill to authorize arming American merchant ships, the Senate held a special session, and on March 8, 1917, adopted a cloture rule. Under that rule, whenever 16 Senators moved to close debate on any pending measure, after a two-day hiatus, the Senate would vote on the question, “Is it the sense of the Senate that the debate should be brought to a close?” If that motion were approved by two-thirds of those voting, the underlying measure would be the pending business until it was voted up or down. Such a vote would come after each Senator had spoken for up to one hour or waived that right. This rule also restricted amendments and prohibited dilatory motions and non-germane amendments.

Experience with the Cloture Rule, 1917-1949

Although cloture was invoked four times between 1917 and 1927, the rule was circumvented by filibustering a procedural motion.

Amending the Cloture Rule, 1949

In 1949 the rule was amended to cover motions and other pending matters, but the number of votes necessary to invoke cloture was increased from two-thirds of those voting to two-thirds of the total Senate membership. The rule also continued to exclude resolutions to amend the rules.

Experience with the Amended Cloture Rule, 1949-1959

During this period filibusters were used to block civil rights legislation. As a result, public pressure increased to change the rule.

Amending the Cloture Rule, 1959

In 1959 the rule was amended to reduce the number of votes necessary to invoke cloture from two-thirds of the total Senate membership to two-thirds of those voting. In addition, the rule was expanded to cover motions to proceed to amend the Senate rules and expressed the Senate’s understanding that its rules continued from one Congress to the next.

Amending the Cloture Rule, 1975

In 1975, the Senate again amended the rule to change the number of votes to invoke cloture from two-thirds of those voting to three-fifths of the Senate membership (now 60 of 100) while maintaining a two-thirds vote of those present and voting to change the rules.

Experience with the Amended Cloture Rule, 1975-Present

Since 1975 there has been an increasing number of cloture votes and various proposals to change the rule regarding filibusters. But no additional changes in the rule have been adopted.


[1] Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendants’ Motion To Dismiss at 3-11, Common Cause v. Biden, No. 12-cv-0075 (D.D.C. July 20, 2012). Subsequent posts will discuss (a) the plaintiffs’ legal argument as to why Senate Rules XII and V are unconstitutional; and (b) the jurisdictional issues.

[2] Plaintiffs have pointed out that at the time of the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, filibusters had been prevented in the English Parliament by its adoption in 1604 of the previous question motion and in the Second Continental Congress by its adoption of the same rule for such a motion. (Brief of Plaintiffs in Opposition to Motion To Dismiss at 9-10, Common Cause v. Biden, No. 12-cv-0775 (D.D.C. Aug. 27, 2012).)

[3] The plaintiffs say that the Senate’s elimination of the previous question rule in 1806 was a “quirk.” Its elimination apparently was due to comments by Vice President Aaron Burr that the Senate rules had become too complicated and that the previous question motion could be eliminated because it had only been used once in his four years acting as President of the Senate. (Id. at 11.)