SCOTUS takes up odd case pitting Biden admin against House Dems over subpoenaed Trump Hotel records

May 16, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to take up a dispute between the executive and legislative branches over the limits on the authority and power of congressional subpoenas for documents and information from executive branch agencies, the Daily Caller reported.

Ironically, the legal fight involves Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee against President Joe Biden's administration, which inherited the case from the Trump administration.

The dispute stems from subpoenas issued by House Oversight Democrats in 2017, when they were in the minority, against the General Services Administration with demands for documents and information related to the lease owned by then-President Donald Trump's business for his eponymous hotel in Washington D.C. at that time.

1928 law cited as authority for subpoenas by then-minority House Democrats

The case is known as Carnahan v. Maloney and revolves around the question of whether individual members of Congress have standing to bring lawsuits against executive agencies to compel the disclosure of requested information.

At the heart of the issue is 5 U.S.C. Sec. 2954, a statute first enacted in 1928 and known colloquially as the "seven-member rule," which allows for any seven members of the House Oversight Committee -- or five members of the relevant Senate committee -- to file requests of any executive agency for information within its jurisdiction and requires the executive agencies to comply with such requests.

The matter was first appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 by the Biden administration following a split 2-1 decision in late 2020 by a D.C. appeals court panel that had sided with the Democratic lawmakers against the then-Trump-run GSA with regard to the subpoenaed information about the Trump Hotel in D.C.

NPR's Nina Totenberg reported that the big "surprise" in this otherwise seemingly normal dispute between the executive and legislative branches was that the Biden administration had essentially adopted and is defending the same position staked out previously by the Trump administration.

That includes the arguments that any disputes between the executive and legislative branches should be settled through negotiations and not intervention from the judicial branch, as well as that congressional subpoenas are an institutional power that can't be asserted by individual members.

Minority-issued subpoenas result in lawsuit

NBC News reported that the GSA decided in 2013 to allow then-businessman Trump to lease the historic Old Post Office Building in D.C. and transform it into a hotel, which then led to "legal, ethical and constitutional concerns" among Democrats after Trump took office as president in 2017.

Led at that time by then-ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), 17 members of the Democratic minority on the House Oversight Committee bypassed the Republican majority and cited the 1928 law as authorization for subpoenas against the GSA that demanded relevant documents and information about the lease -- requests that were initially rejected before being partially fulfilled, which led to the lawsuit being filed.

A district judge dismissed that lawsuit for lack of standing by the minority members but that was appealed and, according to Politico at the time in December 2020, a three-judge panel of the D.C. appeals court ruled 2-1 in favor of allowing the minority members to pursue their legal action against the GSA.

The lone dissenter, Judge Douglas Ginsburg, a Reagan appointee, wrote, "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," and added, "Judicial enforcement of requests under [the statute] 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."

Biden's team citing conservative judges in support of Trump Administration position

Per NPR, the new Biden administration had sought a rehearing of that decision by the entire D.C. appeals court but was rejected, though four conservative members of the appeals court had dissented from that rejection and opined that the court was wrong to allow individual or minority members to demand compliance with subpoenas not backed by a relevant committee or House majority leadership.

Interestingly enough, NPR's Totenberg noted that President Biden's people are now citing the opinions of the combined five conservative dissenters in support of its inherited effort from the Trump administration to oppose the initial 2017 demands made by the minority Democrats.


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