President Donald Trump’s legal battle with Congress over the legislature’s authority to subpoena his financial documents hinges on a small handful of decades-old Supreme Court precedents.
But as Democrats and two judges who’ve ruled on the dispute have noted, the cases Trump’s lawyers have decided to rest his legal defense on actually affirm congressional power.
The earliest Supreme Court ruling on Congress’ investigative authority is Kilbourn v. Thompson, an 1880 case that established that Congress can only pursue investigations as an extension of its power to craft legislation. At the time, this ruling limited Congress from pursuing an investigation into a private individual, even if it could lead to future legislation. This is why Trump’s lawyers and those at the Treasury Department repeatedly claim that Congress lacks a “legitimate legislative purpose” to enforce subpoenas.
But subsequent decisions, even those cited by Trump’s lawyers, overruled Kilbourn’s limitations on congressional investigations — essentially by ruling that just about anything can be a “legislative purpose.”
In 1927, the Supreme Court upheld Congress’ investigatory power and its right to hold uncooperative witnesses in contempt in the unanimous McGrain v. Daugherty case. This case, heavily cited by House Democrats in their court briefs and arising out of the Teapot Dome bribery scandal, affirmed Kilbourn’s test that Congress needs a legislative purpose for its investigations, but read that legislative purpose as expansive.
Congressional investigators do not need to introduce or point to legislation to request relevant information. Requests for documents or testimony need only concern, “a subject on which legislation could be had which would be materially aided by the information which the investigation was calculated to elicit,” according to the court.
“It is to be presumed that the object of the Senate in ordering such an investigation is to aid it in legislating,” Justice Willis Van Devanter wrote in McGrain.
McGrain was the first ruling to establish the position of the court as presuming a legislative intent behind congressional investigations. But it was the 1957 decision in Watkins v. United States that solidified this presumption and ensured that courts would defer to Congress. And it is Watkins that is front and center in the fight between Trump and Congress.
“Congress is not ‘a law enforcement or trial agency,’ and congressional investigations conducted ‘for the personal aggrandizement of the investigators’ or ‘to ‘punish’ those investigated’ are ‘indefensible,’” Trump’s lawyers argue, with numerous citations of the Watkins ruling.
“[T]here is no congressional power to expose for the sake of exposure,” they continue, quoting from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Watkins.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform, the issuer of the subpoenas, responded by clarifying the court’s ruling in Watkins.
“Contrary to Trump’s allegation that the Committee here is merely attempting to ‘expose for the sake of exposure,’ … the Committee is actually investigating the numerous and serious constitutional, conflict of interest, and ethical questions raised by the personal financial holdings of Trump, even as he serves as President,” the committee’s legal response states.
Time and time again, Trump’s legal complaints and the replies by the Oversight and Reform Committee argue over the language of the Watkins decision. Trump’s lawyers are cherry-picking their preferred lines. House Democrats argue back that those lines are taken out of context from the full decision.
The case came about as a result of a typical fishing expedition to find communist subversion in labor unions by a subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. The committee was established in 1938 to investigate “un-American propaganda activities in the United States.” The initial reasoning for the committee was to counter the rapidly spreading Nazi propaganda and influence in the U.S., but the committee mostly turned its attention to the political left, particularly after becoming a permanent standing committee in 1945 during the height of the anti-communist fervor that swept the U.S. in the early years of the Cold War.
John Thomas Watkins was called to testify before a subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee on April 29, 1954. A former labor organizer with the Farm Equipment Workers International Union and current official with the United Auto Workers, Watkins had been accused of being a communist during prior testimony made before the subcommittee by a former co-worker.
The committee wanted to ask Watkins its usual array of questions, including, “Are you now or have you ever been a card-carrying member of the Communist Party?”
Watkins was happy to oblige. He explained that he had never been a card-carrying member, but, as a union organizer, had to maintain some relations with communists and communist causes seeing as how some in organized labor were favorable to the party.
But he drew the line when the committee read him a list of 30 names of former associates who had been previously named as Communist Party members and asked if he knew them and whether they were party members.
Watkins refused to answer these questions but pointedly did not invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Instead, he argued that he did not have enough information to know whether he could invoke that right and simply declined to answer.
“I do not believe that such questions are relevant to the work of this committee, nor do I believe that this committee has the right to undertake the public exposure of persons because of their past activities,” Watkins told the committee. “I may be wrong, and the committee may have this power, but until and unless a court of law so holds and directs me to answer, I most firmly refuse to discuss the political activities of my past associates.”
The committee held Watkins in contempt and sentenced him to a $100 fine and a one-year suspended prison sentence. He appealed to the Supreme Court arguing that his right to due process was violated because the committee’s vague mission did not provide him enough information to decide what he could or couldn’t answer. Additionally, he argued that the committee was solely targeting him to invade his personal life and not in pursuit of any legislative action.
Chief Justice Earl Warren led a 6-1 majority in favor of Watkins with a decision finding the committee’s overly vague mission and the scope of the investigation violated Watkins’ right to due process. Warren’s ruling affirmed that Congress’ broad investigatory “is not unlimited.” An investigation cannot be conducted as “an end in itself.”
“Investigations conducted solely for the personal aggrandizement of the investigators or to ‘punish’ those investigated are indefensible,” Warren wrote.
Warren explained that Watkins had presented copious material showing that the House Un-American Activities Committee’s true intent was simply to expose private individuals with undesirable political opinions so that they could be punished and blacklisted. Warren didn’t disagree that there was enough information presented to prove this point.
“We have no doubt that there is no congressional power to expose for the sake of exposure,” he wrote.
But, in the most important section in Watkins for Trump’s case, Warren explained that “a solution to our problem is not to be found in testing the motives of committee members for this purpose. Such is not our function. Their motives alone would not vitiate an investigation which had been instituted by a House of Congress if that assembly’s legislative purpose is being served.”
This is Warren saying that the judicial branch has no business passing judgment on whether or not the legislative branch is acting in its legislative function. Watkins won his case in spite of Warren’s refusal to look at whether the committee had a true legislative purpose for its investigation.
Trump’s lawyers may enjoy cherry-picking quotes from Watkins like, “We have no doubt that there is no congressional power to expose for the sake of exposure.” But Warren’s statement, which has held true ever since, that the courts cannot pass judgment on whether Congress is operating with a legitimate legislative purpose (“Such is not our function.”) is the nail in the coffin for their case.
And that’s actually what happened when Trump’s challenges came before two different district court judges. Both insisted on abiding by the principle in Watkins that they have no business judging Congress’ legislative purpose in conducting investigations and issuing subpoenas. If a judge is going to side with Trump in the future, they are going to have to go through Watkins.