Rule of Law

DC Circuit Guts Trump Emoluments Suit Over Lawmaker Standing

WASHINGTON (CN) — Just two days after the GOP-controlled Senate acquitted President Donald Trump at his impeachment trial, the D.C. Circuit dealt another blow to Democrats on Friday morning, overturning a ruling that allowed 215 members of Congress to sue Trump under a rule that prohibits the president from accepting gifts from foreign countries.

Faulting the lower court for failing to tell the full story behind the inter-branch dispute, the three-judge panel was unanimous in saying that the case must be dismissed on remand.

“The members can, and likely will, continue to use their weighty voices to make their case to the American people, their colleagues in the Congress and the president himself, all of whom are free to engage that argument as they see fit,” the unsigned opinion states. “But we will not — indeed we cannot — participate in this debate. The Constitution permits the judiciary to speak only in the context of an Article III case or controversy and this lawsuit presents neither.”

Outside the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse on June 7, 2018, Senator Richard Blumenthal (center-left) and Representative Jerrold Nadler (center-right) speak to the press about their emoluments challenge to President Donald Trump. Constitutional Accountability Center President Elizabeth Wydra stands to the left of Blumenthal, with attorney Brianne Gorod at Nadler’s right. (BRITAIN EAKIN, Courthouse News Service)

Themselves appointees of Presidents Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush, the three-judge panel behind today’s ruling represents the judicial legacy of decades of U.S. presidential administrations.

Trump has come under fire from Democrats since first taking office over concerns that his business holdings violate the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause.

The Trump International Hotel in Washington — where the president’s legal team celebrated his acquittal Wednesday night just blocks from the White House — stands at the center of the constitutional controversy, with lobbyists and foreign guests routinely checking into some of the building’s 263 luxury rooms.

By virtue of Trump’s vast business empire, the Democrats said he reaps financial benefits from the holdings around the world.

At oral arguments before the appeals court in December, the Democrats said Trump’s failure to seek congressional approval before accepting foreign gifts, as required by the U.S. Constitution, infringed their right to vote.

“Because President Trump is violating the Clause through his private businesses, without the need for government funds or personnel, Congress cannot use its power of the purse — normally the ‘ultimate weapon of enforcement available to the Congress’ — to stop him,” the judges wrote explaining the plaintiffs’ argument.

The appellate court on Friday relied heavily on the 1997 Supreme Court ruling Raines v. Byrd, in which six members of Congress challenged President Bill Clinton utilizing the line-item veto to slash $2 billion from the annual budget.

The lower court in Raines found the members of Congress had standing to sue the president but on appeal the high court reversed.

“This case is really no different from Raines,” the D.C. Circuit found Friday. “The members were not singled out — their alleged injury is shared by the 320 members of the Congress who did not join the lawsuit — and their claim is based entirely on the loss of political power.”

The Supreme Court clearly holds that individual members of Congress cannot drag the president to court to resolve disputes because they do not represent the entire bicameral legislature, Friday’s ruling continues.

The judges applied what they described as an “especially rigorous” inquiry on standing in the case because looking at the merits would have required them to find unconstitutional the actions of one of two branches of government.

“Here, regardless of rigor, our conclusion is straightforward because the members — 29 senators and 186 members of the House of Representatives — do not constitute a majority of either body and are, therefore, powerless to approve or deny the president’s acceptance of foreign emoluments,” the judges wrote.

U.S. Circuit Judge David Tatel, the panel’s Clinton appointee, drove that point home during oral arguments by repeatedly quoting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on why a single house of Congress lacks the capacity to bring a case on behalf of the legislative branch.

“You’re not Congress,” Tatel told the Democrats’ attorney in December when she argued that the Trump administration was “flipping the foreign emoluments clause on its head.”

Tatel was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Thomas Griffith and Karen Henderson.