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DC Circuit Sends Flynn Back to Judge Sullivan’s Courtroom

The full DC Circuit (with Greg Katsas recusing) just sent Mike Flynn’s case back to Judge Sullivan. The decision itself is not that interesting because the decision itself is a no-brainer. Flynn (and the government) have alternative remedies available to them, so they should just wait until Sullivan issues an order before seeking that remedy, if appropriate.

The most dramatic claim in the majority opinion is that the case is not moot until the government’s motion to dismiss is granted.

We also hold that the case is not moot. While the Government has filed a motion to dismiss and Petitioner (defendant below) consents, there remains a case or controversy unless and until that motion is granted by the District Court. Cf. Rinaldi v. United States, 434 U.S. 22, 31–32 (1977) (per curiam) (reviewing a district court’s denial of an unopposed Rule 48(a) motion).

The per curiam majority opinion itself is notable for the number of times it lays out ways that Sidney Powell fucked up procedurally (along with the government in some cases): First, in not objecting specifically to the appointment of John Gleeson.

The interest in allowing the District Court to decide a pending motion in the first instance is especially pronounced here, given that neither Petitioner nor the Government raised an objection in the District Court to the appointment of the amicus or more generally to the course of proceedings for resolving the Rule 48(a) motion.

Then, in not challenging Sullivan’s scheduling order as a deprivation of his liberty.

Nor did Petitioner independently challenge before the District Court or this Court the District Court’s orders or their timing on due process grounds as a clearly unwarranted deprivation of liberty.

And finally, in not presenting the harms of the process ordered by Sullivan.

And at this stage, those harms are speculative, especially when the arguments advanced here against that process were not first presented to the District Court by Petitioner or the Government.

There, and later, the panel also described that the harms that a hearing poses to the government are speculative (the kind of judgement that virtually always goes against the non-government party in an appeal).

Petitioner, likewise, argued that the District Judge might “usurp[] the power of the Attorney General to bring additional charges.” Pet’r’s Reply at 18. But those harms are speculative and may never come to pass.

If Flynn doesn’t appeal this, the opinion makes clear, Sullivan can have his hearing and then Flynn (or the government) can file a petition for mandamus.

As others have pointed out, the most important part of this decision is in Thomas Griffith’s concurrence (issued on his last day as a judge, but on the same day he issued a batshit opinion saying that Congress can’t go to court to enforce their own subpoena power). He lays out that the question before the panel is not one of politics, but instead of Constitution.

This proceeding is not about the merits of the prosecution of General Flynn or the Government’s decision to abandon that prosecution. Rather, this proceeding involves questions about the structure of the Judiciary and its relationship to the Executive Branch. There are two central problems in this case: defining the scope of the authority of the Judiciary to inquire into the exercise of a core function of the Executive and deciding how the relationship between the district court and our court shapes a challenge to that inquiry. Those questions are far removed from the partisan skirmishes of the day. The resolution of those questions in this case involves nothing more and nothing less than the application of neutral principles about which reasonable jurists on this court disagree. See Robert H. Bork, Neutral Principles and Some First Amendment Problems, 47 IND. L.J. 1 (1971). And that principled disagreement revisits a long-running debate about the relative powers of the Executive and Judicial Branches. Today we reach the unexceptional yet important conclusion that a court of appeals should stay its hand and allow the district court to finish its work rather than hear a challenge to a decision not yet made. That is a policy the federal courts have followed since the beginning of the Republic, see Judiciary Act of 1789, ch. 20, § 22, 1 Stat. 73, 84; 28 U.S.C. § 1291, and we are aware of no case in which a court of appeals has ordered a district judge to decide a pending motion in a particular way.

It’s unlikely to placate the frothers. But it might lead SCOTUS to deny any appeal.

The Supreme Court Has Already Agreed that the Mystery Appellant Caused a “Direct Effect” in the United States

I’d like to make a minor — but I think important — point about the DC Circuit opinion in the Mystery Appellant challenge to what is believed to be a Robert Mueller subpoena. Assuming that this is a challenge to a Special Counsel subpoena, then the Supreme Court has already agreed with Mueller — in dissolving a stay of financial penalties for blowing off a subpoena — that some company owned by a foreign country took an action outside the US that had an effect inside the US, in an investigation into what happened during an election.

This post will assume that this is a Mueller subpoena. Some of the evidence backing that assumption includes:

  • DC District Chief Judge Beryl Howell issued the original order; she presides over Mueller’s grand jury
  • A lawyer asked for Mueller’s latest sealed filing on the day a response from the Mystery Appellant was due
  • Greg Katsas recused from consideration of this case; he had said he would recuse on Mueller related issues
  • The secrecy for the hearing before the DC Circuit, and arguably the review process for this challenge, were exceptional
  • Mueller lawyers Michael Dreeben and Zainab Ahmad were seen returning to his office after the DC Circuit hearing

Judges David Tatel, Thomas Griffith, and Stephen Williams issued their order on December 18. The Mystery Appellant appealed to the Supreme Court, and over Christmas John Roberts took briefing on that appeal. Last week the Supreme Court declined to uphold the stay, effectively agreeing with the Circuit’s decision.

And that’s important, because a key part of the now-public (though still partly sealed) DC Circuit opinion explains how the presumed Mueller request overcomes the sovereign immunity of the company in question. The request must involve — among other things — an exception to sovereign immunity.

Taking section 1604 ‘s grant of immunity as a given, the government must check three boxes for the contempt order to stand. First, there must be a valid grant of subject-matter jurisdiction. Second, one of the Act’s exceptions to immunity must apply. And third, the contempt sanctions must be a permissible remedy. According to the district court, the government satisfies all three. We agree.

Mueller claimed that this qualified as an exception because the request involves an “act outside the territory of the United States in connection with a commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere [when] that act causes a direct effect in the United States.”

Moving to those exceptions, in its ex parte filing the government steers us to the third clause of section 1605(a)(2). That provision denies immunity in an “action … based … upon an act outside the territory of the United States in connection with a commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere [when] that act causes a direct effect in the United States.” Ordinarily, the Corporation would bear the burden to establish that the exception does not apply. See EIG Energy FundXIV, L.P. v. Petroleo Brasileiro, S.A., 894 F.3d 339, 344- 45 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (“[T]he foreign-state defendant bears the burden of establishing the affirmative defense of immunity,” including “‘proving that the plaintiff’s allegations do not bring its case within a statutory exception to immunity.”‘ (quoting Phoenix Consulting Inc. v. Republic of Angola, 216 F .3d 36, 40 (D.C. Cir. 2000))).

And because Mueller relied on an ex parte filing to make that case, all the judges involved — Howell, Tatel, Griffith, Williams, Roberts, and whoever else at SCOTUS reviewed this — relied on the argument that Mueller’s lawyers laid out about the request.

Here, however, the government relies primarily on ex parte evidence unavailable to the Corporation. We have repeatedly approved the use of such information when “necessary to ensure the secrecy of ongoing grand jury proceedings,” In re Sealed Case No. 98-3077, 151 F.3d 1059, 1075 (D.C. Cir. 1998), and we do so again here. But where the government uses ex parte evidence, we think the burden falls on the government to establish that the exception applies, and we will conduct a searching inquiry of the government’s evidence and legal theories as a substitute for the adversarial process.

In a sealed discussion of Mueller’s ex parte filing, the DC Circuit finds a “reasonable probability” that that section covers this subpoena. It goes further and states that it doesn’t have to decide what the gravamen of the subpoena is, which suggests that something about this request makes it very clear that the company both possess the records and that they are relevant to Mueller’s investigation.

The “gravamen” of a subpoena may be the mere fact that an entity possesses the documents in question. Alternatively, the “gravamen” may be related to the content of the records and why they may be relevant to the government’s investigation. Indeed, the correct approach may well vary with the facts of a given case. Here, however, we need not resolve that issue [redacted]

There’s some other redacted discussion that dismisses a claim made by the corporation that will be interesting for the history books. But the DC Circuit is clear that the request — as laid out in an ex parte filing presumably written by Mueller’s lawyers — clears the subject matter question.

None of this analysis tells us enough about the company for us to guess what foreign company it is. The WaPo says it is a financial institution. I happen to think that Qatar or the Emirates’ investment authority are the most likely candidates but that’s just an educated guess.

Still, if this is indeed a Mueller subpoena, given the topic of Mueller’s inquiry and his fairly clear discipline at staying within the scope of it, that nevertheless is a signifiant revelation. That’s because Mueller is investigating events relating to an election. And most acts by a company owned by a foreign country that cause an effect in this country — if they have some relationship with that election — would be illegal. It could be the payoff for a bribe. It could be a more direct expenditure associated with the campaign. It could be a payment associated with activities that occurred during the campaign.

Maybe it’s something far more obscure. But any of the obvious applications here would all implicate a foreign country influencing — directly or indirectly — the election. And SCOTUS has already reviewed that Mueller argument, and found it reasonable.

That doesn’t mean SCOTUS has reviewed the evidence the company has, it doesn’t mean the company will turn over the evidence (though it would already incurred something like $300,000 to avoid compliance), it doesn’t mean the evidence proves whatever crime Mueller has cited in demanding it.

But SCOTUS has, at a minimum, found Mueller’s argument that such evidence would be relevant to his criminal investigation reasonable.

Update: Added language to make what happened — SCOTUS dissolved the stay — technically correct.

Update: And SCOTUS is now debating whether to allow the Mystery Appellant to file cert under seal or not.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

The Author of the White Paper, Stuart Delery, Argues Selective, Misleading Disclosures Should Not Be Checked by FOIA

As I noted in this post, Daniel Klaidman has identified the author of the targeted killing white paper as Stuart Delery.

At the time he wrote the white paper, Delery was Senior Counselor to Attorney General Eric Holder. Last March, he became Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Division of DOJ and, in the absence of an Assistant AG (or, as far as I can tell, even a nominee, in which case this feels a lot like what George Bush did with Steven Bradbury when he left the Acting head in charge for years on end), the Acting head of the Civil Division.

As I also noted, Delery actually argued the government’s case in the ACLU’s Drone FOIA on September 20, 2012. Now, that’s the ACLU’s other drone FOIA, not the one specifically requesting information that should have included the unclassified white paper Delery wrote if DOJ had answered the FOIA in good faith.

Nevertheless, it asked for closely related information:

The Request seeks a variety of records relating to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct targeted killings, including the legal basis for the strikes and any legal limits on who may be targeted; where targeted drone strikes can occur; civilian casualties; which agencies or other non-governmental entities may be involved in conducting targeted killings; how the results of individual drone strikes are assessed after the fact; who may operate and direct targeted killing strikes; and how those involved in operating the program are supervised, overseen or disciplined.

At the time ACLU submitted the request on January 13, 2010, Delery was in the Deputy Attorney General’s Office. DOJ responded to its part of the FOIA on February 3, 2010 — 16 days after DOJ worked on a briefing on targeted killing Eric Holder would make to President Obama and 15 days after he delivered that briefing — by claiming only FBI would have responsive records. When FBI searched its records it found none. DOJ made that initial response 6 days before someone in DAG — Delery’s office — wrote an email to OLC about the Holder briefing.

So while DOJ’s non-responsiveness in the drone FOIA is not as egregious as it was in the Awlaki FOIA, it’s still clear that the department Delery worked in, if not (as in the Awlaki FOIA) Delery’s work itself, was shielded from FOIA by a disingenuous FOIA response.

Yet Delery, the Acting head of the Civil Division, nevertheless decided he should argue the government’s case. Technically, Delery was arguing for CIA’s right to pretend it hadn’t confirmed its role in drone strikes in spite of repeated public statements doing just that, so he wasn’t defending the non-disclosure of his Department’s work, per se. Still, it’s not generally considered good form for a lawyer to argue a matter in which he has been so closely involved. He did so, however, at a time before we knew just how centrally involved he was in this matter.

With all that in mind, I thought I’d look at what Delery said to the DC Circuit.

MR. DELERY: May it please the Court, Stuart Delery for the Appellee, CIA.

This Court in several cases has identified two important interests that the strict test for official confirmation serves. It protects the Government’s vital interest in information related to national security and foreign affairs, and it advances FOIA’s interest in disclosure by not punishing officials for attempting to educate the public on matters of public concern because otherwise officials would be reluctant to speak on important national security matters.

Here, the Government has acknowledged that the United States makes efforts to target specific terrorists as part of its counter-terrorism operations, that as part of those operations or, in some cases, those operations involve the use of remotely piloted aircraft or drones, and it’s also described the legal framework and standards that apply in this context in a series of speeches and interviews including by the President’s counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, but also the Attorney General, the legal advisor to the State Department, the General Council of DOD, and as has been  referenced in yesterday’s or the recent exchange of 28J letters including a recent interview by the President. But, there’s been no official acknowledgment one way or the other about whether the CIA is involved in these particular operations. [my emphasis]

Delery suggests that a series of Leon Panetta comments (both before and after he moved from CIA to DOD) making the CIA’s role in drone killing clear should not amount to confirmation that the CIA is involved in drone killing because, he says, FOIA’s interest in disclosure should not punish public officials for attempting to educate the public.

Or, to put it another way, the Administration giving a bunch of self-serving speeches should not then make the topic of those speeches subject to FOIA because, in Delery’s mind, that would work contrary to FOIA’s support for disclosure because it would punish officials for giving self-serving speeches.

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