Tuesday, 21 May 2024

Supreme Court Takes Up Case on Trump Hotel Records

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced on Monday that it would decide whether individual members of Congress are entitled to sue a government agency for information about a Washington hotel once owned by former President Donald J. Trump.

Days before Mr. Trump left office, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, all Democrats and making up less than a majority of the panel’s members, had standing to sue for access to government documents concerning possible conflicts of interest at the Trump International Hotel.

A company owned by Mr. Trump and his children had leased the facility, once known as the Old Post Office Building, in 2013. The lease said that no “elected official of the government of the United States” shall “be admitted to any share or part of this lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”

Critics said Mr. Trump’s ownership of the hotel while president raised a host of ethical questions, some of constitutional dimension. The Trump family sold the hotel last year, and it is now operating as a Waldorf Astoria.

A federal law enacted in 1928 empowers any seven members of the House oversight committee to obtain information from agencies in its jurisdiction. In 2017, after having been repeatedly rebuffed by the General Services Administration for documents concerning the hotel, Representative Elijah E. Cummings, then the committee’s ranking member, along with 16 colleagues, issued a request under the 1928 law.

The agency refused to comply, saying that “individual members of Congress, including ranking minority members, do not have the authority to conduct oversight.”

The lawmakers sued, and a trial judge dismissed the case on standing grounds.

Judge Patricia A. Millett, writing for the majority, said the lawmakers had standing to sue.

“A rebuffed request for information to which the requester is statutorily entitled is a concrete, particularized and individualized personal injury,” she wrote, adding, “The separation of powers, it must be remembered, is not a one-way street that runs to the aggrandizement of the executive branch.”

In dissent, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg wrote that individual members of Congress lacked standing to assert the institutional interests of the legislature.

The full D.C. Circuit, over the dissents of four judges, refused to rehear the case. The Biden administration, apparently putting institutional considerations over partisan interests, sought review from the Supreme Court.

“Our nation’s history makes clear,” Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar wrote, “that an informational dispute between members of Congress and the executive branch is not of the sort traditionally thought to be capable of resolution through the judicial process.”

She added that “members of Congress have ample means, short of suing in federal court, for redressing official-capacity harms” like a denial of a request under the 1928 law.

“They may draw public attention to agency failures at oversight hearings, seek to persuade their colleagues to restrict agency budgets or take other measures, vote for bills that the president opposes, and vote against bills that the president supports,” Ms. Prelogar wrote.

In response, lawyers for the lawmakers urged the justices not to hear the dispute, saying it was too idiosyncratic to warrant Supreme Court review. “This case is a legal unicorn,” they wrote.

The court agreed to hear the case, Carnahan v. Maloney, No. 22-425, even though the number of committee members involved in the case has dropped to five after the death of Mr. Cummings in 2019, the departures of some members from the committee or from Congress, and other developments. Though the 1928 law refers to a minimum of seven members, neither side argued that the case was moot.

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