Congress's (Limited) Power to Represent Itself in Court

63 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2013 Last revised: 23 Jun 2022

See all articles by Tara Leigh Grove

Tara Leigh Grove

University of Texas School of Law

Neal Devins

William & Mary Law School

Date Written: August 21, 2013


Scholars and jurists have long assumed that, when the executive branch declines to defend a federal statute, Congress may intervene in federal court to defend the law. When invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act, for example, no Justice challenged the authority of the House of Representatives to defend federal laws in at least some circumstances. At the same time, in recent litigation over the Fast and Furious gun-running case, the Department of Justice asserted that the House could not go to court to enforce a subpoena against the executive. We seek to challenge both claims. We argue that Congress has the constitutional power to enforce subpoenas but not defend federal statutes in court. Congressional defense of federal statutes violates two constitutional norms. First, except in certain specified situations (none of which are applicable here), the Constitution prohibits Congress or one of its components from having any role in the implementation of federal law. Second, unilateral defense by the House or the Senate violates the constitutional norm of bicameralism. The Constitution does not authorize either chamber to speak on behalf of “the Congress,” much less the United States, in defense of federal law. By contrast, the Constitution gives each chamber considerable power to investigate wrongdoing by the executive, and to conduct litigation growing out of such investigations ― by, for example, enforcing subpoenas. We believe that this limited congressional power to appear in court makes eminent sense. The House and Senate counsel, as currently constituted, are poorly suited to defend their joint work product in court but are well situated to represent their respective institutions in other proceedings against the executive. Furthermore, this investigative power gives each chamber a powerful (and often overlooked) constitutional tool to do battle with the executive.

Keywords: Congress, separation of powers, House counsel, Senate counsel, duty to defend

Suggested Citation

Grove, Tara Leigh and Devins, Neal, Congress's (Limited) Power to Represent Itself in Court (August 21, 2013). Cornell Law Review, Vol. 99, (2014 Forthcoming), William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-253, Available at SSRN:

Tara Leigh Grove

University of Texas School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States

Neal Devins (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States
757-221-3845 (Phone)
757-221-3261 (Fax)

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics