The Executive's Privilege
84 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2019 Last revised: 29 Sep 2020
Date Written: October 1, 2020
Both the executive branch and Congress claim the final word in oversight disputes. Congress asserts its subpoenas are legally binding. The executive branch claims the final authority to assert executive privilege and, accordingly, to refuse to comply with a subpoena without consequence. These divergent views stem in large part from the relative absence of any judicial precedent, including not a single Supreme Court decision on the privilege in the context of congressional oversight. In that vacuum—unconstrained by precedent—the executive branch has developed a comprehensive theory of executive privilege to support and implement prophylactic doctrines that render Congress largely powerless in oversight disputes.
For the first time, this Article sets out the full extent of the executive branch’s doctrine, the various pieces of which have been expressed in OLC opinions, letters to Congress, and court filings. Existing scholarship largely ignores this doctrine and addresses executive privilege on the basis of two unexamined premises: first, that the privilege is an affirmative constitutional authority belonging to the president, and, second, that the privilege is akin to an evidentiary privilege that protects specified categories of information. Moreover, existing scholarship rarely distinguishes between executive privilege in the context of judicial proceedings and congressional oversight.
Rejecting those premises, this Article proposes an understanding of executive privilege specific to congressional oversight that better reflects history and first principles of constitutional interpretation. Executive privilege in the context of congressional oversight is not an affirmative constitutional authority based on specific types of information but a limited presidential immunity from compelled congressional process—the Executive’s privilege. Both Congress’s oversight authority and executive privilege are recognized as implied constitutional authorities. But rather than infer two competing affirmative authorities, this Article proposes to infer a limit—presidential immunity—on the first. Doing so is more consonant with first principles of constitutional interpretation, more consistent with history, and more conducive to the proper balance of power between the branches. The Executive’s privilege, as set out in this Article, is an immunity contingent upon a president’s finding that concrete, identifiable harm would result from the disclosure of specific information to Congress. Understanding executive privilege as a limited immunity—and severing the privilege from the undifferentiated confidentiality interests and broad categories of information with which the executive branch has conflated it—eliminates the prophylactic doctrines on which the executive branch relies to thwart legitimate congressional oversight. Further, this understanding of the privilege provides a theoretical foundation to explain why it does not apply in impeachment, a position consistent with the historical understanding of Congress’s broad powers of inquiry during impeachments and subsequent trials.
Keywords: executive privilege, constitutional law, congress, oversight, impeachment
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