CREW’s Self-Inflicted Injury in the Emoluments Clause Challenge

January 22nd, 2017

On Monday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. Donald J. Trump, will be filed in SDNY by Deepak Gupta, joined by Larry Tribe, Erwin Chemerinsky, Zephyr Teachout, Norm Eisen, and Richard Painter. The complaint asserts that Trump’s various business interests result in violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause (as well as a half-hearted claim that his income also violates the Domestic Emoluments Clause). Further, it asks SDNY (Judge Rakoff perhaps?) to declare Trump’s conduct unlawful, and issue “[i]njunctive relief, enjoining Defendant from violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause, as construed by this Court.”

In terms of the merits, there is nothing new about this suit. We’ve debated at length about whether the emoluments clause applies to the President, and what precisely an emolument is. (As I’ve noted, the South Texas Law Review is organizing a symposium on this topic–we already have commitments from Andy Grewal, Seth Barrett Tillman, and Rob Natelson; I’ve invited several of the people involved with this suit, but each declined).

In this post, I’d like to focus on the standing argument, which is their first hurdle. In short, the complaint argues that because CREW is spending time on Trump’s emolument issue, they are not able to do things they would otherwise do. Therefore, they are injured under Article III, and can bring suit. The leading precedent they cite is Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman.

A careful study of Havens Realty, a unanimous opinion from 1982 by Justice Brennan, demonstrates why the argument for standing is incredibly weak. Havens Realty involved a housing rights group (HOME) that sent “tester plaintiffs” to determine if Havens Realty was engaging in “racial steering” (that is, accepting white tenants but rejecting black tenants). The white tester were offered apartments; the black tester was told there were no vacancies. Apart from the testers, HOME asserted standing its own right:

It asserted that the steering practices of Havens had frustrated the organization’s counseling and referral services, with a consequent drain on resources. . . . “Plaintiff HOME has been frustrated by defendants’ racial steering practices in its efforts to assist equal access to housing through counseling and other referral services. Plaintiff HOME has had to devote significant resources to identify and counteract the defendant’s [sic ] racially discriminatory steering practices.”

HOME asserted damages under Section 804 of the Fair Housing Act (42 USC 3604(d)), which makes it unlawful for a firm to:

“represent to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin that any dwelling is not available for inspection, sale, or rental when such dwelling is in fact so available.”

Section 812(a) (42 USC 3612(a)) provides for the cause of action:

When a charge is filed under section 3610 of this title, a complainant, a respondent, or an aggrieved person on whose behalf the complaint was filed, may elect to have the claims asserted in that charge decided in a civil action under subsection (o) of this section in lieu of a hearing under subsection (b) of this section. The election must be made not later than 20 days after the receipt by the electing person of service under section 3610(h) of this title or, in the case of the Secretary, not later than 20 days after such service. The person making such election shall give notice of doing so to the Secretary and to all other complainants and respondents to whom the charge relates.

With this provision, the Court, observed:

Congress has thus conferred on all “persons” [JB: including organizations, which are corporations] a legal right to truthful information about available housing.

The Court’s analysis focused extensively on “congressional intention” underly the FHA to permit suits:

This congressional intention cannot be overlooked in determining whether testers have standing to sue. As we have previously recognized, “[t]he actual or threatened injury required by Art. III may exist solely by virtue of ‘statutes creating legal rights, the invasion of which creates standing….’ ” Warth v. Seldin, supra, at 500, 95 S.Ct., at 2205, quoting Linda R.S. v. Richard D., 410 U.S. 614, 617, n. 3, 93 S.Ct. 1146, 1148, n. 3, 35 L.Ed.2d 536 (1973). Accord, Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 732, 92 S.Ct. 1361, 1364, 31 L.Ed.2d 636 (1972); Trafficante v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 409 U.S. 205, 212, 93 S.Ct. 364, 368, 34 L.Ed.2d 415 (1972) (WHITE, J., concurring). Section 804(d), which, in terms, establishes an enforceable right to truthful information concerning the availability of housing, is such an enactment.

However, the facts of the case were split. With respect to the black tester (Coleman), there was standing because he was actually injured (given false information):

In the instant case, respondent Coleman—the black tester—alleged injury to her statutorily created right to truthful housing information. As part of the complaint, she averred that petitioners told her on four different occasions that apartments were not available in the Henrico County complexes while informing white testers that apartments were available. If the facts are as alleged, then respondent has suffered “specific injury” from the challenged acts of petitioners, see App. 16, ¶ 13, and the Art. III requirement of injury in fact is satisfied.

For the white tester (Willis), there was no standing, because he was never injured (he was given true information):

Respondent Willis’ situation is different. He made no allegation that petitioners misrepresented to him that apartments *375 were unavailable in the two apartment complexes. To the contrary, Willis alleged that on each occasion that he inquired he was informed that apartments were available. As such, Willis has alleged no injury to his statutory right to accurate information concerning the availability of housing. We thus discern no support for the Court of Appeals’ holding that Willis has standing to sue in his capacity as a tester.

With respect to HOME’s standing analysis, it is important to stress what the Court did, and did not resolve. First, it did not hold that the organization has standing in its own right to seek injunctive relief:

HOME brought suit against petitioners both as a representative of its members and on its own behalf. In its representative capacity, HOME sought only injunctive relief. See App. 17, ¶ 16; id., at 18–20, ¶ 18. Under the terms of the letter settlement reached between petitioners and respondents, however, HOME has agreed to abandon its request for injunctive relief in the event the District Court ultimately approves the settlement.

The Court did address whether the organization has standing in its own right to seek damages:

While we therefore will not decide the question involving HOME’s representative standing, we do proceed to decide the question whether HOME has standing in its own right; the organization continues to press a right to claim damages in that latter capacity. . . . If, as broadly alleged, petitioners’ steering practices have perceptibly impaired HOME’s ability to provide counseling and referral services for low-and moderate-income homeseekers, there can be no question that the organization has suffered injury in fact. Such concrete and demonstrable injury to the organization’s activities—with the consequent drain on the organization’s resources—constitutes far more than simply a setback to the organization’s abstract social interests, see Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S., at 739, 92 S.Ct., at 1368.

This is the crux of CREW’s arguments: because of the “drain on the organization’s resources” it has standing to challenge President Trump’s business interests. Their argument fails for at least three reasons.

FirstHavens Realty only concerned standing for damages, not injunctive relief. CREW seeks only injunctive relief, and no damages (other than attorney’s fees). The Sixth Circuit noted this distinction in Fair Elections Ohio v. Husted:

…the plaintiff organization sought damages, not an injunction, id. at 378, 102 S.Ct. 1114; damages are a classic basis for standing. And as the Supreme Court later held in City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, plaintiffs who have standing to bring a damages claim do not necessarily have standing to bring a claim for injunctive relief. 461 U.S. 95, 103 S.Ct. 1660, 75 L.Ed.2d 675 (1983).

Fair Elections Ohio v. Husted, 770 F.3d 456, 460 (6th Cir. 2014)

Havens Realty does not provide the rule of decision for a suit concerning injunctive relief.

Second, the Court’s analysis was very closely tied to the specific statutory scheme erected by Congress under the FHA. Again, Husted offers a relevant analysis.

the injury to the plaintiff organization in Havens was a distinct and palpable injury to a broad legal right intrinsic to the organization’s activities. In Havens, the right under the Fair Housing Act was “an enforceable right [of any person] to truthful information concerning the availability of housing,” 455 U.S. at 373, 102 S.Ct. 1114—a right that cuts to the core of an organization that “provide[d] counseling and referral services for low-and moderate-income homeseekers,” id. at 379, 102 S.Ct. 1114. The misinformation provided by the Havens defendants, i.e. a lie told to black renters, including a member of the organization, that no rental units were available, directly interfered with the organization’s ability to provide truthful counseling and referral services. The present case does not involve false information.

True, CREW may have an interest in ethics, but they don’t have a similar statutory hook to go after the President’s emoluments clause violations, as HOME did with respect to the FHS.

Third, I frankly don’t understand how the three-decade old Havens can be reconciled with Spokeo v. Robbins (2016) Clapper v. Amnesty International (2012).

In Clapper, the Court held that asserting that there was an “objectively reasonable likelihood” of some future injury, was not sufficient to create Article III standing. I searched all of the briefs in Clapper, and found only one citation to Havens in the brief by the NYC Bar’s Committee on Civil Rights:

Contrary to the government’s contention, “[s]tanding is not defeated merely because the plaintiff has in some sense contributed to his own *18 injury.” 13A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3531.5 (3d ed. 2008). Such is foreclosed by several of this Court’s precedents. See, e.g., Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs., 528 U.S. 167, 184-85 (2000) (holding that plaintiffs’ decision to curtail their recreational use of a river polluted by defendant was “entirely reasonable” and thus constituted an injury in fact); Keene, 481 U.S. at 475 (finding that plaintiffs “need to take … affirmative steps to avoid the risk of harm to his reputation constitutes a cognizable injury”); Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363, 379 (1982) (finding that plaintiff’s decision to devote significant resources to counteract defendant’s racially discriminatory steering practices constituted a “concrete and demonstrable injury”). Although these cases focused on whether the plaintiffs had established injury-in-fact, they nonetheless held that a plaintiff who reasonably changes his or her behavior to avoid the risk of harm caused by the defendant’s challenged conduct has standing. See Laidlaw, 528 U.S. at 184-85.

If Amnesty International could assert an injury because it diverted resources from Activity A to Activity B, as the amicus brief notes, it would change its “behavior to avoid the risk of harm caused by the defendant’s challenged conduct,” and thus have standing. The Court, no doubt, rejected this argument. Neither the majority nor the dissent cited it.

The second relevant case is Spokeo v. Robins. Robins asserted that Spokeo violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by posting false information about him. In a somewhat unsatisfying opinion to procedure nerds, Justice Alito held that even if the injury was particularized, it was not concrete.

Concreteness is quite different from particularization and requires an injury to be “de facto,” that is, to actually exist.

Whatever that means, the majority opinion does not cite Havens, nor does it discuss whether Robins decision to search Spokeo, as opposed to doing something else, was sufficient to generate an opinion.

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent does cite Havens in two spots. First, she discusses it among other cases, in the context of Congress creating new private causes of action.

When Congress creates new private causes of action to vindicate private or public rights, these Article III principles circumscribe federal courts’ power to adjudicate a suit alleging the violation of those new legal rights. Congress can create new private rights and authorize private plaintiffs to sue based simply on the violation of those private rights. See Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 500, 95 S.Ct. 2197, 45 L.Ed.2d 343 (1975). A plaintiff seeking to vindicate a statutorily created private right need not allege actual harm beyond the invasion of that private right. See Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363, 373–374, 102 S.Ct. 1114, 71 L.Ed.2d 214 (1982) (recognizing standing for a violation of the Fair Housing Act).

Second, Ginsburg notes that FHA and the FCRA are on a similar footing, in light of Congress’s intent to prevent dissemination of inaccurate information:

The Court acknowledges that Congress has the authority to confer rights and delineate claims for relief where none existed before . . . ; Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363, 373, 102 S.Ct. 1114, 71 L.Ed.2d 214 (1982) (identifying, as Article III injury, violation of plaintiff’s right, secured by the Fair Housing Act, to “truthful information concerning the availability of housing”)^3

^3 Just as the right to truthful information at stake in Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363, 102 S.Ct. 1114, 71 L.Ed.2d 214 (1982), was closely tied to the Fair Housing Act’s goal of eradicating racial discrimination in housing, so the right here at stake is closely tied to the FCRA’s goal of protecting consumers against dissemination of inaccurate credit information about them.

RBG did not assert that Robbins decision to search Spokeo, and not Google, was sufficient to assert an injury. Diverting resources was not enough. And her dissent was closely pegged to Congress creating a private cause of action for damages–conditions that do not apply here.

In light of Spokeo and ClapperHavens is on a shaky footing. But even if it is good law, it is unhelpful to the Emoluments Clause suit, which does not rely on a congressional scheme, and does not seek damages. This injury is self-inflicted, and does not find support in the Court’s caselaw.

Putting aside the question of standing, a serious justiciability hurdle is whether this is a political question. (No court has ever addressed this Clause). The foreign emoluments clause specifically references Congress:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

Under Baker v. Carr (if those factors even matter any more), there is a “textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department.”

It is apparent that several formulations which vary slightly according to the settings in which the questions arise may describe a political question, although each has one or more elements which identify it as essentially a function of the separation of powers. Prominent on the surface of any case held to involve a political question is found a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; or a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; or the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion; or the impossibility of a court’s undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government; or an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made; or the potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question.

There is every reason for the courts to stay away from this issue.

Frankly, I’m surprised CREW fired early with this suit, while (reports NYT) the ACLU searches for a hotel or bed-and-breakfast that would have a stronger case for standing. Maybe the plan is to file one suit in the 2nd Circuit, another in the D.C. Circuit, and hope to bring one up to the Supreme Court as soon as possible.