Michael J. Elston

On July 7, 2008, CREW filed a complaint against Michael J. Elston with the Virginia Bar for his role in the illegal politicization of hiring practices at the Department of Justice. However, CREW did not file a complaint with the Illinois, Kansas or Missouri Bars, jurisdictions in which Mr. Elston is also admitted, as explained here, but only sent these associations a copy of the Virginia complaint. More importantly, because the CREW complaint addressed only the illegal politicization of hiring practices at the Department of Justice, CREW notably failed to address Mr. Elston’s role in the politicized firing of several sitting United States Attorneys. As set forth below, Mr. Elston is also in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Virginia regarding his role in the United States Attorney firings.

Personal Information:

  • Name: Michael J. Elston, Partner, McGuireWoods LLP
  • Washington Square, 1050 Connecticut Avenue N.W., Suite 1200
    Washington, District of Columbia 20036-5317
  • Telephone: 202-857-1700, Fax: 202-857-1737

Bar Information: Illinois

  • ID No.: N/A
  • Date of Admission as Lawyer by Illinois Supreme Court: November 10, 1994
  • Registered Business Address: Mcguirewoods LLP
    1750 Tysons Blvd, Suite 1800
    McLean, VA 22102-4231
  • Registered Business Phone: (703) 712-5366
  • Illinois Registration Status: Active and authorized to practice law
  • Last Registered Year: 2008
  • Malpractice Insurance: (Current as of date of registration; consult attorney for further information) In annual registration, attorney reported that he/she has malpractice coverage.
  • Public Record of Discipline and Pending Proceedings: None

Grievance Information: Illinois

Bar Information: Kansas

  • ID No.: N/A
  • Status: Unknown
  • On July 2, 2008, Amanda Provorse, Attorney Registration, responded to my e-mail request for Mr. Elston’s status with the Kansas Bar that “Mr. Elston is currently active and in good standing. He was admitted 9/29/1998.”

Grievance Information: Kansas

Bar Information: Missouri

Grievance Information: Missouri

Bar Information: Virginia

  • ID No.: N/A
  • Status: Active
  • Registered Address: 1750 Tysons Boulevard, Suite 1800, McLean, VA 22102-4215
  • Registered Phone: 703-712-5366 and Fax: 703-712-5215
  • Member class: Active

Grievance Information: Virginia

While reviewing this matter, it is important to keep in mind that the privilege to practice law imposes duties and responsibilities on each attorney who accepts a license to practice law. These obligations are described in the Preamble to the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct :

The practice of law is a public trust. Lawyers are the trustees of the system by which citizens resolve disputes among themselves, punish and deter crime, and determine their relative rights and responsibilities toward each other and their government. Lawyers therefore are responsible for the character, competence and integrity of the persons whom they assist in joining their profession; for assuring access to that system through the availability of competent legal counsel; for maintaining public confidence in the system of justice by acting competently and with loyalty to the best interests of their clients; by working to improve that system to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing society; and by defending the integrity of the judicial system against those who would corrupt, abuse or defraud it.

To achieve these ends the practice of law is regulated by the following rules. Violation of these rules is grounds for discipline.

* * *

The quality of the legal profession can be no better than that of its members. Lawyers must exercise good judgment and candor in supporting applicants for membership in the bar.

Lawyers also must assist in the policing of lawyer misconduct. The vigilance of the bar in preventing and, where required, reporting misconduct can be a formidable deterrent to such misconduct, and a key to maintaining public confidence in the integrity of the profession as a whole in the face of the egregious misconduct of a few.

These obligations are also expressly stated in the Preamble to the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, the Preamble to the Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct and the Preamble to the Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct, which provide, in part, that

A lawyer’s conduct should conform to the requirements of the law, both in professional service to clients and in the lawyer’s business and personal affairs. A lawyer should use the law’s procedures only for legitimate purposes and not to harass or intimidate others. A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges,
other lawyers and public officials. While it is a lawyer’s duty, when necessary, to challenge the rectitude of official action, it is also a lawyer’s duty to uphold legal process.

* * *

The legal profession’s relative autonomy carries with it special responsibilities of self-government. The profession has a responsibility to assure that its regulations are conceived in the public interest and not in furtherance of parochial or selfinterested concerns of the bar. Every lawyer is responsible for observance of the Rules of Professional Conduct. A lawyer should also aid in securing their observance by other lawyers. Neglect of these responsibilities compromises the independence of the profession and the public interest which it serves.

It is also important to bear in mind that although Mr. Elston denies improper motives or conduct, his denials and protestation must be evaluated based on the totality of the circumstances. As noted in the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, for Mr. Elston to believe that his conduct was proper, he must have “actually supposed the fact in question to be true” (which belief “may be inferred from circumstances”) and for that belief to be reasonable requires “that the circumstances are such that the belief is reasonable.” Additionally, because “a lawyer of reasonable prudence and competence would ascertain the matter in question” to be improper, Mr. Elston reasonably should have known that his conduct was improper.

As detailed more specifically below, Mr. Elston’s conduct violated the following the following rules of professional conduct:

Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct:

Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct

Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct

Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct

File a grievance against Mr. Elston

  1. Print, complete and sign the official Complaint Form for Illinois, Kansas, Missouri (or .pdf) and/or Virginia (or .pdf );
  2. Print and attach this page to the Complaint Form; and
  3. Mail the complaint to the address noted on the Complaint Form.

Allegation: Michael J. Elston engaged in conduct that was a violation of federal laws that prohibit the obstruction of justice when he threatened four (4) recently-resigned United States Attorneys.

Michael J. Elston’s participation in the scheme to fire multiple United States Attorneys is at least unethical, if not actually criminal. As set out in greater detail below, Mr. Elston’s role in the firing of numerous United States Attorneys included placing telephone calls to several of these U.S. Attorneys in which he conveyed the threat that the Department of Justice would publicly attack the U.S. Attorneys if they chose to testify to the United States House and Senate. As reported by Paul Kiel at TPMMuckraker on May 2, 2007,

U.S. Attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton told Congress that Michael Elston, the chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, called him and warned him to remain silent. “I believe that Elston was offering me a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the Attorney General’s,” Charlton wrote in answer to questions from the House Judiciary Committee.

Charlton did not expound on the conversation in his answer, only saying that the call occurred after the firing on December 7th, but before the attorney general testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 18th of this year.

It’s not the first time that Elston has been accused by one of the fired U.S. attorneys of trying to intimidate them into silence. Two others have said the same thing.

U.S. Attorney for Little Rock Bud Cummins testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Elston had made a similar call to him in mid-February. Cummins produced an email written the day of the call that clearly laid out the threatening undercurrent to Elston’s message.

And U.S. Attorney for Seattle John McKay has said that he got a call from Elston in December. Newsweek reported that McKay says “he also got a phone call from a ‘clearly nervous’ Elston asking if he intended to go public: ‘He was offering me a deal: you stay silent and the attorney general won’t say anything bad about you.'” (Emphasis supplied.)

Prior to this article, Mr. Kiel had reported on the contents of Mr. Cummins’ e-mail on March 7, 2007:

In a February 19th article in The Washington Post, Cummins was quoted on the firings:

“They’re [the Justice Department] entitled to make these changes for any reason or no reason or even for an idiotic reason,… But if they are trying to suggest that people have inferior performance to hide whatever their true agenda is, that is wrong. They should retract those statements.”

The next day, Cummins got a call from Elston. And very unfortunately for the Justice Department, Cummins sent out an email no more than an hour after the call to the other fired prosecutors (you can see it here):

The essence of his message was that they feel like they are taking unnecessary flak to avoid trashing each of us specifically or further, but if they feel like any of us intend to continue to offer quotes to the press, or organize behind the scenes congressional pressure, then they would feel forced to somehow pull their gloves off and offer public criticisms to defend their actions more fully…. I was tempted to challenge him and say something movie-like such as “are you threatening ME???”, but instead I kind of shrugged it off…

Cummins, a lifelong Republican, continues in the email to refer to Elston’s “threat of retaliation” and the “threatening undercurrent in the call.” So it was abundantly clear to him that he was being threatened.

The most inflammatory part of the email is Cummins’ description of Elston’s reaction to the idea of the fired prosecutors testifying before Congress:

“He reacted quite a bit to the idea of anyone voluntarily testifying and it seemed clear that they would see that as a major escalation of the conflict meriting some kind of unspecified form of retaliation.”

Mr. Kiel also reported on these comments from fired U.S. Attorney John McKay:

Now another prosecutor, Seattle’s John McKay, says he got a similar call much earlier, before the firings had even been reported. From Newsweek:

After McKay was fired in December, he says he also got a phone call from a “clearly nervous” Elston asking if he intended to go public: “He was offering me a deal: you stay silent and the attorney general won’t say anything bad about you.”

Murray Waas of the National Journal reported on May 3, 2007 these details regarding Mr. Elston’s conduct:

The U.S. attorneys have said that Elston, in effect, told them that if they kept quiet about their dismissals, the Justice Department would not suggest that they had been forced to resign because of poor performance.

* * *

McKay, who was the first of the prosecutors whom Elston called, described Elston’s message to him: “The attorney general was not going to disclose that I or the other U.S. attorneys were fired or forced to resign.… ‘We have no intention of naming people.'”

McKay said that Elston never specifically suggested an explicit quid pro quo whereby Justice officials would not say that McKay had been fired for cause or poor performance if McKay did not talk to the media or Congress about his firing. However, McKay said, “a reasonable person would have felt both offended and threatened” by Elston’s call.

McKay said that the message he took away from the conversation was, “If you remain silent, we will not out you as someone who was forced to resign.”

McKay said that he made contemporaneous notes of his conversation with Elston, and dated them — something, he said, that was not his ordinary practice. He did so because of his concerns about what Elston was telling him, according to McKay.

Charlton said he got a similar phone call from Elston on the same day. In formal response to written questions posed to him by the House Judiciary Committee, Charlton said, “I believe that Elston was offering me a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the attorney general’s.”

Cummins testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 6, at which time a contemporaneous e-mail he wrote within an hour of his phone call with Elston was released. In the e-mail, which he sent to five of his fellow prosecutors, Cummins said that the “essence of [Elston’s] message” was that if any of the fired U.S. attorneys had pressed their case in the media or before Congress, senior aides to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales might “feel forced to somehow pull their gloves off” and accuse the prosecutors of ineptitude or poor management.

Cummins also wrote in his e-mail that Elston had called him because he was upset about comments Cummins had made in the press about his firing. “[Justice officials] feel like they are taking unnecessary flak to avoid trashing each of us,” Cummins said in the e-mail to his fellow prosecutors. “I also made it a point to tell him that all of us have turned down multiple invitations to testify. He reacted quite a bit to the idea of anyone voluntarily testifying, and it seemed clear that they would see this as a major escalation of the conflict meriting some kind of unspecified form of retaliation.”

McKay, one of the prosecutors who got the e-mail, said: “[Cummins] wanted to send a message to all of us. We got that message, loud and clear: If you talk to the press or go to Congress, the Department of Justice will not consider you a friend. I considered it an act of intimidation.”

* * *

At the March 6 Senate Judiciary hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., asked Cummins and three others U.S. attorneys what they would have done in their capacity as federal prosecutors had they learned that an interested party in one of their investigations had tried to discourage a witness from providing information or testifying. All four said that they would have investigated the matter to determine a possible obstruction of justice.

“Mr. Cummins, let me ask you first. I’d like to ask you to put your U.S. attorney hat back on,” Whitehouse said. “You’re still in office, and think of a significant grand jury investigation that you led as United States attorney in your district. And consider that a significant witness in that grand jury investigation has just come into your office to relate to you that prior to his grand jury testimony he was approached about his testimony and [told]… essentially exactly the words that Mr. Elston approached you. What would your next step be as United States attorney?”

Cummins responded: “We take intimidation of witnesses very seriously in the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney’s office, so we would be very proactive in that situation.”

Attempting to moderate his statement, he added: “I would qualify that by saying that at the time this discussion was had, we weren’t under a subpoena; the idea of testifying was just kind of a theoretical idea out there. And I would say … to the extent we talked about testimony at all, it was the idea that running out and volunteering to be part of this would not be viewed charitably by the people that it would affect.”

Whitehouse pressed Cummins: “But if that sort of approach had been made to a witness in an active proceeding that you were leading, and you were extremely proactive about it, that would lead you where?”

“Well, we’d certainly investigate it and see if a crime had occurred.”

“And the crime would be?”

Cummins responded: “Obstruction of justice. I think there are several statutes that might be implicated — but obstruction of justice.”

Whitehouse posed the same question to John McKay, the fired U.S. attorney from Washington state.

McKay responded: “I would be discussing it with the assigned prosecutor and federal agents.”

“With regard to?”

“With regard to possible obstruction of justice.”

Whitehouse next put the question to David Iglesias, the fired U.S. attorney from New Mexico:

Iglesias replied: “Same answer, sir. I would contact the career [assistant U.S. attorney] and probably the FBI and talk about what’s the evidence we have to maybe move forward on an obstruction investigation.

Finally, Whitehouse looked toward Carol Lam, the fired U.S. attorney from San Diego.

She answered without hesitation: “Fundamentally the same answer: witness intimidation.” (Emphasis supplied.)

Lara Jakes Jordan adds in this article on June 16, 2007:

“I believe that Elston was offering me a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the attorney general’s,” wrote Paul Charlton, the former U.S. attorney in Nevada.

John McKay, former top prosecutor in Seattle, said he perceived a threat from Elston during his call. And Carol Lam, who was U.S. attorney in San Diego, said that “during one phone call, Michael Elston erroneously accused me of ‘leaking’ my dismissal to the press, and criticized me for talking to other dismissed U.S. attorneys.”

A fourth former U.S. attorney, Bud Cummins in Little Rock, Ark., had made a similar accusation in an e-mail released in March. At the time, Elston said he was “shocked and baffled” that his Feb. 20 conversation with Cummins could be interpreted as threatening.

Finally, Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein report in the Washington Post on June 16, 2007:

Former U.S. attorney John McKay of Seattle told Congress that on Jan. 17 — before McKay stepped down — he received a call from Elston that he “greatly resented.” He said Elston attempted to “buy my silence by promising that the attorney general would not demean me in his Senate testimony.”

“My handwritten and dated notes of this call,” McKay told Congress, “reflect that I believed Mr. Elston’s tone was sinister and that he was prepared to threaten me further if he concluded I did not intend to continue to remain silent about my dismissal.”

Paul K. Charlton, who was the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, said that he, too, received a call that day in which Elston offered “a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the attorney general’s.” Another former prosecutor, Carol C. Lam of San Diego, said Elston accused her of “leaking” word of her dismissal to the press “and criticized me for talking to other dismissed U.S. attorneys.”

Former U.S. attorney Bud Cummins of Little Rock also recounted a Feb. 20 conversation with Elston that Cummins said contained a “threatening undercurrent” warning that Justice Department officials would retaliate if he or his colleagues spoke to journalists or volunteered to testify in Congress.

As described by fired United States Attorneys John McKay, Bud Cummins, Paul Charlton and Carol Lam and as reported in the public record as noted above, the conduct of Mr. Elston clearly establishes that he committed criminal or deliberately wrongful acts that reflects adversely on the his honesty, trustworthiness and fitness to practice law. Additionally, Mr. Elston clearly engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

Allegation 2:

Michael J. Elston engaged in conduct that was a violation of federal laws that prohibit politicization of hiring within the Department of Justice when he selected candidates for employment based on political criteria.

As described in thisletter to Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman, Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, and The Honorable John Conyers, Jr., Chairman, Committee on the Judiciary, United States House of Representatives from A Group of Concerned Department of Justice Employees, dated April 9, 2007, Mr. Elston engaged in conduct that was a violation of federal hiring laws:

Needless to say, many people were upset and confused. Why had so many potential interviewees been removed from the list? [Italics in original] Top supervisors requested answers, and on December 5 a meeting was held with Michael Ellston [sic], Chief of Staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. Many division attorneys and staff were present, and Mr. Ellston [sic] was offensive to the point of insulting. Claiming that the entire group had not “done their jobs” in reviewing applicants, he said that he had a “screening panel” go over the list and research these candidates on the Internet; he refused to give the names of those on his “panel.” Mr. Ellston [sic] said that people were struck from the list for three reasons:grades, spelling errors on applications, and inappropriate information about them on the Internet, When the meeting attendees protested that these interviewees had excellent grades, Mr. Ellston [sic]replied that a Harvard graduate in the bottom half of the class was more desirable than the top students at a second-tier law schools. Although Mr. Ellston [sic] stated that he would entertain appeals to his decisions, few of these appeals were granted.

When division personnel staff later compared the remaining interviewees with the candidates struck from the list, one common denominator appeared repeatedly: most of those struck from the list had interned for a Hill Democrat, clerked for a Democratic judge, worked for a “liberal” cause, or otherwise appeared to have “liberal” leanings. Summa cum laude graduates of both Yale and Harvard were rejected for interviews. There are also reports that officials at Harvard’s Career Placement Office called DOJ personnel to ask why their students were not getting interviews and also to ask why decisions had not yet been made about the Summer Law Intern Program.

These allegations were confirmed by the United States Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility and Office of the Inspector Generals in their report,An Investigation of Allegations of Politicized Hiring in the Department of Justice Honors Program and Summer Law Intern Program, which provided the following details regarding Mr. Elston’s conduct:

…. However, we believe the most significant misconduct was committed by ELSTON, the head of the Screening Committee. ELSTON failed to take appropriate action when he learned that McDonald was routinely deselecting candidates on the basis of what she perceived to be the candidates’ liberal affiliations. We also concluded that ELSTON deselected some candidates – and allowed the deselection of others – based on impermissible considerations.

* * *

As explained below, we concluded that ELSTON violated federal law and Department policy by deselecting candidates based on their liberal affiliations. First, the data analysis indicates that highly qualified candidates with liberal or Democratic Party affiliations were deselected at a much higher rate than highly qualified candidates with conservative or Republican Party affiliations. Second, ELSTON admitted that he may have deselected candidates in a few instances due to their affiliations with certain liberal causes. ELSTON also was unable in specific cases to give a credible reason as to why highly qualified candidates with liberal or Democratic Party affiliations were deselected.

While ELSTON generally denied that he considered political or ideological affiliations in evaluating candidates, he admitted when questioned about certain candidates that he considered aspects of those candidates’ ideological affiliations in his evaluation. ….

In addition, ELSTON consistently was unable to provide credible explanations as to why he denied the appeals of the highly qualified candidates who had liberal or Democratic Party affiliations. His proffered reasons were also inconsistent with other statements he made or actions he took. ….

Similarly, we did not find credible ELSTON’s explanation that he may have denied the appeal of a highly qualified candidate who had worked for the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military because he concluded the candidate would not “stand up for the law with respect to sentencing and Department policy” due to the statement in her essay that she would be able to exercise prosecutorial discretion as a federal prosecutor. We also did not credit ELSTON’s other explanation for denying this candidate – that she was not academically qualified because she was in the top third rather than the top quarter of her class at Stanford Law – since it was inconsistent with his actions in approving other candidates from lower-tier law schools with lower grades. During his interview, ELSTON also frequently pointed to lines in candidates’ essays that may have been a basis for deselecting candidates because he said these statements could be indications that the candidates would improperly follow their own consciences rather than the Department’s policies. These included statements such as the candidate wanting to work for the Department because the job would allow the candidate “to consider what is best for my country.”

In addition to ELSTON’s failure to provide credible explanations for his actions during his interview, we concluded that ELSTON was not candid with others in the Department who questioned him during the hiring process about why candidates were being deselected. ….

Moreover, ELSTON tried to minimize his role in selecting candidates when he was questioned by others about the Committee’s decisions. ELSTON frequently explained that other Committee members had been responsible for the decisions and described his role as a conduit. However, the evidence demonstrated that he was casting the deciding vote on a significant number of candidates that Fridman had approved and McDonald had rejected.

In sum, we found that ELSTON was aware that McDonald was rejecting candidates based on her perception of the candidates’ political or ideological affiliations and that he failed to intervene, discuss it with her, or stop her from doing so. We also concluded that ELSTON committed misconduct, and violated federal law and Department policy, when he deselected candidates and denied appeals based on his perception of the political or ideological affiliations of the candidates.

* * *

IV. Conclusions and Recommendations

* * *

The documentary evidence and witness interviews also support the conclusion that two members of the 2006 Screening Committee, Esther Slater McDonald and Michael ELSTON, took political or ideological affiliations into account in deselecting candidates in violation of Department policy and federal law. For example, the evidence showed that McDonald wrote disparaging statements about candidates’ liberal and Democratic Party affiliations on the applications she reviewed and that she voted to deselect candidates on that basis.

We also found that ELSTON, the head of the 2006 Screening Committee, failed to take appropriate action when he learned that McDonald was routinely deselecting candidates on the basis of what she perceived to be the candidates’ liberal affiliations. The evidence also showed that ELSTON himself deselected some candidates – and allowed the deselection of others – based on impermissible considerations. Despite his initial denial in our interview that he did not consider such inappropriate factors, he later admitted in the interview that he may have deselected candidates in a few instances due to their affiliation with certain causes. In addition, ELSTON was unable to give a credible reason as to why specific highly qualified candidates with liberal or Democratic credentials were deselected.

We concluded that, as a result of the actions of McDonald and ELSTON, many qualified candidates were deselected by the Screening Committee because of their perceived political or ideological affiliations. We believe that McDonald’s and ELSTON’s conduct constituted misconduct and also violated the Department’s policies and civil service law that prohibit discrimination in hiring based on political or ideological affiliations.

However, because both McDonald and ELSTON have resigned from the Department, they are no longer subject to discipline by the Department for their actions. Nevertheless, we recommend that the Department consider the findings in this report should either McDonald or ELSTON apply in the future for another position with the Department.

[Footnote] 59 However, we found evidence that McDonald knew that using political and ideological affiliation was inappropriate, but did it anyway. As noted above, in an e-mail dated October 25, 2006, unrelated to the Honors Program and SLIP, McDonald advised a friend applying for a career position with the Department “there’s not much I can do apart from recommending you because there are legal constraints on career hiring to ensure that it’s not political.”

[Footnote] 60 Although ELSTON stated that he did not know whether McDonald’s no votes were actually based upon the negative comments she was making about the candidates’ liberal affiliations, we found that statement disingenuous. Fridman told ELSTON that McDonald was doing this, and the notations on the applications, which ELSTON recognized as McDonald’s handwriting, showed that McDonald was circling and commenting on these groups. Moreover, many of these candidates had stellar credentials, and there was no other apparent reason for McDonald recommending their deselection.

[Footnote] 61 OPR Counsel H. Marshall Jarrett recused himself from the evaluation of DeFalaise’s conduct.

(Emphasis supplied.)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Text of the Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct violated by Mr. Elston.


Update: Harriet E. Miers

I have updated the statement of facts alleging various violations by Harriet E. Miers of the Texas Rules of Professional Conduct with the recent Memorandum Opinion in COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY, U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES v. HARRIET MIERS, et al., Civil Action No. 08-0409 (JDB). in which United States District Judge John D. Bates confirms conduct of Ms. Miers that calls into question her fitness to practice law.

Personal Information:

  • Name: Miers, Harriet E.
  • Bar: Texas
  • ID No: 00000067
  • Status: Active

Grievance Information: Texas


Willful Failure to Appear pursuant to a Lawful United States House Judiciary Committee Subpoena

On June 13, 2007, Rep. John Conyers, Jr., and Sen Patrick Leahy, as Chairmen of the United States House and Senate Committees on the Judiciary, respectively, issued multiple subpoenas to former White House Counsel Harriet Miers to produce certain requested documents and to appear for testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law on July 12, 2007. See Conyers: Are Subpoenas Optional or Not?, Paul Kiel, TPMMuckraker.com, July 12, 2007; See also page 39, Memorandum to the Members of the Committee on the Judiciary from Rep. John C. Conyers, Jr., Chairman, dated July 24, 2007. On July 9, 2007, George Manning, attorney for Ms. Miers, informed the House Committee that Ms. Miers would “comply with the White House ‘direction[]’ by current White House Counsel Fred Fielding who “‘directed’ Ms. Miers not to provide testimony to the Committee. Id. at page 41. Chairman Conyers and Subcommittee Chair Linda Sanchez wrote to Mr. Manning stating “that it was incumbent on Ms. Miers to appear so that the Subcommittee could consider her claims of privilege concerning specific documents or in response to particular questions posed as the hearing. Id. Ms. Miers failed to appear before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on July 12, 2007. Id. at page 42. After failing to appear, and in response to an inquiry by Chairman Conyers, “Mr. Manning informed Chairmen Conyers on July 17, 2007, that his client intended to remain noncom pliant with the subpoena. Id . In the Memorandum, Chairman Conyers states:

Even more extraordinary than the executive privilege claims in this matter is the assertion that Ms. Miers, a former White House official not currently employed by the federal government, is absolutely immune from even appearing before the Subcommittee as directed by subpoena. The Supreme Court has specifically held that even a President, while serving in that capacity, can be subpoena by a court and can be required to participate in a civil lawsuit for damages by a private party. [FN 281] The Court’s holding in Jones flies in the face of the claim that a former White House official is somehow immune from even appearing in response to a Congressional subpoena. As with Sara Taylor, who received a subpoena similar to Ms. Miers’ but chose to appear and answer some questions before the Senate Judiciary Committee, no one can doubt that Ms. Miers would have been asked some questions that would not have fallen within even the broadest assertion of executive privilege, but Ms. Miers simply refused to attend her hearing altogether. Id .

* * *

[T]here is an additional reason that Ms. Miers’ claims concerning executive privilege were and should be rejected. When a private party like Ms. Miers is subject to a subpoena, it is improper for the subpoenaed person simply to refuse to … testify based on an assertion of privilege by a third party, in this case, the White House. … To the extent that the White House objected to the subpoena to Ms. Miers as a private citizen, therefore, its proper recourse – which would have been more than adequate to protect its own asserted rights – would have been to seek a court order, rather than unilaterally “directing” Ms. Miers to disobey a lawful subpoena herself. Id. at page 46.

* * *

[M]s. Miers was not being misled by a government entity into thinking she was acting lawfully, but instead she chose, with full knowledge of the possible consequences, to follow the White House’s flawed “directive.” As the entity which issued the subpoena to Ms. Miers, only the Committee was in a position to give her “reasonable reliance” that she could lawfully refuse to comply, but in fact the Committee did precisely the opposite and made clear that she was required to obey her subpoena. Id. at page 48. (emphasis in original)

* * *

As explained in the July 12 and July 19 rulings upheld by the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, the refusal … of Ms. Miers to testify or even appear pursuant to subpoena [has] no proper legal basis. Id. at page 52. FN 281 See Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681, 703-06 (1997). As the Court noted in United States v. Bryan, 339 U.S. 323-331 (1950), “persons summoned as witnesses have certain minimum duties and obligations which as necessary concessions to the public interest in the orderly operation of legislative and judicial machinery. …We have often iterated the importance of this public duty, which every person within the jurisdiction of the Government is bound to perform when properly summoned.”

As a result of her refusal to appear before the Subcommittee pursuant to a lawful subpoena, the House Judiciary Committee approved a contempt of Congress citation against Ms. Miers. House Democrats Approve Contempt of Congress Citations Wednesday Against 2 Presidential Aides, Laurie Kellman, AP News, July 25, 2007. See also House Committee Approves Contempt Citation, Paul Kiel, TPMMuckraker.com, July 25, 2007. Ms. Miers failure to appear pursuant to subpoena and her receipt of a contempt of Congress citation violate her ethical obligations under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct .

Chairman Conyers’ position has been upheld by United States District Judge John D. Bates in COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY, U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES v. HARRIET MIERS, et al., Civil Action No. 08-0409 (JDB). In his Memorandum Opinion, Judge Bates introduced the position taken by Ms.Miers as unprecedented, is without any support in the case law and fallacious:

Indeed, the aspect of this lawsuit that is unprecedented is the notion that Ms. Miers is absolutely immune from compelled congressional process. The Supreme Court has reserved absolute immunity for very narrow circumstances, involving the President’s personal exposure to suits for money damages based on his official conduct or concerning matters of national security or foreign affairs. The Executive’s current claim of absolute immunity from compelled congressional process for senior presidential aides is without any support in the case law. The fallacy of that claim was presaged in United States v. Nixon itself (id. at 706):

neither the doctrine of separation of powers, nor the need for confidentiality of highlevel communications, without more, can sustain an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial [or congressional] process under all circumstances.

Id. at p. 3.

In footnote 1 of his Opinion, Judge Bates’ states that “The Court will refer to the defendants in this action, and to the executive branch and the current administration generally, as “the Executive.” Id. at p. 2. Accordingly, each and every reference to the Executive is a reference to, inter alia, Mr. Miers.

Because Ms. Miers presented no legitimate claim for absolute immunity, Judge Bates rules that Ms. Miers must, in fact, appear pursuant to the validly issued subpoenas of the United States House and Senate Committees on the Judiciary:

Clear precedent and persuasive policy reasons confirm that the Executive cannot be the
judge of its own privilege and hence Ms. Miers is not entitled to absolute immunity from
compelled congressional process. Ms. Miers is not excused from compliance with the
Committee’s subpoena by virtue of a claim of executive privilege that may ultimately be made. Instead, she must appear before the Committee to provide testimony, and invoke executive privilege where appropriate. [Footnote] 38 [is not included herein] And as the Supreme Court has directed, the judiciary remains the ultimate arbiter of an executive privilege claim, since it is the duty of the courts to declare what the law is. See United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. at 703-05; see also Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) at 177.

Id. at p. 91.

In his analysis, Judge Bates provided an exhaustive review of the facts and then summarized the underlying facts in this matter:

The undisputed factual record, then, establishes the following. Notwithstanding a prolonged period of negotiation, [Footnote] 7[,] the parties reached a self-declared impasse with respect to the document production and testimony at issue here. Faced with that reality, the full House of Representatives voted to hold Ms. Miers and Mr. Bolten in contempt of Congress and certified the Contempt Report to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to pursue criminal enforcement of the contempt citations. The Attorney General then directed the U.S. Attorney not to proceed against Ms. Miers and Mr. Bolten. The Committee, then, filed this suit seeking civil enforcement of its subpoena authority by way of declaratory and injunctive relief.

[Footnote] 7 Mr. Fielding’s final letter to Chairman Conyers reveals that the Chairmen had “written ‘on eight previous occasions,’ three of which letters contain or incorporate specific proposals involving terms for a possible agreement.” See Pl.’s Mot. Ex. 34.

Id. at pp. 16-17.

Judge Bates also addresses Ms. Miers’ claim of absolute immunity, which was the basis for her refusal to even appear before the House and Senate Committees on the Judiciary:

The Executive maintains that absolute immunity shields Ms. Miers from compelled testimony before Congress. Although the exact reach of this proposed doctrine is not clear, the Executive insists that it applies only to “a very small cadre of senior advisors.” See Tr. at 96. The argument starts with the assertion that the President himself is absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony. There is no case that stands for that exact proposition, but the Executive maintains that the conclusion flows logically from Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731 (1982), where the Supreme Court held that the President “is entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability predicated on his official acts.” Id. at 749. “Any such [congressional] power of compulsion over the President,” the Executive asserts, “would obviously threaten his independence and autonomy from Congress in violation of separation of powers principles.” See Defs.’ Reply at 40. The Executive then contends that “[those] same principles apply just as clearly to the President’s closest advisers.” Id. Because senior White House advisers “have no operational authority over government agencies . . . [t]heir sole function is to advise and assist the President in the exercise of his duties.” Id. at 41. Therefore, they must be regarded as the President’s “alter ego.” In a similar context, the Supreme Court has extended Speech or Debate Clause immunity to legislative aides who work closely with Members of Congress. See Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606, 616-17 (1972). Accordingly, forcing close presidential advisors to testify before Congress would be tantamount to compelling the President himself to do so, a plainly untenable result in the Executive’s view. Indeed, as the Executive would have it, “[w]ere the President’s closest advisers subject to compelled testimony there would be no end to the demands that effectively could be placed upon the President himself.” See Defs.’ Reply at 43.

Unfortunately for the Executive, this line of argument has been virtually foreclosed by the
Supreme Court. In Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982), the plaintiff sued “senior White
House aides” for civil damages arising out of the defendants’ official actions. Id. at 802. The defendants argued that they were “entitled to a blanket protection of absolute immunity as an incident of their offices as Presidential aides.” Id. at 808. The Supreme Court rejected that position. Notwithstanding the absolute immunity extended to legislators, judges, prosecutors, and the President himself, the Court emphasized that “[f]or executive officials in general, however, our cases make plain that qualified immunity represents the norm.” Id. at 807. Although there can be no doubt regarding “the importance to the President of loyal and efficient subordinates in executing his duties of office, . . . these factors, alone, [are] insufficient to justify absolute immunity.” Id. at 808-09 (discussing Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978)).

Id. at pp. 79-80.

Judge Bates continues to decimate Ms. Miers’ claim of absolute immunity:

There is nothing left to the Executive’s primary argument in light of Harlow. This case, of course, does not involve national security or foreign policy, and the Executive does not invoke that mantra. The derivative, “alter ego” immunity that the Executive requests here due to Ms. Miers’s and Mr. Bolten’s close proximity to and association with the President has been explicitly and definitively rejected, and there is no basis for reaching a different conclusion here. Indeed, the Executive asks this Court to recognize precisely the type of blanket derivative absolute immunity that the Supreme Court declined to acknowledge in Harlow.

Id. at pp. 81-82.

Judge Bates also expressly pointed out that there is NO judicial precedent for Ms. Miers’ claims:

Thus, it would hardly be unprecedented for Ms. Miers to appear before Congress to testify and assert executive privilege where appropriate. Still, it is noteworthy that in an environment where there is no judicial support whatsoever for the Executive’s claim of absolute immunity, the historical record also does not reflect the wholesale compulsion by Congress of testimony from senior presidential advisors that the Executive fears. [Emphasis in original.]

Id. at pp. 83-84.

And that Ms. Miers’ claims are based solely on two (2) legal opinions issued by the Executive Branch itself:

Tellingly, the only authority that the Executive can muster in support of its absolute
immunity assertion are two OLC opinions authored by Attorney General Janet Reno and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury, respectively.

* * *

[T]he Court is not at all persuaded by the Reno and Bradbury opinions.

Id. at pp. 85-86.

Since Ms. Miers’ failure to appear pursuant to validly issued subpoenas is not supported by any colorable basis in law, her failure to appear is in violation of the Texas Rules of Professional Conduct. Accordingly, Ms. Miers’ conduct calls into question her fitness to practice law.

Supporting Links:

Conyers: Are Subpoenas Optional or Not?, Paul Kiel, TPMMuckraker.com, July 12, 2007

Memorandum to the Members of the Committee on the Judiciary regarding Full Committee Consideration of Report on the Refusal of Former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten to Comply with Subpoenas By the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John C. Conyers, Jr., Chairman, July 24, 2007

House Democrats Approve Contempt of Congress Citations Wednesday Against 2 Presidential Aides, Laurie Kellman, AP News, July 25, 2007

House Committee Approves Contempt Citation, Paul Kiel, TPMMuckraker.com, July 25, 2007

Rules Violated:

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,