As regular readers of this blog are aware, although I share the concern that the Trump family’s extensive private business interests pose significant corruption risks, I’m skeptical that existing federal law supplies the tools needed to attack this problem. Some of the most important federal conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to the President, and some of the creative attempts to sue the President in federal court for alleged violations of the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause face what I fear are insurmountable legal obstacles. Several commentators have proposed reforms to federal law that would deal with the presidential conflict-of-interest problems more effectively, and some Members of Congress have introduced such legislation. But as a practical matter, given Republican control of Congress, these proposals—whatever their symbolic value—are not going anywhere.
If federal law isn’t going to help, might state law be the answer? Shortly after Donald Trump tweeted critical comments about Nordstrom’s department store’s decision to drop his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line, ethics expert Norm Eisen suggested that this tweet might be a violation of California’s unfair competition law (UCL), which prohibits “any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice.” Around the same time, Fordham Law Professor Jed Shugerman wrote a lengthy blog post, which got quite a bit of well-deserved attention, suggesting that state corporate law tools could be used to go after alleged violations of the Emoluments Clause by Trump’s businesses. Picking up on some of these suggestions, I argued in previous posts that the California UCL, or others with similarly broad phrasing, might be a viable basis for an Emoluments Clause suit, and further that states could amend their UCLs, consumer protection laws, business organization laws, and anticorruption laws in ways that would make it harder for businesses owned or controlled by the President of the United States (or his immediate family) to leverage political power for private commercial gain in ways that would adversely affect the interests of the states’ citizens.
The idea that state (or local) laws might be used in this way is not purely hypothetical or speculative. A couple of lawsuits are already invoking UCLs as a basis for going after allegedly unlawful overlap between the Trump family’s business interests and their political power. First, a Washington, D.C. restaurant brought a private suit alleging that Trump’s ownership interest in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., which occupies a building leased from the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA), violates the terms of the lease, and that this in turn gives rise to a violation of D.C.’s UCL. (That suit, however, was dealt a major blow when the GSA ruled—implausibly—that Trump is not in violation of the lease.) Second, a San Francisco clothing retailer has sued Ivanka Trump under California’s UCL, alleging that various actions by Donald and Ivanka Trump, and others, to promote Ivanka’s brand have unlawfully hurt competitors such as the plaintiff. And in what many took as an encouraging sign, the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently hired former Assistant United States Attorney Howard Master, who handled public corruption prosecutions under recently-fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, and news reports indicate that Mr. Schneiderman is looking into the possibility that Trump’s alleged Emoluments Clause violations also put him in violation of state law.
I’m cautiously optimistic about this line of attack, particularly if state attorneys general and state legislators get involved, and I’m currently working on developing some more concrete proposals along these lines. (As the modern cliché goes, “Watch this space.”) At the same time, though, I’ve talked to a number of smart, thoughtful people who are skeptical that pushing for state-level responses—particularly by aggressive state attorneys general—is such a good idea. While these criticisms haven’t yet convinced me to change my mind, they’re important enough that those of us attracted to the state law approach ought to take them seriously and reflect carefully before we charge ahead. So, let me try to summarize what I take as the three most important arguments against trying to use state law tools to make it more difficult for the Trump family to profit from the presidency: Continue reading →