Reflections on the Recent Dismissal of One of the Emoluments Clause Suits Against Donald Trump

One of the issues we’ve been following (on and off) over the last couple of years concerns the lawsuits (three in total) that various plaintiffs have brought against President Trump for alleged violation of the U.S. Constitutions “Emoluments Clauses” (see here, here, here, here, and here). In brief, Article I, Section 9 prohibits officers of the United States from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office or Title, of any kind whatever, from any … foreign state” unless Congress consents, while Article II, Section 1 prohibits the President specifically from receiving (during his or her term in office) “any other Emolument [other than the President’s official salary] from the United States, or any of them.” Critics of President Trump have argued that, because President Trump has not fully divested himself from his various businesses, and foreign governments have purchased goods and services from those businesses (or granted them other advantages, such as regulatory approvals or tax breaks), President Trump is in violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause. Similar sorts of transactions between state governments and Trump-owned businesses give rise to alleged violations of the Domestic Emoluments Clause. And these various lawsuits have sought a judicial remedy for these alleged violations—presumably an injunction requiring either divestment, or else a transfer of any proceeds or profits from prohibited transactions to the U.S. Treasury or some third party (though the plaintiffs in these suits have been a bit vague on exactly what sort of relief they’re seeking).

A potential hurdle for these suits, though, is whether these plaintiffs are allowed to bring them in the first place—a question independent of, and prior to, the merits of their claims. Under U.S. law, a plaintiff bringing a challenge in federal court must have “standing” to bring the claim, a requirement that has been interpreted (pursuant to an aggressive extrapolation from Article III of the Constitution) to require the plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant’s unlawful conduct causes the plaintiff a direct, concrete injury that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct and that could be remedied by a court order. In addition to this standing requirement, the plaintiffs must also show that they have a valid “cause of action”—in other words (and simplifying the legal complexities a bit) they must show that the legal provision under which they’re suing (here the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses) allow plaintiffs like them to sue to enforce those legal requirements. This in turn typically requires the plaintiffs to show that they have at least a colorable argument that their interests fall within the “zone of interests” protected by the law in question. Even some people (me included) who were sympathetic to the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims worried that, under existing doctrine, the plaintiffs in these cases might lose on standing and/or cause-of-action grounds, especially because federal courts might be anxious to make these cases go away without having to reach the merits.

Three weeks ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals dealt a serious blow to one of these Emoluments Clause cases, ruling that the plaintiffs (Washington D.C. and the state of Maryland) lacked standing to bring the case. In doing so, the appeals court reversed—and chastised—a district court judge who had concluded the plaintiffs had standing, and who later rejected the defendant’s other arguments for dismissing the suit before discovery could proceed. It’s taken me a while to read the opinion carefully, but now that I have, I figured it might make sense to offer some quick reactions. (The delay means that this can’t count as a “hot take.” Perhaps we can call it a “lukewarm take”?)

My main reactions—what the kids today would call the “TL;DR” version—are as follows: (1) The appeals court’s standing ruling is badly flawed as a matter of law. (2) That doesn’t mean the suit should have been allowed to proceed, because there are other preliminary barriers that might have been harder to overcome. (3) Despite the serious legal flaws in the Court of Appeals’ ruling, I think it significantly reduces the odds that these cases might proceed to discovery and trial, notwithstanding the fact that the litigation isn’t technically over. (4) The political consequences of the dismissal, though not great, are likely not as significant as people like me had worried, but nonetheless this case is a troubling and unnecessary abdication of a potentially important judicial check on (unconstitutionally) corrupt behavior. Let me elaborate each of these points: Continue reading