The U.S. Senate is considering two pieces of legislation that would increase protections for Special Counsel Robert Mueller should they become law. The two bills, S. 1735 by Senators Graham (R – South Carolina) and Booker (D – New Jersey) and S. 1741 by Senators Tillis (R – North Carolina) and Coons (D – Delaware), approach this goal in two different ways. Both add a provision that a special counsel can only be fired for “good cause.”
S. 1735 requires that before a special counsel can be fired, the Attorney General must first file an action with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and the House and Senate Judiciary Committees contemporaneously. Further, a three-judge panel must hear the action, and the special counsel can then only be removed if the court issues “an order finding misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or other good cause, including violation of policies of the Department of Justice.”
S. 1741 reverses that process while keeping the standard for removing a special counsel the same. So instead of the Attorney General going to Congress and the court first, the Attorney General instead first informs the special counsel in writing the reason for the removal. After that, the removed special counsel “may file an action with paragraph (2) that the removal was in violation of this section” and that action must be heard within 14 days by a three judge panel. If the panel determines the special counsel’s removal violates the requirements in the bill, they would get their job back. Interestingly, S. 1741 is retroactive to May 17, 2017 – when Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel.
The last action either of these bills saw was at a September 26, 2017 hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, at which Akhil Reed Amar – Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University – pointed out serious constitutional flaws in the bills, and proposed a way to achieve the goal of the bills without inviting constitutional challenges.
Invoking Edmond v US, Professor Amar points out that “the Court declared that an inferior officer must truly be … inferior (!) and must in general answer to some superior officer. … At present, a special counsel such as Robert Mueller is inferior (and thus constitutionally kosher) precisely because he can be fired at will – surely by the AG, and probably also by the President” in his testimony to the committee.
Put another way, in what Amar calls “The Inferior-Means-Inferior Principle”:
Special counsels are not confirmed by the Senate; thus they are only permitted if inferior. But these bills aim to make them independent. One simply cannot both be truly independent and truly inferior. A truly inferior officer must have a superior officer within his own branch to whom he answers and who can countermand or remove him if the superior loses confidence in the inferior.”
This is just one of multiple examples that Amar cites in his argument as to why S. 1735 and S. 1741 fail to pass constitutional muster. He proposes, instead, that the Senate “revise its committee structure to create a new and powerful Standing Committee on Presidential Oversight.”
The committee he envisions “should at all times have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats regardless of which party controls the Senate as a whole” where “the Republican caucus should choose the Democratic members of Presidential Oversight Committee and the Senate Democratic caucus should choose the Republican members.” Further, “each committee caucus should by rules and traditions be given broad authority to insist on hearings; each Committee caucus, if unanimous or if backed by at least one senator from across the aisle for each caucus defector, should itself have subpoena power. This Committee should also have a generous budget to hire professional career prosecutors and investigators, akin to career staff attorneys in the Justice Department itself” and “this new Senate Oversight Committee should at all times be chaired by a member of the party opposite to that of the US President.”
As stated before, nothing has happened with either bill since last September, so it is yet to be seen if Professor Amar’s concerns and ideas appear in amended legislation.