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Supreme Court to review House Oversight lawsuit from 2017

Law enables any seven members of Oversight panel to request information from the government

The Supreme Court building in October.
The Supreme Court building in October. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Supreme Court will decide whether lawmakers can turn to the courts when the federal government denies them documents, as members of a House oversight committee did when they sought information about the former Trump International Hotel in Washington.

The case centers on a law that gives any seven members of what was then called the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee the right to request information from the federal government, which is separate from the typical authority of the panel’s majority to do so. A decision could reshape the ability of the minority party in Congress to oversee the federal government.

The justices announced Monday that they would hear an appeal from the Justice Department on a case that started in 2017. The case will likely be heard in the court’s next term starting in October.

Democrats on the panel filed a lawsuit against the General Services Administration for documents related to the agency’s lease of the building to former President Donald Trump. The Democrats were concerned about the potential for the Trump administration to use the lease and the hotel itself to benefit Trump personally.

The Democratic members argued the agency violated the law when it refused to provide them information. A district court dismissed the lawsuit, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the ruling and found that the lawsuit could proceed.

The hotel is not under Trump’s control anymore, Trump has been out of office for more than two years and seven of the lawmakers on the original lawsuit are not in Congress, but the case is still playing out in court.

The name of the case features former Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat who lost a primary in August. The lawsuit was originally led by the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who died in 2019.

The Justice Department, in a petition to the court, argued that members of Congress should not have the right to file a lawsuit against the federal government if they can convince any seven members of the Oversight Committee to do so.

“Our Nation’s history makes clear that an informational dispute between Members of Congress and the Executive Branch is not of the sort traditionally thought to be capable of resolution through the judicial process,” the Justice Department wrote in their brief.

The government argued that a small group of lawmakers would be able to threaten executive agencies with protracted litigation and spare congressional leadership from needing to negotiate with the executive branch on information requests from those members.

The portion of law cited by the Democratic Oversight members directs executive agencies to provide information requested by specific congressional committees, but it “does not provide in terms that Members have a legal ‘right’ to receive information,” according to the government’s brief. The members argued that the GSA made too much of a dispute over document access that is normally routine.

In arguing against the justices taking the case, the members argued that the federal government stonewalled their requests, making the litigation necessary.

“The reason for the dearth of litigation is simple: The longstanding practice of the Executive Branch has been to comply with the statute and work out any disputes over production without litigation,” the brief stated.

Reversing the D.C. Circuit would weaken Congress’ ability to oversee the federal government and enable agencies “to ignore requests from Members of the minority without consequences,” the brief said.

The agency treated the members’ request like a Freedom of Information Act request, which they noted includes a right to sue in court.

Of the 17 original Democrats who sued, 10 are still in the House. They are Reps. Stephen F. Lynch of Massachusetts, Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, Robin Kelly of Illinois, Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania and Mark DeSaulnier of California, and Dels. Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia and Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands.

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