Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson explaining why former White House counsel Don McGahn has to testify before Congress:
DOJ’s arguments to the contrary are rooted in “the Executive’s interest in ‘autonomy[,]’” and, therefore, “rest upon a discredited notion of executive power and privilege.” Id. at 103. Indeed, when DOJ insists that Presidents can lawfully prevent their senior-level aides from responding to compelled congressional process and that neither the federal courts nor Congress has the power to do anything about it, DOJ promotes a conception of separation-of-powers principles that gets these constitutional commands exactly backwards. In reality, it is a core tenet of this Nation’s founding that the powers of a monarch must be split between the branches of the government to prevent tyranny. See The Federalist No. 51 (James Madison); see also Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 120 (1976). Thus, when presented with a case or controversy, it is the Judiciary’s duty under the Constitution to interpret the law and to declare government overreaches unlawful. Similarly, the House of Representatives has the constitutionally vested responsibility to conduct investigations of suspected abuses of power within the government, and to act to curb those improprieties, if required. Accordingly, DOJ’s conceptual claim to unreviewable absolute testimonial immunity on separation-of-powers grounds—essentially, that the Constitution’s scheme countenances unassailable Executive branch authority—is baseless, and as such, cannot be sustained.
To the contrary, the Framers spoke specifically to the importance of maintaining an established rule of law to regulate government conduct—and, thus, to the significance of the judicial function—when they explained why a system that separates the powers of government and includes checks on the exercise of government power is crucial to sustaining a democracy:
...[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of the attack. . . . It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.The Federalist No. 51 (James Madison). The Framer’s specific reference to providing
government officials in each of the separate branches with “the necessary constitutional
means and personal motives to resist the encroachments of the others[,]” id., is especially noteworthy, because, here, DOJ’s artificial limit on the federal courts’ jurisdiction to consider disputes between the branches seemingly decreases the incentive for the Legislature or the Executive branch to behave lawfully, rather than bolsters it, by dramatically reducing the potential that a federal court will have occasion to declare conduct that violates the Constitution unlawful. And there can be no doubt that providing the branches with the power to limit each other’s behavior, for the protection of the People, was the original intent of the Framers, as evidenced both by the constitutional scheme they adopted and by the remarks they made to explain the separation-of-powers construct. Indeed, far from DOJ’s present suggestion that the separation-of-powers construct means that the political branches must resolve their disputes in the political arena and never head to federal court, Federalist No. 51 proceeds to explain that political checks are not the sole solution, and that the branches themselves must also be vested with the power to police the abuses of the others. See id. (“A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. . . . We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”).
In short, DOJ’s implicit suggestion that compelled congressional process is a ‘zero-sum’ game in which the President’s interest in confidentiality invariably outweighs the Legislature’s interest in gathering truthful information, such that current and former senior-level presidential aides should be always and forever immune from answering probing questions, is manifestly inconsistent with a governmental scheme that can only function properly if its institutions work together. See The Federalist No. 51 (James Madison).
Stated simply, the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings. See The Federalist No. 51 (James Madison); The Federalist No. 69 (Alexander Hamilton); 1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 115–18 (Harvey C. Mansfield & Delba Winthrop eds. & trans., Univ. of Chicago Press 2000) (1835). This means that they do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control. Rather, in this land of liberty, it is indisputable that current and former employees of the White House work for the People of the United States, and that they take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Moreover, as citizens of the United States, current and former senior-level presidential aides have constitutional rights, including the right to free speech, and they retain these rights even after they have transitioned back into private life.