Since 1999, when the independent counsel provisions of the Ethics in Government Act expired, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has had in place regulations providing for the appointment of “special counsels” who possess “the full power and independent authority to exercise all investigative and prosecutorial functions of any United States Attorney.” Appointments under these regulations, such as the May 17, 2017 appointment of Robert S. Mueller to investigate the Trump campaign, are patently unlawful, for three distinct reasons.
First, all federal offices must be “established by Law,” and there is no statute authorizing such an office in the DOJ. We conduct what we think is the first thorough examination of the statutes structuring the DOJ to show that the statutory provisions relied upon by the DOJ and lower courts for the appointment of special counsels over the past two decades do not—and even obviously do not—authorize the creation and appointment of special counsels at the level of United States Attorneys. They authorize the creation and appointment of special counsels to “assist” United States Attorneys, and they allow existing Senate-confirmed United States Attorneys to serve also as special counsels, but they do not remotely authorize the creation of the kind of special counsels represented by Robert Mueller who replace rather than assist United States Attorneys. United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), does not hold to the contrary, because no question was raised in that case about the validity of the independent counsel’s appointment.
Second, even if one chooses to overlook the absence of statutory authority for the position, there is no statute specifically authorizing the Attorney General, rather than the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to appoint such a special counsel. Under the Appointments Clause, inferior officers can be appointed by department heads only if Congress so directs by statute—and so directs specifically enough to overcome a clear-statement presumption in favor of presidential appointment and senatorial confirmation. No such statute exists for the special counsel.
Third, the special counsel is, in all events, a superior rather than inferior officer, and thus cannot be appointed by any means other than presidential appointment and senatorial confirmation regardless of what any statutes purport to say. This is obviously true as a matter of original meaning, and it is even true as a matter of case law once one understands that neither Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988), nor Edmond v. United States, 520 U.S. 651 (1997), can plausibly be read to say that any person who is in any fashion subordinate to another executive official is an “inferior” officer. Such a reading of those decisions leads to the ludicrous result that there is only one noninferior officer in every federal department, which is a good reason not to read them that way.
There are surely times when special counsels are appropriate. Both statutes and the Constitution provide ample means for such appointments through the use of existing United States Attorneys with unimpeachable credentials and reputations for standing above politics. Any number of United States Attorneys have performed these functions with distinction. Statutes and the Constitution do not, however, permit the Attorney General to appoint a private citizen as a substitute United States Attorney under the title “special counsel.” That is what happened on May 17, 2017. That appointment was unlawful, as are all of the legal actions that have flowed from it.
The D.C. Circuit’s unreasoned February 26, 2019 opinion in In re Grand Jury Investigation upholding Mueller’s appointment does not come to grips with any of these arguments. The panel decision asserts (falsely) that the issues were either waived by the party challenging the appointment or are readily resolved by Supreme Court precedent. If the latter claim was true, those precedents would cry out for clarification or reconsideration by the Court. But that latter claim is only even minimally plausible based on the most superficial skimming of the applicable precedents.
The statutory and constitutional structure of federal law enforcement is a serious matter, and one might have hoped that the federal courts—and the Department of Justice—would devote a bit more mental energy to that matter than they have thus far expended.
Steven G. Calabresi & Gary Lawson,
Why Robert Mueller's Appointment as Special Counsel Was Unlawful,
Notre Dame L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/ndlr/vol95/iss1/3