Special Counsel Jack Smith has subpoenaed former Vice President Mike Pence to testify before a Grand Jury investigating attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Pence has stated he will not testify, citing the Speech & Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 6, Clause 1). https://politi.co/3xw9GZs
That Clause states:
They [Members of Congress] shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.
Pence claims that because his involvement in the coup was limited to presiding over the Congress’s final tally of electoral votes and certification of Joe Biden’s victory, he was acting in a “legislative capacity” and thus cannot be questioned.
On its face there are a multitude of problems with Pence’s position. First is that he has insisted, correctly, that his acts on January 6 were purely ministerial and that he lacked any discretion under the Constitution and laws to evaluate the validity of state vote counts or other acts leading to the election certification. His job was to open envelopes and announce their contents. This alone raises fundamental doubts about the “legislative nature” of what was intended to be protected by the Speech & Debate Clause.
Second, even if his January 6 actions were covered to some extent by the Clause, he cannot justify total refusal to be questioned about other matters arising out of the January 6 coup attempt and subsequent insurrectionist activities by Trump and others of which Pence may have knowledge. His immunity claim sweeps too broadly. In fact, it seems unlikely Special Counsel is much interested in Pence’s non-discretionary acts on January 6. Rather, the investigation more likely seeks his knowledge about actions by Donald Trump and others supporting his coup/insurrection attempt to overturn the election. As far as I am aware, Mike Pence conducted no legislative activities about any of that, other than his non-discretionary overseeing of the final electoral count tally.
Thus, Pence cannot plausibly argue that “because I performed one legislative act that day, I am immune from disclosing any information I may have about other matters related to the insurrection that day.”
To my knowledge, no one has suggested that Pence’s conduct on January 6 was questionable constitutionally or otherwise. Except Donald Trump, of course, who want berserk when Pence refused to go along with the false attack on the election.
Politico reports that Pence “feels it really goes to the heart of some separation of powers issues. He feels duty-bound to maintain that protection, even if it means litigating it.” Maybe, but it’s more than coincidental that, as Politico also notes, Pence’s resistance ”will allow him to avoid being seen as cooperating with a probe that is politically damaging to Trump, who remains the leading figure in the Republican Party.”
I do not understand how “Trump’s months-long crusade to pressure his vice president to derail Biden’s win — which is central to Smith’s investigation — focused entirely on Pence’s [ministerial] duties as Senate president, which legal scholars say lends credence to Pence’s case.” Josh Chafetz, a Georgetown University constitutional law professor, supports the argument that Pence may be on to something by observing that “a lot of the action here took place in terms of arguments about how he should rule from the chair.”
But the “action” around this issue was generated by Trump, not by Pence, who consistently resisted the argument that he had any more authority/responsibility on January 6 than opening envelopes and announcing their contents. Such “acts,” even if judged “legislative,” were not likely what the framers had in mind in protecting the legislators from encroachment by the other two branches.
Roy Brownell, former counsel to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested that “Pence … could characterize his pre-Jan. 6 conversations with Trump and others as research into how he might rule on matters related to the Electoral College.” True, Pence could try that, but the courts are not bound by claims like that. Pence was researching anything and if he had been, it would certainly not have been by asking Donald Trump whose credentials as an expert on the Constitution are less than zero.
In any event, the question here is not whether some specific aspects of Pence’s conversations were privileged – he is refusing to testify at all, arguing that there is nothing the Special Counsel could legitimately ask him about his knowledge of Trump’s attempt to overthrow the government. That, I suggest, is facially preposterous and inconsistent with extensive case law on the limitations of privilege assertions in all contexts.
As reported elsewhere by Politico,
A three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected the South Carolina Republican’s [Senator Lindsey Graham] claim that he is constitutionally immune from such questioning. Though Graham may not be questioned about any conversations he had in support of his legislative activity, the panel ruled, prosecutors may question him about his “coordination” with the Trump campaign to arrange his calls with Georgia officials, as well as efforts to pressure those officials amid their ongoing audit of Georgia’s presidential election results.
The Supreme Court declined to intervene on Graham’s behalf.
We should also have regard for the literalist interpretation of the Constitution favored by “conservatives” and “originalists.” The Speech & Debate Clause refers expressly to “Senators and Representatives.” The Vice President is neither of those. The fact that he has limited, ministerial duties to perform in the legislative branch every four years does not make him one. He is there as the Vice President, conducting ministerial, non-discretionary acts involving no legislative work.
United Press International reports that Pence said at a campaign rally:
I’m going to fight the Biden DOJ’s subpoena for me to appear before the grand jury because I believe it’s unconstitutional, and it’s unprecedented. No vice president has ever been subject to a subpoena to testify about the president with whom they served. [https://bit.ly/3lC9Co9]
Unprecedented it may be, but no president has ever tried to overthrow the government and reinstall himself despite having lost the election. Arguing the lack of precedent just doesn’t work here.
At the end of the day, what Pence’s position comes down to is this: he is desperate to appease Trump’s loyalist political base and in fact supported Trump’s attempt to overturn the election while cleverly, but rightly, refusing to actively participate in the coup attempt. Pence wants it both ways – no responsibility for the insurrection but avoiding the appearance of attacking Trump, while simultaneously undermining Trump. He hopes Trump’s loyalists will overlook his refusal to play along on January 6 if he appears to defend Trump while not actually defending him.
Pence thinks Trump’s loyalists are a bunch of cultish dopes who will, when push time comes, choose him as Trump’s successor.
Pence is only slightly less a traitor than Trump. Special Counsel Smith is not going to fall for this nonsense and should vigorously contest Pence’s claim to immunity from subpoena by the Grand Jury.