WASHINGTON (CN) – Eighteen Democratic House members cannot force the General Services Administration to hand over records about how it manages its lease of the Trump International Hotel, according to a federal judge.
“Individual Members of Congress generally do not have standing to vindicate the institutional interests of the house in which they serve,” U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta wrote Tuesday in his 39-page opinion, which drew heavily on Supreme Court precedent in Raines v. Byrd. “This means that Members of Congress may go to court to demand something to which they are privately entitled…but they cannot claim harm suffered solely in their official capacities as legislators that ‘damages all Members of Congress and both Houses of Congress equally.'”
The sought-after records relate to the lease on the Old Post Office Building, which Trump transformed into the Trump International Hotel through his company Trump Old Post Office LLC before he was president. His children Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric are co-owners of the company.
Part of the lease agreement stipulates that “no member or delegate to Congress, or elected official of the Government of the United States or the Government of the District of Columbia, shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”
The GSA had turned over some documents in January 2017 but stopped producing any records after the inauguration.
Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland and other minority members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Feb. 8, 2017 requested information about how the GSA would deal with the apparent breach of the lease terms.
Cummings and other minority members then sued for the documents in November 2017, claiming they needed the information to fulfill their oversight function.
The committee members asked for monthly financial reports, payment receipts from foreign hotel clients, and details concerning why the agency decided to allow the company to retain the lease after Trump became president.
But Mehta said the lawmakers failed to assert a “private right” to the records under the seven-member rule, which provides a statutory mechanism for minority members to get executive branch records for oversight duties.
“Plaintiffs tie their injury directly to their constitutional duties as legislators, claiming their alleged harm to be the ‘impedance of the oversight and legislative responsibilities that have been delegated to them by Congress,'” Mehta wrote.
Because the members would lose their seven-member rule rights if they retired tomorrow, their “injury” is contingent upon their congressional seats, which the ruling in Raines said “is not held ‘as a prerogative of personal power.'”
In Raines v. Byrd, six members of Congress sued the Secretary of Treasury and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget over the Line Item Veto Act, which they claimed gave the president an unconstitutional expansion of power. But the Supreme Court rejected their argument, finding that they did not have sufficient “personal stake” in the issue to file suit.
In the present case, the lawmakers argued that the Raines opinion did not bar them from litigating injuries suffered in their official capacities, but Mehta remained unconvinced.
“Try as they may, Plaintiffs cannot shape their claimed harm into the type of ‘personal’ injury recognized in Raines as sufficient to confer standing on an individual Member of Congress,” he wrote.
Mehta did note that the lawmakers alleged “a more particularized and concrete institutional injury than the plaintiffs in Raines,” but said other historical considerations “weighed heavily against recognizing standing in this case.”
Federal courts have never enforced seven-member rule requests, Mehta said, and the lawmakers did not even attempt to get full House approval before they sued.
“Since Raines, courts have treated authorization by the whole to bring suit as a significant factor in the standing analysis,” Mehta wrote.
The General Services Administration did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the ruling, nor did attorneys for the legislators.
The legislators are represented by Scott Nelson with the Public Citizen Litigation Group and David Vladeck with Georgetown Law.