Court tosses lawmaker lawsuit against Trump over emoluments

Appeals court says lawmakers do not have the legal right to sue the president.

People staying at the Trump International Hotel in the the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, DC is at the center of the emolument debate (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo) (CQ Roll Call)
People staying at the Trump International Hotel in the the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, DC is at the center of the emolument debate (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo) (CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:29am

A federal appeals court in Washington on Friday dismissed a lawsuit brought by more than 200 members of Congress that alleges President Donald Trump violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution by accepting payments from foreign governments.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that the lawmakers — led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. — do not have the legal right to sue the president.

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The lawmakers contend that the Constitution requires Trump to obtain congressional consent before accepting benefits from foreign governments, such as those who spend money on events at his hotels or pay rents or fees at Trump’s commercial and residential towers.

And they say Trump “is completely denying members of Congress one of their institutional prerogatives: their right to vote on which, if any, benefits he may accept from foreign states.”

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But the D.C. Circuit said that members do not represent either the House or Senate as a whole. And they “do not constitute a majority of either body and are, therefore, powerless to approve or deny the President’s acceptance of foreign emoluments,” the D.C. Circuit ruling states.

And the court pointed out that in a 2019 case about Virginia statehouse, the Supreme Court restated an older precedent that individual members of Congress lack the right to assert the institutional interests of a legislature.  

“The Members can, and likely will, continue to use their weighty voices to make their cause to the American people, their colleagues in the Congress and the President himself, all of whom are free to engage as they see fit,” the D.C. Circuit wrote. “But we will not — indeed we cannot — participate in this debate.

Elizabeth Wydra, the president of the Constitutional Accountability Center who represents the lawmakers in the case, said the group is in “active discussions” with the lawmakers “as they consider their next steps.”

Nevada Democratic Sen. Dina Titus said that the full house should vote to back a lawsuit, since it was first filed when Democrats did not have a majority in the House.

“I will work with Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi to ensure that President Trump is held accountable for violating the Constitution,” Titus said in a news release.

Nadler and Blumenthal, in a joint statement, expressed disappointment at the ruling but stressed that the legal decision was not on the merits and did not condone Trump’s behavior.

“As we evaluate next steps, we remain fully committed to doing everything in our power to hold President Trump accountable for his unacceptable, unconstitutional misconduct,” Blumenthal said.