Washington — The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a court fight over whether House Democrats can sue to get information from a federal agency about its lease for the Old Post Office building in Washington, D.C., which was awarded to a company owned by former President Donald Trump.
The court's unsigned order dismissing the case and throwing out a lower court decision in favor of the Democrats came weeks after it agreed to consider the dispute, known as Carnahan v. Maloney. After the Supreme Court said it would hear the showdown between the Biden administration, which took over the case after Trump left office, and Democratic lawmakers, the House members voluntarily dismissed their suit.
The court battle stems from a 2013 agreement between the General Services Administration, known as the GSA, and the Trump Old Post Office LLC, owned by the former president and three of his children, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. Trump's company renovated the building, which sits blocks from the White House, and converted it into a luxury hotel, the Trump International Hotel. Trump's company ultimately sold the hotel last year, and it was reopened as a Waldorf Astoria.
Following Trump's 2016 presidential win, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, and 10 other members of the panel sent a letter to the GSA requesting unredacted lease documents and expense reports related to the Old Post Office. The lawmakers invoked a federal law known as Section 2954, which directs executive agencies to turn over certain information to the congressional oversight committees.
The law states that a request may be made by any seven members of the House Oversight Committee, and is viewed as an oversight tool for members of the minority party.
The GSA turned over the unredacted documents in early January 2017, but later that month, Cummings and three other House members requested more information from the agency, including monthly reports from Trump's company and copies of all correspondence with representatives of Trump's company or his presidential transition team.
GSA declined to comply with the request, but said it would review it if seven members of the Oversight Committee sought the information. Cummings and Democrats then followed suit, though the agency did not respond to his renewed request. It did, however, turn over information, including nearly all of the records sought by the committee Democrats, after announcing it would construe the requests, known as Section 2954 requests, as made under the Freedom of Information Act.
Still, Democratic lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee sued the GSA in federal district court, seeking a declaration that the agency violated the law and an order that the GSA hand over the records at issue. (Cummings died in 2019, and five Democrats who joined the suit are no longer in the House.)
The district court tossed out the case, finding the lawmakers lacked the legal standing to sue. But a divided panel of judges on the federal appeals court in Washington reversed, reviving the battle after concluding the Democrats had standing to bring the case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit then declined to reconsider the case.
The Biden administration appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the lower court's finding that members of Congress can sue a federal agency for failing to disclose information sought under Section 2954 conflicts with the Supreme Court's precedents and "contradicts historical practice stretching to the beginning of the Republic."
"The decision also resolves exceptionally important questions of constitutional law and threatens serious harm to all three branches of the federal government," Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar told the court in a filing (the court tossed out that decision with its order for the D.C. Circuit to dismiss the case).
The Justice Department warned that the harm allegedly suffered by the members of Congress — the denial of the information they sought — doesn't qualify as a cognizable injury under Article III of the Constitution.
"And our Nation's history makes clear that an informational dispute between Members of Congress and the Executive Branch is not of the sort traditionally thought to be capable of resolution through the judicial process," Prelogar wrote.
But lawyers for the Democrats urged the court to turn down the case, writing it "involves no division of authority requiring resolution by this Court, but only the application of well-established principles of informational standing to a singular statute."
"Moreover, it presents no recurring constitutional issue warranting this Court's attention. To the contrary, it involves a once-in-a-decade, virtually unprecedented rejection of a Section 2954 request," they wrote in court filings.
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