On February 7, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in a per curiam ruling decided the 215 Members of Congress did not have standing to sue President Donald Trump over alleged violations of the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause (Clause).
The opinion reverses the district court’s decision, denying President Trump’s motion to dismiss.
On June 14, 2017, the Members filed their complaint. They seek declaratory and injunctive relief against the President in his official capacity. The Members allege that President Trump “has a financial interest in vast business holdings around the world that engage in dealings with foreign governments and receive benefits from those governments” and that “[b]y virtue of that financial interest, [he] has accepted, or necessarily will accept, ‘Emoluments’ from ‘foreign States’ while holding the office of President.”
They allege the President’s failure to seek and obtain congressional consent has “completely nullified,” the votes they are authorized to case to approve or disapprove his acceptance of foreign emoluments.
Because the Foreign Emoluments Clause allegedly requires the President to obtain ‘the Consent of the Congress’ before accepting otherwise prohibited ‘Emoluments,” Plaintiffs, as members of Congress, must have the opportunity to case a binding vote that gives or withholds their ‘Consent’ before the President accepts any such ’Emolument.’” They further allege that the Clause is “unique.”
First, the Clause imposes a procedural requirement (obtain “the consent of the Congress” that federal officials must satisfy before they take a specific action (accept “any” emolument from “any…foreign State”). U.S. Const. art. I, § 9, cl. 8. The failure to obtain Congressional before accepting emoluments deprives the plaintiffs of their right to vote on whether to consent to its acceptance.
Plaintiffs claims that, because President Trump is violating the Clause through his private businesses, without the need for government funds or personnel, Congress cannot use its power of the purse to stop him.
The President moved to dismiss, arguing that (1) the Members lack standing; (2) no cause of action authorized their lawsuit; (3) they failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted; and (4) the requested relief, an injunction against the President in his official capacity, violates the Constitution.
District Court Decision
The district court bifurcated the issues, addressed standing first. It held that the Members “sustained their burden to show that they have standing to bring their claims. Blumenthal v. Trump, 335 F. Supp. 3d 45, 54 (D.D.C. 2018). The President then moved to certify the district court’s standing order for interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), which motion was denied on June 25, 2019, Blumenthal v. Trump, 382 F. Supp. 3d 77, 83 (June 25, 2019). During the pendency of the certification motion, the district court denied the remainder of the President’s motion to dismiss. The district court held that the Members had an implied equitable cause of action for injunctive relief and that they had stated a claim under the emoluments clause. Blumenthal v. Trump, 373 F. Supp. 3d 191, 207-09 (D.D.C. 2019).
Appellate Court Decision
The President then petitioned the Court of Appeals for a writ of mandamus. The appellate court granted the interlocutory appeal.
The appellate court explained that “[n]o principle is more fundamental to the judiciary’s proper role in our system of government than the constitutional limitation of federal-court jurisdiction to actual cases or controversies. Standing to sue is a doctrine rooted in the traditional understanding of a case of controversy.” Spokeo Inc. v Robins, 136 S.Ct. 1540, 1547 (2016) (quoting Raines v. Byrd, 521 U.S. 811, 818 (1997). Only 29 Senators and 186 Members of the House of Representatives brought the case. They do not constitute a majority of either body and hence do not have power to approve or deny the President’s acceptance of foreign emoluments. As a result, the appellate court found the plaintiffs lack standing.
The current issue of the IELR will discuss the case in more detail.
 Richard Blumenthal v. Donald J. Trump, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, No. 19-5237 (Feb. 7, 2020).