Laird v. Tatum

Decision Date10 October 1972
Docket NumberNo. 71-288,71-288
Citation34 L.Ed.2d 50,93 S.Ct. 7,409 U.S. 824
PartiesMelvin R. LAIRD, Secretary of Defense, et al., Petitioners, v. Arlo TATUM et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Memorandum of Mr. Justice REHNQUIST.

Respondents in this case have moved that I disqualify myself from participation. While neither the Court nor any Justice individually appears ever to have done so, I have determined that it would be appropriate for me to state the reasons which have led to my decision with respect to respondents' motion. In so doing, I do not wish to suggest that I believe such a course would be desirable or even appropriate in any but the peculiar circumstances present here.1

Respondents contend that because of testimony which I gave on behalf of the Department of Justice before the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate at its hearings on 'Federal Data Banks, Computers and the Bill of Rights,' and because of other statements I made in speeches related to this general subject, I should have disqualified myself from participating in the Court's consideration or decision of this case. The governing statute is 28 U.S.C. § 455 which provides:

'Any justice or judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any case in which he has a substantial interest, has been of counsel, is or has been a material witness, or is so related to or connected with any party or his attorney as to render it improper, in his opinion, for him to sit on the trial, appeal, or other proceeding therein.'

Respondents also cite various draft provisions of Standards of Judicial Conduct prepared by a distinguished committee of the American Bar Association, and adopted by that body at its recent annual meeting. Since I do not read these particular provisions as being materially different from the standards enunciated in the congressional statute, there is no occasion for me to give them separate consideration.2

Respondents in their motions summarize their factual contentions as follows:

'Under the circumstances of the instant case, Mr. Justice Rehnquist's impartiality is clearly questionable because of his appearance as an expert witness for the Justice Department and Senate hearings inquiring into the subject matter of the case, because of his intimate knowledge of the evidence underlying the respondents' allegations, and because of his public statements about the lack of merit in respondents' claims.'

Respondents are substantially correct in characterizing my appearance before the Ervin Subcommittee as an 'expert witness for the Justice Department' on the sub- ject of statutory and constitutional law dealing with the authority of the Executive Branch to gather information. They are also correct in stating that during the course of my testimony at that hearing, and on other occasions, I expressed an understanding of the law, as established by decided cases of this Court and of other courts, which was contrary to the contentions of respondents in this case.

Respondents' reference, however, to my 'intimate knowledge of the evidence underlying the respondents' allegations' seems to me to make a great deal of very little. When one of the Cabinet departments of the Executive Branch is requested to supply a witness for the congressional committee hearing devoted to a particular subject, it is generally confronted with a minor dilemma. If it is to send a witness with personal knowledge of every phase of the inquiry, there will be not one spokesman but a dozen. If it is to send one spokesman to testify as to the Department's position with respect to the matter under inquiry, that spokesman will frequently be called upon to deal not only with matters within his own particular bailiwick in the Department, but with those in other areas of the Department with respect to which his familiarity may be slight. I commented on this fact in my testimony before Senator Ervin's Subcommittee:

'As you might imagine, the Justice Department, in selecting a witness to respond to your inquiries, had to pick someone who did not have personal knowledge in every field. So I can simply give you my understanding . . ..' Hearings, p. 619.

There is one reference to the case of Tatum v. Laird in my prepared statement to the Subcommittee, and one reference to it in my subsequent appearance during a colloquy with Senator Ervin. The former appears as follows in the reported hearings:

'However, in connection with the case of Tatum v. Laird, now pending in the U.S.Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, one print-out from the Army computer has been retained for the inspection of the court. It will thereafter be destroyed.'

The second comment respecting the case was in a discussion of the applicable law with Senator Ervin, the chairman of the Subcommittee, during my second appearance.

My recollection is that the first time I learned of the existence of the case of Laird v. Tatum, other than having probably seen press accounts of it, was at the time I was preparing to testify as a witness before the Subcommittee in March 1971. I believe the case was then being appealed to the Court of Appeals by respondents. The Office of the Deputy Attorney General, which is customarily responsible for collecting material from the various divisions to be used in preparing the Department's statement, advised me or one of my staff as to the arrangement with respect to the computer print-out from the Army Data Bank, and it was incorporated into the prepared statement which I read to the Subcommittee. I had then and have now no personal knowledge of the arrangement, nor so far as I know have I ever seen or been apprised of the contents of this particular print-out. Since the print-out had been lodged with the Justice Department by the Department of the Army, I later authorized its transmittal to the staff of the subcommittee at the request of the latter.

At the request of Senator Hruska, one of the members of the Subcommittee, I supervised the preparation of a memorandum of law which the record of the hearings indicates was filed on September 20, 1971. Respondents refer to it in their petition, but no copy is attached, and the hearing records do not contain a copy. I would expect such a memorandum to have commented on the decision of the Court of Appeals in Laird v. Tatum, treating it along with other applicable precedents in attempting to state what the Department thought the law to be in this general area.

Finally, I never participated, either of record or in any advisory capacity, in the District Court, in the Court of Appeals, or in this Court, in the government's conduct of the case of Laird v. Tatum.

Respondents in their motion do not explicitly relate their factual contentions to the applicable provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 455. The so-called 'mandatory' provisions of that section require disqualification of a Justice or judge 'in any case in which he has a substantial interest, has been of counsel, (or) has been a material witness . . ..'

Since I have neither been of counsel nor have I been a material witness in Laird v. Tatum, these provisions are not applicable. Respondents refer to a memorandum prepared in the Office of Legal Counsel for the benefit of Mr. Justice White shortly before he came on the Court, relating to disqualification. I reviewed it at the time of my confirmation hearings and found myself in substantial agreement with it. Its principal thrust is that a Justice Department official is disqualified if he either signs a pleading or brief or 'if he actively participated in any case even though he did not sign a pleading or brief.' I agree. In both United States v. United States District Court for Eastern District of Michigan, 407 U.S. 297, 92 S.Ct. 2125, 32 L.Ed.2d 752 (1972), for which I was not officially responsible in the Department but with respect to which I assisted in drafting the brief, and in § & E Contractors v. United States, 406 U.S. 1, 92 S.Ct. 1411, 31 L.Ed.2d 658 (1972), in which I had only an advisory role which terminated immediately prior to the commencement of the litigation, I disqualified myself. Since I did not have even an advisory role in the conduct of the case of Laird v. Tatum, the application of such a role would not require or authorize disqualification here.

This leaves remaining the so-called discretionary portion of the section, requiring disqualification where the judge 'is so related to or connected with any party or his attorney as to render it improper, in his opinion, for him to sit on the trial, appeal, or other proceeding therein.' The interpretation and application of this section by the various Justices who have sat on this Court seem to have varied widely. The leading commentator on the subject is John P. Frank, whose two articles, Disqualification of Judges, 56 Yale Law Journal 605 (1947), and Disqualification of Judges: In Support of the Bayh Bill, 35 Law and Contemporary Problems 43 (1970), contain the principal commentary on the subject. For a Justice of this Court who has come from the Justice Department, Mr. Frank explains disqualification practices as follows:

'Other relationships between the Court and the Department of Justice, however, might well be different. The Department's problem is special because it is the largest law office in the world and has cases by the hundreds of thousands and lawyers by the thousands. For the most part, the relationship of the Attorney General to most of those matters is purely formal. As between the Assistant Attorneys General for the various departmental divisions, there is almost no connection.' Frank, supra, 35 Law & Contemporary Problems, at 47.

Indeed, different Justices who have come from the Department of Justice have treated the same or very similar situations differently. In Schneiderman v. United States, 320 U.S. 118, 63 S.Ct. 1333, 87 L.Ed. 1796 (1943), a case brought and tried during the time Mr. Justice Murphy was Attorney...

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