The long saga of the legal challenge by Carl Ferrer, CEO of Backpage, to a subpoena issued by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (“PSI”) appears to have reached a conclusion.  A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit this week dismissed the case as moot and additionally vacated a series of prior rulings by the district court in the case.  The D.C. Circuit’s ruling effectively wipes the slate clean, erasing a district court action that seemed to open the door to a rare adjudication of Congress’s ability to compel the production of documents covered by the attorney-client privilege, while possibly making it significantly more difficult for individuals and companies to assert the privilege before Congress.

Although it may come as a surprise to many observers, including experienced litigation attorneys, both the Senate and House maintain that they are not required to respect the attorney-client privilege or the related attorney work product doctrine.  Congressional lawyers contend that such privileges are judicial, common law privileges that do not bind legislatures.  Congress’s position is rooted in the Constitution’s separation of powers and the inherent legislative authority to conduct investigations.

Congressional investigators often use this dynamic as a source of leverage over corporations and others from whom they seek to obtain documents or testimony.  Although it is relatively rare for a committee actually to compel production of privileged documents, it does happen.  For example, Congress did so in a high profile case involving Bank of America some years ago.  Over the years, Congress, corporations, and the courts have managed to steer clear of opportunities to test Congress’s position that it need not respect the attorney-client privilege, and there has never been a definitive court ruling on the topic, even though Congress has staked out this position for more than a century.

In Ferrer’s case, the company withheld attorney-client privileged documents, as well as other documents, but PSI contended that the company had not explicitly asserted the attorney-client privilege until relatively late in the process.  The district court agreed and held that Backpage had waived its ability to object based on the attorney-client privilege, and it ordered the company to produce documents.  PSI’s arguments, however, opened potentially dangerous ground for Congress.  In finding that Ferrer had waived the privilege, the court’s ruling seemed to suggest that such a privilege existed before Congress.  After all, how could Ferrer have waived something that did not exist?

During the weeks and months that the litigation and appeal developed, PSI completed its investigation, issued a final report, and held its final hearing in January 2017.  In the D.C. Circuit, PSI informed the court that it would not certify its continued interest in enforcing the subpoena, which was required in this instance because a new Congress convened in January, and it advanced the mootness argument, perhaps in recognition of the risk associated with an appellate ruling on the attorney-client privilege before Congress.  Although Ferrer, with the support of various amici, continued to press the appeal, the Court determined that the case was moot because PSI no longer was seeking to compel production of documents.  The Court then went one step further and actually vacated the decisions of the district court below, so that the lower court’s decisions will not have precedential value in future cases involving congressional investigations.

This outcome essentially restores the status quo ante, in which congressional investigation committees and those under investigation will bargain around Congress’s position on the attorney-client privilege without any real guidance from a controlling court decision.  Given the dramatic impact that would have been felt if the Backpage case had led to a ruling on the applicability of attorney-client privilege in congressional investigations, it is not altogether surprising that PSI in the end sought to avert a ruling by the court on the issue, and that the D.C. Circuit was very willing to oblige.

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Photo of Robert Kelner Robert Kelner

Robert Kelner is the chair of Covington’s Election and Political Law Practice Group. Mr. Kelner provides political law compliance advice to a wide range of corporate and political clients.  His compliance practice focuses on federal and state campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, pay to…

Robert Kelner is the chair of Covington’s Election and Political Law Practice Group. Mr. Kelner provides political law compliance advice to a wide range of corporate and political clients.  His compliance practice focuses on federal and state campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, pay to play, and government ethics laws, as well as legal ethics rules.  His expertise includes the Federal Election Campaign Act, Lobbying Disclosure Act, Ethics in Government Act, Foreign Agents Registration Act, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  He is also a leading authority on the arcane rules governing political contributions by municipal securities dealers, investment advisers, hedge funds, and private equity funds.  Mr. Kelner advises Presidential political appointees on the complex process of being vetted and confirmed for such appointments.

In addition, he regularly advises corporations and corporate executives on instituting political law compliance programs.  He conducts compliance training for senior corporate executives and lobbyists.  He has extensive experience conducting corporate internal investigations concerning campaign finance and lobbying law compliance, as well as other corporate compliance matters.  Mr. Kelner regularly defends clients in investigations by the Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. House & Senate Ethics Committees, the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, the House & Senate Judiciary Committees, the House Energy & Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate Special Committee on Aging, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and other congressional committees.  He has prepared numerous CEOs and corporate executives for testimony before congressional investigation panels, and he regularly leads the Practicing Law Institute’s training program on congressional investigations for in-house lawyers.  He also defends clients in Lobbying Disclosure Act audits by the GAO and enforcement actions and audits by state election and lobbying enforcement agencies.

Mr. Kelner has appeared as a commentator on political law matters on The PBS News Hour, CNBC, Fox News, and NPR, and he has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Legal Times, Washington Times, Roll Call, The Hill, Politico, USA Today, Financial Times, and other publications.

Photo of Brian D. Smith Brian D. Smith

Brian Smith provides strategic and legal advice on matters that require substantial political, reputational, or government relations considerations.  He represents companies and individuals in high-profile or high-risk investigations, particularly congressional investigations, criminal investigations with political implications, and investigations related to political law compliance. …

Brian Smith provides strategic and legal advice on matters that require substantial political, reputational, or government relations considerations.  He represents companies and individuals in high-profile or high-risk investigations, particularly congressional investigations, criminal investigations with political implications, and investigations related to political law compliance.  He has significant experience in crisis management, where he advises clients facing combined legal, political, and media relations risks.  His practice also includes the development and execution of government relations initiatives, including securing the U.S. government’s political support on behalf of U.S. companies facing international legal issues.