Public Citizen v. Department of Justice
Annotate this Case
491 U.S. 440 (1989)
U.S. Supreme Court
Public Citizen v. Department of Justice, 491 U.S. 440 (1989)
Public Citizen v. United States Department of Justice
Argued April 17, 1989
Decided June 21, 1989
491 U.S. 440
To aid the President in fulfilling his constitutional duty to appoint federal judges, the Department of Justice regularly seeks advice from the Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary of the American Bar Association (ABA) regarding potential nominees for judgeships. The ABA Committee's investigations, reports, and votes on potential nominees are kept confidential, although its rating of a particular candidate is made public if he or she is in fact nominated. Appellant Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) filed suit against the Justice Department after the ABA Committee refused WLF's request for the names of potential nominees it was considering and for its reports and minutes of its meetings. The action was brought under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which, among other things, defines an "advisory committee" as any group "established or utilized" by the President or an agency to give advice on public questions, and requires a covered group to file a charter, afford notice of its meetings, open those meetings to the public, and make its minutes, records, and reports available to the public. Joined by appellant Public Citizen, WLF asked the District Court to declare the Committee an "advisory group" subject to FACA's requirements and to enjoin the Department from utilizing the ABA Committee until it complied with those requirements. The court dismissed the complaint, holding that the Department's use of the ABA Committee is subject to FACA's strictures, but ruling that applying FACA to the ABA Committee would unconstitutionally infringe on the President's Article II power to nominate federal judges and violate the doctrine of separation of powers.
1. Appellants have standing to bring this suit. The refusal to permit them to scrutinize the ABA Committee's activities to the extent FACA allows constitutes a sufficiently distinct injury to provide standing, and the fact that other groups or citizens might make the same complaint as appellants does not lessen that injury. Moreover, although the statute's
disclosure exemptions might bar public access to many of the meetings appellants seek to attend and many of the documents they wish to view, the exemptions probably would not deny access to all meetings and documents, particularly discussions and documents regarding the ABA Committee's overall functioning, and would not excuse the ABA Committee's noncompliance with FACA's other provisions, such as those requiring a covered organization to file a charter and give notice of its meetings. Thus, appellants may gain significant and genuine relief if they prevail in their suit, and such potential gains are sufficient to give them standing. Pp. 491 U. S. 448-451.
2. FACA does not apply to the Justice Department's solicitation of the ABA Committee's views on prospective judicial nominees. Pp. 491 U. S. 451-467.
(a) Whether the ABA Committee is an "advisory committee" under FACA depends upon whether it is "utilized" by the President or the Department within the statute's meaning. Read unqualifiedly, that verb would extend FACA's coverage to the ABA Committee. However, since FACA was enacted to cure specific ills -- particularly the wasteful expenditure of public funds for worthless committee meetings and biased proposals by special interest groups -- it is unlikely that Congress intended the statute to cover every formal and informal consultation between the President or an Executive agency and a group rendering advice. When the literal reading of a statutory term compels an odd result, this Court searches beyond the bare text for other evidence of congressional intent. Pp. 491 U. S. 451-455.
(b) Although the question is a close one, a careful review of the regulatory scheme prior to FACA's enactment and that statute's legislative history strongly suggests that Congress did not intend that the term "utilized" apply to the Justice Department's use of the ABA Committee. FACA's regulatory predecessor, Executive Order No. 11007, applied to advisory committees formed by a governmental unit, and to those not so formed when "being utilized by [the Government] in the same manner as a Government-formed . . . committee." That the ABA Committee was never deemed to be "utilized" in the relevant sense is evidenced by the fact that no President operating under the Order or any Justice Department official ever applied the Order to the ABA Committee, despite its highly visible role in advising the Department as to potential nominees. That is not surprising, since the ABA Committee -- which was formed privately, rather than at the Government's prompting, to assist the President in performing a constitutionally specified function, and which receives no federal funds and is not amenable to the strict management by agency officials envisaged by the Order -- cannot easily be said to have been "utilized" in the same manner as a Government-formed committee. Moreover, FACA adopted many of the Order's provisions, and there is
considerable evidence in the statute's legislative history that Congress sought only to achieve compliance with FACA's more stringent requirements by advisory committees already covered by the Order and by Presidential advisory committees, and that the statute's "or utilized" phrase was intended to clarify that FACA applies to committees "established . . . by" the Government in a generous sense of that term, encompassing groups formed indirectly by quasi-public organizations "for" public agencies as well as "by" such agencies themselves. Read in this way, the word "utilized" does not describe the Justice Department's use of the ABA Committee. Pp. 491 U. S. 455-465.
(c) Construing FACA to apply to the Justice Department's consultations with the ABA Committee would present formidable constitutional difficulties. Where, as here, a plausible alternative construction exists that will allow the Court to avoid such problems, the Court will adopt that construction. See, e.g., Crowell v. Benson, 285 U. S. 22, 285 U. S. 62. Pp. 491 U. S. 465-467.
691 F.Supp. 483, affirmed.
BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 491 U. S. 467. SCALIA, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.
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