A federal appeals court on Friday dismissed Democratic lawmakers' lawsuit against President Donald Trump alleging he has violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution on technical grounds.
In the ruling, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found the members of Congress did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit against the president for violating the clause, which bars federal officials from collecting payments from foreign governments without the approval of Congress.
In their unsigned ruling, the judges cited Supreme Court precedent, noting the 215 lawmakers filing the lawsuit are not the majority of Congress, and that they might have had standing if they had done so as a majority. "[O]nly an institution can assert an institutional injury," the ruling says.
"Here, regardless of rigor, our conclusion is straightforward because the members — 29 senators and 186 members of the House of Representatives — do not constitute a majority of either body and are, therefore, powerless to approve or deny the president’s acceptance of foreign emoluments," the decision says.
Democratic senators and House members argued the president frequently violates the rule with his businesses, including a Washington, D.C., hotel that's popular with foreign government officials.
The constitutional clause at issue in the case reads, "no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state."
Trump told reporters on the White House lawn that the suit was "another phony case."
"It was a total win," he said.
The appeals court's unanimous ruling is based almost entirely on a Supreme Court decision from two decades ago.
In 1996, Congress passed the Line Item Veto Act, allowing the president to cancel individual spending items approved by Congress. It spared the president the need to veto an entire bill because he opposed a single spending provision. Six members of Congress sued, claiming the act gave the president authority he does not have in the Constitution.
The following year, the Supreme Court threw their lawsuit out, ruling that individual members of Congress cannot sue by claiming to represent the interests of Congress as a whole. The appeals court ruling Friday said the present "case is really no different" from that 1997 Supreme Court ruling.
In their decision, Judges Karen L. Henderson, David S. Tatel and Thomas B. Griffith suggested the lawmakers press their argument in the court of public opinion.
"The members can, and likely will, continue to use their weighty voices to make their case to the American people, their colleagues in the Congress and the president himself, all of whom are free to engage that argument as they see fit. But we will not — indeed we cannot — participate in this debate," said the veteran judges, who were nominated, respectively, by Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
One of the plaintiffs in the case, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said he was “disappointed" in the outcome, but "a technical dismissal in no way condones President Trump’s continuing violations of the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution.”
Nadler and another plaintiff, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a joint statement that they are evaluating their legal options.
Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor and constitutional expert, tweeted after the ruling, “Individual members of the House and Senate lack standing to sue Trump to stop his Foreign Emoluments Clause violations — but the House could sue for institutional injury. It should now do so.”
The court's decision caps a good week for Trump. On Wednesday, he was acquitted on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress at his Senate impeachment trial.
Two other emolument-related cases are still pending in the courts.