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Law School Case Brief

Pub. Citizen v. United States Dep't of Justice - 491 U.S. 440, 109 S. Ct. 2558 (1989)


Where the literal reading of a statutory term would compel an odd result, a court must search for other evidence of congressional intent to lend the term its proper scope. The circumstances of the enactment of particular legislation, for example, may persuade a court that Congress did not intend words of common meaning to have their literal effect. Even though, the words used, even in their literal sense, are the primary, and ordinarily the most reliable, source of interpreting the meaning of any writing, nevertheless it is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary; but to remember that statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish, whose sympathetic and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning.


To aid the President in fulfilling his constitutional duty to appoint federal judges, the Department of Justice regularly sought 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 were kept confidential, although its rating of a particular candidate was made public if he or she was 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, defined an "advisory committee" as any group "established or utilized" by the President or an agency to give advice on public questions, and required 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 district court dismissed the complaint, holding that the Department's use of the ABA Committee was 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.


Does the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) apply to advisory consultations between the United States Department of Justice and the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary regarding potential nominees for federal judgeships?




The Supreme Court of the United States sought to determine whether the FACA applied to the ABA consultations, and if it does, whether its application interfered unconstitutionally with the President's prerogative under Article II to nominate and appoint officers of the United States; violates the doctrine of separation of powers; or unduly infringes the First Amendment right of members of the ABA to freedom of association and expression.

The Court held that the FACA did not apply to the ABA committee advisory consultations and affirmed the judgment of the district court. The Court explained that the definition of an advisory committee in 5 U.S.C.S. § 3(2) included any committee "utilized" by the President, but the Court looked to the legislative history of the FACA to determine that Congress did not intend a broad meaning to the term. Because the FACA did not apply to the special advisory relationship, the Court did not reach the constitutional questions presented.The Court explained that its reluctance to decide constitutional issues is especially great where, as here, they concern the relative powers of coordinate branches of government.

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