With his most high- profile ruling yet, this time against President Trump, federal judge Amit Priyavadan Mehta, 47, who was nominated in July 2014 by President Obama and confirmed by a voice vote by the U.S. Senate in December of that year, has catapulted himself into the select club of Indian- American legal luminaries, who have etched their names in the judiciary branch of U.S. government.
Indian-American legal luminaries, just to name a few, include judge Srikanth ‘Sri’ Srinivasan — the first South Asian American federal judge in the D.C. Court of Appeals, who incidentally swore in Mehta on June, 2015; Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York; Neal Katyal, former Deputy U.S. Solicitor General; Preeta Bansal, former New York Solicitor General; and Gurbir S. Grewal and Josh Kaul — the current Attorneys General of New Jersey and Wisconsin respectively.
On May 20, Mehta, in delivering a major victory to the Democrat-controlled House Oversight Committee, denied Trump’s efforts to block the committee’s subpoena to obtain 10 years worth of his financial records from his accounting firm Mazars USA.
In his decisive 41-page ruling, Mehta ruled, “To be sure, there are limits on Congress’ investigative authority. But those limits do not substantially constrain Congress. So long as Congress investigates on a subject matter on which ‘legislation could be had,’ Congress acts as contemplated by Article I of the Constitution.
“History has shown that congressionally-exposed criminal conduct by the president or a high-ranking executive branch official can lead to legislation,” he wrote.
Mehta added, “It is simply not fathomable that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a president for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct — past or present — even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry.”
Thus, “Applying those principles here compels the conclusion that President Trump cannot block the subpoena to Mazars,” he wrote, and declared, “This court is not prepared to roll back the tide of history,” he said.
Oversight Committee chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) had moved to obtain these records following the testimony of Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony, where he had claimed that Trump had repeatedly misrepresented his net-worth as a private citizen.
White House lawyers had then moved immediately to quash that subpoena in April, suing the House Democrats, alleging that they overstepped Congress’ constitutional powers and that Cummings and his Committee did not have a legitimate legislative reason to pursue the information, but just wanted Trump’s financial records purely for political purposes.
But Mehta wrote that years of past court decisions on Congress’s investigative power clearly showed that “courts must presume Congress is acting in furtherance of its constitutional responsibility to legislate and must defer to congressional judgments about what Congress needs to carry out that purpose.”
He also cited historical precedents, pointing out that from the 1920s Teapot Dome Scandal to 1970s Watergate, it clearly showed that congressional oversight into presidential misconduct can ultimately lead to legislative changes.
“These are facially valid legislative purposes, and it is not for the court to question whether the committee’s actions are truly motivated by political considerations,” Mehta wrote.
An obviously elated Cummings, said in a statement, “Today’s decision is a resounding victory for the rule of law and our Constitutional system of checks and balances.
“Congress must have access to the information we need to do our job effectively and efficiently, and we urge the president to stop engaging in this unprecedented cover-up and start complying with the law,” he said.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D.-Ill.), a member of the Oversight Committee, hailed the ruling by a fellow Indian-American and described it as “an excellent ruling,” and said that Mehta “hit the nail on the head.
“It was a 41-page ruling and I looked at much of it and it was an excellent summary of the power that Congress has to conduct oversight and do its work of serving as a check and balance of the executive branch.”
Trump, slammed Mehta’s ruling calling it as a “crazy” decision by “an Obama-appointed judge.
“We will appeal it,” he told reporters on May 20. “It’s a totally wrong decision by, obviously an Obama-appointed judge.”
Trump has repeatedly attempted to obstruct Congressional Democrats’ efforts to investigate his administration, campaign and businesses, and have assailed such attempts to “get a redo” after Special Counsel Robert Mueller declined to indict him with crimes in the Russia investigation and said there was “no collusion,” but left the obstruction of justice charges hanging, even though he did not made a decision on that either.
“The Democrats were very upset with the Mueller report, as perhaps they should be, but, I mean, the country is very happy about it,” the president has said. “And they’re trying to get a redo or a do-over, and you can’t do that.”
But as several legal analysts predicted that Mehta’s writings would likely be more fodder for other judges to consider as Trump and his cabinet try to hold off Congress from getting the president’s business records, such as through the IRS, banks and in other court fights, a New York judge in less than a week also ruled against Trump’s challenges to House subpoenas for more records of Trump’s dealing with Deutsche Bank and Capital One Bank.
The Patan, Gujarat-born Mehta, who immigrated to the U.S. at age one, with his parents, Priyavadan Mehta, an engineer and Ragini Mehta, a lab technician, was raised outside of Baltimore, Maryland.
When Srinivasan administered the oath of office to Mehta, who now presides over both civil and criminal matters in Courtroom 10 of the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse, he declared that both he and Mehta were products of a community that takes “special pride in what today signifies.”
Mehta in his remarks, after taking his oath, said to peals of laughter, “When I met with the Chief (Judge Richard Roberts) earlier this week to discuss the investiture, I told him that I wanted this ceremony to reflect my heritage as an Indian-American and the fact that I am the first Asian-American judge to serve on this court. And, the chief, as only he could say, said ‘Wonderful, I think that’s a great idea, it’s your day, what did you have in mind?’ I said that I’d like to enter the courtroom to loud Bollywood music, surrounded by dancers, and ride in on a horse.’
“The chief said he thought that was a great idea. ‘Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the horse past the Marshal’s downstairs,’” he added.
At the investiture, Mehta spoke of his “journey here started on the other side of the planet. My father was born in a small village in India by the name of Malvan. The village was little more than a single row of concrete homes, with no running water and no electricity. His father was cloth merchant who ran a small store in the front of the family home. His mother cared for her nine children.
“My mother was born in Patan, India, where I too would be born 22 years later. Patan was a small town, larger than my father’s village, but still of modest size. My mother’s father was a principal of an elementary school. Her mother cared for her seven children.”
Mehta said, “They somehow met — without the aid of an Indian online match-making site — and came to the United States in 1972. They settled eventually outside of Baltimore, where they knew no one at first. But there they met other young couples from the state of Gujarat, who came to this country like they had — in search of opportunity and a better life. They met Desais, Patels, Shahs, and more Desais — there were a lot of Desais. My parents’ friends would become my aunts and uncles and their children my cousins.”
He said, “Together, they formed a close-knit community that faced the challenges of adapting to life in America. Many of those aunties and uncles and their kids are here today, and I want to thank them for being here and thank them for all that they’ve done to support our family over the years.”
Mehta said, “One of those kids was more than a cousin — he was my brother. That’s Dr. Desai — who I grew calling Bobby, and who I still call Bobby. Not to be confused with a certain governor from Louisiana who goes by the same name. My earliest childhood memories are of the two of us getting into trouble and creating all sorts of mischief for our parents.
“And if you had told me then that he would go on to become the youngest director of John Hopkins Hospital’s medical training program, I would have told you better go get your healthcare somewhere else. Thank you for our years of friendship. Hard to believe that a couple of kids from Reisterstown have ended up where we have.”
He then went on to “Thank members of my extended family for being here today. My aunt is here from India, via a smaller version of India, known as New Jersey. A number of father’s cousins and my cousins here, as well.”
Mehta then recognized his wife Caroline’s family and his in-laws, whose last name is Judge. “You have welcomed me into your family from the very first day we met. And have always shown me great love and affection. As Caroline is fond of saying, and with no disrespect meant to my new colleagues, before I had even the faintest notion that this job was even possible, I had already met the most important Judges of my life. Certainly true.”
He also thanked D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton “for recommending me to the president and to her nominating commission, led by Pauline Schneider, for recommending me to Congresswoman Norton.”
Turning to Norton, Mehta said, “Congresswoman, because your wisdom and courage to set up a nominating commission that I even conceived of the idea that this job might be within reach. You deserve a tremendous amount of credit for giving members of the bar, particular diverse members of the bar, the opportunity to serve this community.”
He then thanked President Obama “for nominating me and for affording me the great privilege of serving in this position.”
Mehta also acknowledged the DC chapters of the South Asian Bar Association and the Asian Pacific American Bar Association, saying, “your backing and support were critical to my nomination. Just the other night I participated in an APABA panel with three other Asian-American judges, including Judge Srinivasan, who I would like to thank for swearing me in today. We commented to each other that it is truly to remarkable to think that only few years ago there were not enough Asian-American judges to hold that panel. Much has changed in such a short time, and SABA and APABA have played a large role in that.”
He then went on to recall the “two defining professional experiences in my career — staff attorney at the DC Public Defender Service and at the law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder,” and identified and thanked several of his colleagues at both places, saying how much they all meant to him “personally and professionally.”
Then turning to his children, he said, “Devan (then 8) and Kian (then 4) thank you for sitting through all of this for your dad. I hope you’ll be able to look back some day and, if you remember anything about it, it’ll be how lucky your parents are to have so many wonderful family and friends in their lives. That, of course, is what will bring richness and meaning to your lives. That and a trip to Blue Moo this weekend for frozen yogurt.”
Mehta now clearly emotional, turned to his wife and said, “I feared speaking after you, and I now know why,” and then shared with the audience about her during confirmation process.
He said, “My confirmation vote was to happen during the lame duck session last December. She learned about arcane details of Senate procedure. She started following Senate floor proceedings on Twitter. Calling people we knew on the Hill. As the weeks went by during the lame duck, she was following the votes of other people. She’d rail against the board member from the Tennessee Valley Authority who got a vote before me; rail against nominee to board of Public Broadcasting Company, rail against the nominee to be ambassador to Hungary.”
Mehta, who had met his wife while working at Zuckerman and then worked with her at the firm till his nomination, recalled that on the last night the Senate was in session, “She was watching the voting, and around 9:30 that night, Harry Reid announced that he was about the call the last vote. Senators were shaking hands and walking off the floor. Called a judge’s name that wasn’t mine. Thought I wasn’t going to get a vote. Crestfallen. Still have a job. It’ll happen next year. And she looked at me, with eyes welling up, and said, ‘I don’t want to work with you anymore.’ Thankfully, there was a voice vote for about 13 judges right afterwards and I was confirmed, so it all worked out.”
He said, “A lot has been said today about the good things that have had happened in my life, but none of it compares to the privilege of being married to you. There is little doubt that today would not have happened without you. Thank you for your love, support, and friendship. You are the best friend and partner I could have ever wished for.”
Mehta closed by saying that “the chance to serve the people of the District of Columbia as a judge is an extraordinary honor and I am humbled to have the opportunity,” and pledged, “Litigants who come before it know that they will be heard and will be given a fair shot, no matter the person’s race, religion, nationality or station in life. After all, that is the function of the courts in our democracy and
that is what trying to do justice is all about.”
Earlier, Caroline Judge Mehta said, “Amit and I have been so lucky to come from some wonderful families. Despite our different cultural backgrounds, we were united by the similarity in the values that our parents raised us with.
“And then, against all odds, we met at a place that Roger Zuckerman, Roger Spaeder, Bill Taylor, Peter Kolker, and so many others founded with a shared set of values and that grew across generations into a family of lawyers, friends. To know Amit is to know that he came from that Zuckerman family as well.”
Caroline Judge Caroline Mehta, directed her remarks to her children, she said, “I guess by extension all of you (the audience). As I was preparing for today, it occurred to me that even though I have only known Amit as an advocate, and just a few months as a judge, our kids are still quite young, and their kids’ memories of their father will be mostly as a judge. They may not remember a single thing about his journey that took him here.
“That struck me as very strange. So, especially because this is on video — I wanted to tell them — and I guess by extension all of you — a few things.”
She said, “Certainly, you need to know what your father did as a lawyer, because when I stopped and thought about it, the way your dad has led his life and has practiced law embodies everything we are trying to teach you, and every lesson I hope you take into your own lives as you grow.”
Caroline Judge Caroline Mehta then provided a laundry list of some of the defining cases Mehta had litigated and worked on and the successes and disappointments, when the ruling went against his clients.
She said, “We’ve tried to teach you that every person is equal, sacred, and worthy of your respect.” She said, “When you find that sometimes life is just unfair, I hope dad tells you about the Causey case. He fought an uphill battle for a man he believed should never have been convicted. Against all odds, he got the toughest appeals court in the country to review the case. And then they lost.
“Sometimes in life, you have to get past your own disappointment, and help other people bear what seems unbearable.”
Caroline Judge Mehta closed here remarks with what she said were “just a few words to his new family of colleagues. You’ve had the benefit of this intense vetting process, and questionnaires, and interviews. But what I hope was captured here today is some of the information that we — the families that came before — now offer to you, about your new colleague”
She told them, “You are welcoming someone who will work tirelessly, for the good and not the glory, and who has never in his life even considered cutting a corner.
“You are joined by a giant intellect, but an even greater soul. You welcome a fiercely competitive, sometimes stubborn, always gracious person who will be the best colleague and friend you could hope for.”
Earlier, William Taylor III, a founding partner of Zuckerman Spaede and Mehta’s former colleague, praised Mehta’s humility, noting that they grew close during Mehta’s time at the firm, at one point sharing an apartment during a long trial and were even kidded as ‘The Odd Couple.’’’
Taylor said, “He is constitutionally incapable of self-promotion. He doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about,’ and of Mehta and Caroline, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder, noted that ‘money, fame, power —those report card markers for Washington lawyers — don’t seem to move them.”
Dr Sanjay Desai, a childhood friend of Mehta’s, and now the director of a medical training program at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said Mehta always had a “deep and sincere sense for justice.”
He recalled when a group of friends went camping in high school, Mehta made the convoy of cars turn around when he realized they had failed to pay for a few bags of ice from a convenience store.
But to much laughter, Desai, pointed out this moral compass was out the door, when it had anything to do with his favorite baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles. “He will defend the Orioles no matter what the facts are.”
D.C. Superior Court Judge Maribeth Raffinan, a friend and former colleague of Mehta’s from the PDS, said his talents extended beyond an advocate to amateur softball and also a coach.
Raffinan spoke of how Mehta coached the public defender office’s softball team to a championship victory in 2005, and predicted that the same skills that made him a successful coach — confident decision-making and judicious temperament, for example — would serve him well on the bench too.
And, now, four years into his tenure, he’s elicited the wrath of the President of the United States, but besides calling his ruling “crazy” and that he’s an “Obama-appointee” Trump is yet to mock him with any racial taunt as he did a Mexican American judge, Gonzalo Curiel more than two years ago, who was overseeing the fraud case against Trump University in San Diego.
Trump called Curiel a “hater” who was being unfair to him because the judge is “Hispanic,” because he is “Mexican” and because he (Trump) is building a wall.”
Krishnamoorthi told India Abroad that “I believe his quarrel is not with Judge Mehta — his quarrel is with our Constitution and the law, and I think that obviously the American people side with the Constitution and our system of checks and balances.”