I’m sure some readers will think of this as inside baseball, but it’s actually rather revealing. In response to questioning from Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) at yesterday’s Senate Finance Committee hearing, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius admitted that HHS had not sought a legal opinion from the Justice Department before issuing last week’s “compromise” mandate on employer contraceptives coverage. Here’s the exchange, as relayed by the Deseret News, a Utah paper:
“The President’s chief of staff and press secretary have claimed that this mandate is consistent with the First Amendment, and the final rule you issued last Friday states that it is consistent with the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act . . . . Let me just ask you again, did HHS conduct or request any analysis of the constitutional or statutory religious freedom issues?” Hatch asked Sebelius. . . .
“Well we certainly had our legal department look at a whole host of legal issues,” Sebelius said.
Sebelius also acknowledged that she had not contacted the Justice Department for an opinion, which would be a common practice when facing a delicate constitutional question.
Hatch asked her, “Did you ask the Justice Department?”
“I did not. No sir,” she replied.
As the report suggests, executive departments and agencies routinely request the advice of the Justice Department on proposed regulations that implicate serious constitutional and statutory questions. In fact, a specific office at Justice, the Office of Legal Counsel, handles such requests, often on an urgent, rush basis (I know, I used to work there). So it really is remarkable that HHS did not seek OLC’s views on legal questions of this magnitude. It suggests that the Administration does not take these questions seriously, an attitude that may come back to haunt it — after the November election, of course.