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Posts Tagged ‘president’

Catching Up on My Blog Posts

Posted by Peter M. Shane on June 30, 2014

I’ve tried to be reliable in making sure that there appear on Shane Reactions all blog posts and essays I have contributed to other online venues, but I’ve fallen behind.  In the event anyone is looking for my collected online venting (between October, 2013 and June, 2014, that is), here’s the list of what I neglected to cross-post:

Two Cheers for Recess Appointments, RegBlog (June 26, 2014).

The Non-Constitutional Non-Crisis, Slate (June 5, 2014) — about the Bergdhahl-GITMO detainee trade.

“Privatization” is Not “Privacy,” Huffington Post, Apr. 11, 2014.

The True Spirit of Law School Reform, Chronicle of Higher Education, (Mar. 12, 2014).

The Myth of the Anti-Government Constitution, The Atlantic (Jan. 11, 2014).

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The Constitutional Stakes in Debt Ceiling Brinkmanship

Posted by Peter M. Shane on October 14, 2013

If you don’t think the current government shutdown and fight over the debt ceiling are a threat to constitutional government, you’re not paying attention.

In my 2009 book, Madison’s Nightmare, I described a systematic “attack on checks and balances between 1981 and 2009 [that] can very much be seen as an assault on a constitutional culture built on checks and balances norms.” Iran-Contra, the government shutdowns of 1995, the Clinton impeachment, and the efflorescence of presidential power claims under Bush 43 all exemplified that attack.  Each episode was rooted in “the relentless campaign of the right wing of the Republican Party since 1981 to steer the capacities of our national government towards the fulfillment of a conservative social, economic and foreign policy agenda.”

The Republican minority in the Senate and the current GOP House majority are now intensifying that campaign.  Its results portend disaster for checks and balances.  Not only does the effort hurt the economy and undermine the quality of government service, but the GOP’s hostility towards interbranch accommodation positions the President so that he (or his successors) will be more likely to respond with initiatives that can only further corrode an institutional culture of self-restraint that is essential to constitutional government.

Consider, in this respect, the debt limit imbroglio.  Scholars and other commentators have advanced at least five options for a presidential response should Congress not raise the debt limit.

One is the trillion-dollar coin option.  The Treasury would use its facially unlimited statutory power to mint coins to create a platinum coin in a large enough denomination to avoid default and deposit it in the government’s account in the Fed.  The obvious problem with this option, which the Administration has already foresworn, is that the statute’s plain purpose is to authorize the minting of commemorative coins.  Congress could not plausibly have intended the Treasury to use its mint authority to augment the government’s borrowing capacity.  Just as bad, it might be seen as compromising the independence of the Fed, which is indispensable to its credibility.

A second is the Fourteenth Amendment option.  The President would declare the debt limit statute unconstitutional and thus inoperable at the point of default because in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment command: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”  The obvious problem here, as compelling as the historically based claim may be, is that, even if the President’s constitutional judgment is correct, it is not clear that the Fourteenth Amendment authorizes the President to create a remedy.  The White House has foresworn this option also.

A third option would be some form of prioritization.  The president could claim authority under the Impoundment Control Act to defer government spending other than paying off debt in such amounts as necessary to avoid further borrowing. He would presumably cite as his legal authority 2 U.S.C. sec. 684(b)(1), which authorizes deferrals to the end of the current fiscal year “to provide for contingencies.”  Of course, it would be odd to use the Impoundment Control Act to impose what would amount to the most ambitious presidential impoundment in history.  It would be turning the Impoundment Control Act on its head.

A fourth option would be a claim of some emergency authority inherent in the Constitution’s grant of “executive power.”  As suggested by Eric Posner: “[T]he president can declare an emergency and justify borrowing by citing reasons of state. . . .The president could invoke his ‘inherent’ executive powers under Article II of the Constitution (which vests the president with mostly undefined ‘executive’ powers).”  Unfortunately, there would be no obvious limit to the reach of such a precedent.  The argument that the Vesting Clause gives the President any robust set of unspecified domestic powers is dubious, to say the least, and Professor Posner’s suggestion could easily give root to a practice of presidential decrees utterly antithetical to a separation of powers.

Finally, the option I and others would favor – but which itself would also be audacious – is what I call the “faithful execution” option.  Professors Neil Buchanan and Michael Dorf have called this the “least unconstitutional” option, but I believe it would not be unconstitutional at all – just destabilizing.  Its premise is that Congress’s failure to raise the debt ceiling would leave the President with two irreconcilable demands – carry out Congress’s spending instructions as contained in current appropriations laws, but do not borrow money sufficient to carry out those instructions and repay debts already incurred.  It is as if he were told to drive simultaneously no faster than 45 miles per hour and no slower than 60.  The President cannot do both.

The solution under this option would be to interpret the appropriations laws as implicitly authorizing sufficient borrowing to allow the President to both carry out those laws and to repay U.S. debts on time, notwithstanding the debt limit statute.  Better he ignore one instruction than many, especially since ignoring many would involve making a host of budgetary prioritization decisions that are plainly matters for Congress, not the President.

Of course, were the President to pursue this option – or any of the others – it would likely remove any incentive for Congress ever again to legislate responsibly regarding a debt ceiling.  What one commentator has written about the trillion dollar coin option is only a slightly exaggerated assessment that applies to any unilateral presidential move to get Congress out of its hole:  “It would effectively mark the demise of the three-branch system of government, by allowing the executive branch to simply steamroller the rights and privileges of the legislative branch.”

A unilateral solution would also no doubt fuel calls for the President’s impeachment, which is currently a right-wing fantasy looking for a plausible legal hook.  For certain, the decline in our pre-1981 culture of interbranch accommodation would accelerate.

A British Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, famously observed: “Every political constitution in which different bodies share the supreme power is only enabled to exist by the forbearance of those among whom this power is distributed.”  Under the U.S. Constitution, the supreme power supposedly belongs to “the People,” but the absence of forbearance among those who exercise power in the People’s name threatens to render “the People” effectively powerless.  If Congress does not relent, believe me, things will get worse.

(This post appeared originally on the blog of the American Constitution Society.)

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In NLRB Recess Appointments Case, Roberts Court Can Now Show It Knows How to Exercise Judicial Restraint

Posted by Peter M. Shane on July 30, 2013

Bloomberg BNA yesterday published a brief essay of mine — a link to the full text appears below — arguing that, if the Senate confirms a full complement of members for the National Labor Relations Board, the Obama administration should ask the Supreme Court in Noel Canning v. NLRB to remand the case, without decision, to be re-heard by the NLRB. The Court should grant the request, showing a judicial restraint for which the Roberts Court is not known—and returning the recess appointments controversy to the elected branches of government, where it belongs.  If the SG does not pursue this course, the Court should use the political question doctrine to avoid unnecessary judicial interference with the dynamics of the President’s and Senate’s shared appointments power.

Peter Shane Argument for Judicial Restraint in Recess Appointments Cases

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OLC’s Skillful Defense of President Obama’s Recess Appointments and Its Possible Aftershocks

Posted by Peter M. Shane on January 13, 2012

The Justice Department’s release of on Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion regarding President Obama’s recess appointments power is a welcome display of public accountability. However one analyzes the bottom line, the opinion is a model of the genre. It is thorough in its analysis, candid about points that are novel or untested, and serious about engaging what it acknowledges to be substantial counterarguments. This is evidence of an OLC that is doing its job.

For separation of powers aficionados, what ought to most interesting is the OLC opinion’s primary line of attack. I had earlier defended the President’s right to make recess appointments even during a three-day recess – an argument that, in a footnote, the OLC opinion holds in reserve. OLC’s main conclusion, however, is that the recent pro forma sessions were of no constitutional significance in interrupting what was effectively a 20-day recess. OLC thus followed earlier Attorney General Opinions that had judged the concept of “recess” functionally, by whether “in a practical sense the Senate is in session so that its advice and consent can be obtained.”

The OLC analysis is arguably the more institutionally modest position because it is better grounded in historical precedent. Its functional approach also resonates with Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit opinions dealing with a structurally similar question, namely, when does Congress “by their adjournment” prevent the President from returning a veto message, thus triggering the President’s power of “pocket veto” – i.e., the power to prevent an enacted measure from becoming law without an actual veto if, on the tenth day following the measure’s presentation to the President, Congress is not in session to receive the President’s message. In the 1938 case of Wright v. United States, the Supreme Court held that, even when the Senate was concededly in a three-day recess, it had not prevented the President from vetoing enacted bills because the Secretary of the Senate remained available to receive the veto message. The OLC opinion, like Wright and, even more conspicuously, Wright ‘s D.C. Circuit progeny, seeks a constitutional reading that most pragmatically facilitates the system of checks and balances by respecting the core powers of each political branch.

(Interestingly, Professor Laurence Tribe had earlier offered yet a different analysis — that the Constitution confers “an irreducible minimum of presidential authority to appoint officials when the appointments are essential to execute duly enacted statutes,” and that pro forma Senate sessions during what would otherwise appear to be a substantial recess could not defeat the President’s power when such sessions “manifestly” served no purpose other than to serve as a “transparently obstructionist tactic.”)

As much as I admire the restraint and thoughtfulness of the OLC opinion, however, I have only a limited hope that it will put a stop to interbranch game-playing. Perhaps the toughest point for OLC to counter was that, during two pro forma sessions – one last summer and one this winter – the Senate actually did pass legislation by unanimous consent, thus seeming to be “in business.” OLC’s counter to this was rather technical, namely, that the scheduling orders during which the pro forma sessions were held explicitly provided that there was to be “no business conducted.” “In our judgment,” the opinion states, “the President may properly rely on the public pronouncements of the Senate that it will not conduct business (including action on nominations), in determining whether the Senate remains in recess, regardless of whether the Senate has disregarded its own orders on prior occasions.”

That’s fair enough, but let’s imagine a few scenarios. What if, for example, the Republicans take the Senate in 2012, but President Obama is reelected? It seems quite likely that the pro forma ritual will continue, but with the Senate modifying its scheduling orders to make the possibility of doing business seem more plausible. Perhaps the pro forma sessions will occur daily, rather than every three days.

Or, imagine, as is less likely, that the Democrats retain the Senate but President Obama loses the White House. The Democrats, eager to prevent controversial nominees from getting recess appointments, could well try to prevent them the old-fashioned way – by actually scheduling floor action and voting them down. Will we then see Republicans using the filibuster to prevent such votes, not in the hope that the Senate will ever approve the nominees in question, but to keep the nominations alive and the vacancies open, so President Obama’s Republican successor may appoint them during a recess?

In our analyses of President Obama’s recent appointments, both Professor Tribe and I stressed that the appointments were limited to vacancies that, if they persisted, would prevent the agencies involved from actually executing the laws they were charged with enforcing. Of course, there is no guarantee that any successor to President Obama (or even President Obama himself on another occasion) will observe such restraint.

And, on top of all of this, the President seems to have his own textually explicit nuclear option. He is authorized by Article II to adjourn Congress unilaterally “to such time as he shall think proper.” If courts interpret the Recess Appointments Clause to require adjournments of, say, ten days or more in order to be triggered, there is no obvious bar in the text to the President adjourning Congress for ten days to accomplish precisely that end.

A British Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, famously observed: “Every political constitution in which different bodies share the supreme power is only enabled to exist by the forbearance of those among whom this power is distributed.” Under our Constitution, of course, it is “the People” who hold the supreme power. But we have effectively delegated the exercise of government power to a set of partly autonomous, partly interdependent institutions to which we have allocated both authorities and dependencies in the hope of effective governance. Yet, “forbearance of those among whom . . . power is distributed” is not much in evidence these days. As much as I applaud the President’s recent actions and the skillful defense OLC has offered, I thus find it difficult not to worry about the aftershocks.

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Recess Appointments and President Obama’s Surprising Restraint

Posted by Peter M. Shane on January 6, 2012

For all the brouhaha surrounding President Obama’s recess appointments this week of three new members for the National Labor Relations Board and of Richard Cordray to serve as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, what is most surprising – and most welcome from a constitutional perspective – is the President’s restraint in his use of the recess appointment power. What’s scary is the precedent it may set for other Administrations’ less judicious use of that power.

Article II of the Constitution authorizes the President “to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” The Constitution does not require that the recess be of any particular length or for any particular reason. The Senate was out on a three-day hiatus when President Obama made his appointments. His act squares neatly with the constitutional text.

Some observers may be confused by the Article I provision stating: “Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days . . . .” Because the House (at the behest of Republican Senators) is currently not allowing the Senate to adjourn for more than three days, the Senate has been going through a repeated ritual of convening in “pro forma” session every third day, but without any capacity to do legislative business. (Harry Reid invented this technique in 2007 to forestall recess appointments by George W. Bush.) But there is no constitutional requirement that a Senate recess triggering the President’s appointments power be an adjournment to which the House of Representatives has consented.

The most colorable objection to the Obama recess appointments is that they arguably flout a norm, or informal custom, of interbranch interaction. That is, Presidents ordinarily do not resort to their recess appointment power during short recesses. It is understood on both sides that the Framers originally contemplated a Congress that would convene only a few months a year. They gave the President a power of recess appointment so that he could keep the government functioning effectively even when federal legislators had returned to their far-flung farms, law offices, or other places of non-government business. Recognizing that the recess appointments power was thus conferred for a limited purpose and not in order for Presidents to lightly circumvent the Senate’s confirmation role, Presidents have typically – though not invariably – used their recess appointment power sparingly. (A good nonpartisan account appears here.)

As I argued in my 2009 book, Madison’s Nightmare, norms of this sort are essential to the effective functioning of any separation of powers system – perhaps to any non-dictatorial system of government at all. A system of separated powers can work only if each branch refrains from pressing its powers to the utmost limits of textual plausibility under a written Constitution. However aggressive the interbranch competition for policy influence, each branch must ultimately respect the purposes and capacities that the Constitution assigns to its sister branches. From the end of the McCarthy era through the end of the Carter Administration, Congress and the executive typically acted in this spirit of mutual restraint, even as the country navigated its way through the upheavals of Vietnam and the civil rights revolution.

Since the Reagan Administration, however – and most especially since the second Reagan Administration – these norms have been under steady attack. The attackers usually – though not invariably – are right-wing Republicans who quite correctly view a checks and balances system as an obstacle to their capacity to jerk our national government onto a profoundly more conservative course than is warranted by public sentiment.

For example, nothing in the Constitution explicitly forbade the Reagan Administration to circumvent the appropriations process and fund its own foreign policy in Central America. Nothing in the Constitution explicitly rejects lying about a sexual affair as a ground for impeachment. Nowhere does the Constitution impose a time limit on Senate consideration for routine executive and judicial appointments. But the Iran-Contra affair, the Clinton impeachment, and the GOP use of the Senate filibuster to impose unprecedented delays in staffing both the executive and judicial branches nonetheless stand out as breaches of constitutional governance. These practices may or may not be unconstitutional, but they exhibit a glaring disrespect for the purposes and capacities assigned to non-GOP-controlled government institutions.

Seen in this light, President Obama’s recourse to his recess appointment power was really the only plausible way of responding to a pattern of Senate behavior – induced by the Republican minority – that paid no regard to his authority and obligation to appoint officers of the United States to a host of positions critical to effective governance. It is notable that he targeted his latest appointments with just that limiting principle in mind – that is, he filled vacancies only in agencies that were utterly disabled from carrying out their legally assigned missions because leadership nominations were languishing in the Senate.

Constitutionally, President Obama could have gone further. He could have filled other executive branch positions that the Senate has been holding hostage for reasons unrelated to the merits of the nominees. He could have filled judicial vacancies. He could have used his power under Article II to adjourn Congress, thus creating his own recess of the Senate during which he could make these appointments.

That President Obama has not gone to these lengths demonstrates a commendable inclination to continue to respect the Senate’s confirmation power. It also continues a tradition of making recess judicial appointments only in extremely rare circumstances, in large part because – although such appointments are constitutional under the text – their limited duration stands in tension with the Framers’ conspicuous commitment to judicial independence, embodied in the constitutional guarantee of lifetime tenure.

Some Senate Republicans have apparently reacted to President Obama by threatening to be even less cooperative with the executive branch. But it’s hard to see how much less cooperation they could offer. The intransigence of the House Tea Party Caucus, plus the GOP Senate minority’s filibuster abuse, has rendered the 2011 session of Congress the least productive in terms of non-trivial legislation since the late 19th century. The White House has correctly discerned that the public has tired of this obstinacy. As Larry Lessig has said, our uncooperative Congress has earned approval ratings probably lower than the approval ratings of Parliament in the thirteen colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. (One suspects, if the public were yet more familiar with the bills the House was trying to pass, its opinion would actually be even lower.) For this reason, the White House is surely undaunted by the prospect of congressional hearings examining its appointments powers. The charts and graphs the Administration can produce illustrating the current Senate’s unprecedented delays for even the most routine appointments would make for impressive video.

The real danger in the latest recess appointments is that subsequent Presidents may well use President Obama’s expansive understanding of “recess” to staff courts and agencies with controversial nominees who they know Senators are opposing on the merits. In a fine analysis of the situation, Larry Tribe has argued that the Cordray and NLRB appointments do not “free the president to make recess appointments whenever the Senate breaks for lunch or takes routine weekend vacations that conceal no objective scheme to frustrate presidential appointments.” He concludes that “the president can resort to recess appointments of this kind only in instances of transparent and intolerable burdens on his authority. Article II charges him to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed’; this duty, combined with appointment and recess-appointment powers, requires an irreducible minimum of presidential authority to appoint officials when the appointments are essential to execute duly enacted statutes.”

I have two related fears about this speculation, however. The first is that, although Professor Tribe has stated an excellent limiting principle for the exercise of the recess appointments power, it is not clear that courts would enforce it. Federal courts typically resist getting in the middle of power clashes between the elected branches, and sorting out which recess appointments are and are not proper under even a normatively compelling (and easy to enforce) constitutional principle may simply be a job they are unwilling to do.

My second fear is based on the right-wing’s willingness – even eagerness – to accelerate whatever innovations in interbranch struggle that the Democrats originate. The Democrats want to filibuster appellate court nominees? Fine, the Republican will filibuster trial court nominees. A Democratic Senate majority comes up with an “in forma session” ruse to try to stop a Republican President from making recess appointments? Fine, a GOP Senate minority will seek to accomplish the same result by enlisting the GOP House majority to stop the Senate majority from adjourning. Talk about using a constitutional power for an unintended purpose!

President Obama’s most recent recess appointments are themselves a modest counterpunch against attempts by House and Senate Republicans to subvert his capacity to perform his constitutionally assigned role. If the Senate wants the President to back off, it should start performing its confirmation role responsibly. If recent history is any guide, however, Republican leaders – who no doubt hope to control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2013 – will be thinking up rather different contingency plans should divided government persist. These plans are likely to intensify an already corrosive breakdown of interbranch norms of respect and cooperation that are the key to effective governance.

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What the President Should Say If Congress Misses the Debt Ceiling Deadline

Posted by Peter M. Shane on July 28, 2011

My Fellow Americans:

Today, for the first time in American history, the Congress of the United States has effectively prohibited the government from paying its bills. In the last 50 years, the debt ceiling has been raised 74 times, ten of those times since 2001. Those votes have been bipartisan. They have occurred under both Democratic and Republican presidents. They have been all but universally regarded as essential to preserving the full faith and credit of the United States. Yet a minority faction of today’s congressional representatives — in the face of proposed deficit-cutting plans with overwhelming support from the American people — has taken the unprecedented step of allowing us to slide into potential default.

As a result of this inaction — this betrayal of the trust of the American people — we must face a hard truth. If the government continues to spend the funds Congress has already appropriated at the rate Congress anticipated when it appropriated those funds, we will simply run out of money before the end of the fiscal year. We will face an across-the-board government shutdown, with no end in sight. We cannot let this happen.

Because this situation is unprecedented, there is simply no clear law to guide my actions in response to this crisis. Read literally, the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 allows me to defer spending that Congress has already authorized on the basis of what that statute calls “contingencies.” It has been argued that I may use that authority to choose selectively, designating obligations to meet now and obligations to defer in order to avoid a shutdown of government services. At the same time, I am also aware of arguments that the Act does not give me such authority — that a statute intended to control impoundments cannot faithfully be interpreted to allow a president to postpone so much spending at his sole discretion. If these critics are right — if the Impoundment Act does not give me such authority — then my decisions not to spend money on particular programs would violate the many statutory provisions under which Congress mandated that those funds be spent.

It has also been argued that Section Four of the Fourteenth Amendment allows me to ignore the statutory limit on incurring government debt. That section provides, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned.” Some legal scholars argue that this provision authorizes the president to continue borrowing whatever funds are necessary both to meet our obligations to creditors and to continue funding government programs at the levels Congress has already approved. I have already expressed my doubts about the validity of this interpretation. I have been inclined to agree with those who read Section 4 as obligating Congress to provide for the repayment of debt, not to permit the president to ignore statutory limits on borrowing.

The fact is, however, that I am now faced with a no-win choice. I could cease government borrowing and defer some government spending, on a selective basis, under the uncertain authority of the Impoundment Control Act. But that would risk violating the many statutory provisions under which Congress has provided for government spending. I would risk disabling key government programs from operating effectively. Alternatively, if I continue government borrowing under the uncertain authority of the Fourteenth Amendment, then I will certainly be violating the statutory limit on federal debt and I will perhaps be misinterpreting our most fundamental law.

Let me clear about this conundrum. The Constitution obligates the president to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” I cannot duck that obligation. Yet, if I rely on one statute to withhold some government spending in order to advance what I regard as our critical priorities, then I risk violating some of the statutes through which Congress has directed the executive branch to spend money. The government spends only money that Congress appropriates; spending as Congress directs is, in most cases, a legal obligation. On the other hand, if I continue borrowing to fulfill these congressional mandates and to repay government debts that were lawfully incurred, then I am violating the debt ceiling and risk misinterpreting the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment. The legal path is not clearly marked either way.

Faced with this choice, I am compelled by both conscience and necessity to take the latter option. Deferring government spending under the Impoundment Control Act would require me to claim unprecedented discretion to pick and choose among programs that Congress has already determined to move forward. It would also leave the full faith and credit of the United States at risk, and impose numerous and unforeseen hardships on Americans who depend on the smooth and efficient operation of government programs already in place. If, however, I breach the statutory limit on borrowing, my assertion of power under the Fourteenth Amendment has a clear limit.  I can borrow no more than required in order to repay those debts that have been already been incurred pursuant to law without curtailing those government programs for which Congress has appropriated funds.  This is not a blank check. It is fulfilling a set of mandates that Congress itself has imposed.

I have thus decided to continue borrowing funds on behalf of the United States in order to repay those debts that have been already been incurred pursuant to law and to continue those government programs Congress has already authorized. In so doing, I believe I am faithfully executing both Congress’s current appropriations statutes and the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment to insure that the federal government would never repudiate its lawfully incurred obligations.

I would welcome congressional action to ratify this decision by statute. I would welcome even more the kind of balanced approach to debt reduction, deficit-cutting, and revenue enhancement that I have been urging on Congress for months and that can finally put our fiscal house in order for the next decade and beyond. Until Congress can reach some such agreement, however, I owe it to Congress and to the American people to stave off irreparable economic harm and to keep in effective operation the functions of our federal government for which Congress has already provided and on which the American people rely.

Thank you, and may God bless you and the United States of America.

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High Court to Consider Separation of Powers in Upcoming PCAOB Case

Posted by Peter M. Shane on December 4, 2009

(This entry originally appeared on the blog of the American Constitution Society.)

Roughly since the second Reagan administration, separation of powers sophisticates (SOPS) have been held in thrall – whether in joy or dread – by the theory of “the unitary presidency.” Its central claim is that the president is constitutionally entitled to direct personally the exercise of any and all discretionary authority that Congress vests in any officer of the executive branch. Say the Center for Disease Control is told to write a pamphlet about AIDS. The president gets to edit it. NASA scientists are supposed to write a report on climate change. The president gets to tell them if global warming is good science. Maybe the Park Service has been given the discretion to limit certain activities in national parks either through the imposition of user fees or the promulgation of regulatory restrictions. The president gets to pick. And so on. Any and all discretionary decision making in the executive branch would be hypothetically subject to presidential control, even in areas of government activity for which Article II gives the president no inherent authority.

A number of fellow academics for whom I have great personal affection and intellectual respect assert (a) that they are constitutional originalists and (b) that unitary executive theory represents the proper reading of the Constitution. As I wrote in Madison’s Nightmare: How Executive Power Threatens American Democracy (University of Chicago 2009), I don’t think these positions can be squared. Eighteenth century ideas of executive power simply did not include centralized policy control over all of public administration.

The idea of the unitary presidency is a very tough one, however, to test in court. One would have to imagine a case in which a party with standing was injured by an administrative action that the relevant officer avowedly undertook for the sole reason that the President ordered her to do so, but which, she confesses, she otherwise would not have pursued. Hard to see that happening. So, we SOPS are left to read other tea leaves, and the tea leaves we read most assiduously appear in Supreme Court opinions on appointments and removals. That is because the Court’s conclusions on the president’s appointment and removal powers would seem to have some logical connection to its inferences about the president’s supervisory powers, as well.

This is the main reason that even those of us who devote little if any time to thinking about securities regulation care about Fair Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, 537 F.3d 667 (D.C. Cir. 2008), cert. granted, 77 U.S.L.W. 3625 (U.S. May 18, 2009) (No. 08-861), in which the high court will hear oral argument on December 7.

This case involves the constitutionality of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), which was created by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to oversee the activities of public company auditors. It is an odd institutional creature – a nonprofit private corporation that has been given enforcement, adjudication, and rulemaking powers. The members of the PCAOB are appointed by the Securities and Exchange Commission – presumably because Congress found them to be “inferior officers” and thus subject to appointment, at Congress’s discretion, by the “heads of departments” – and are not directly removable by the president. This is clearly not the unitary executive at work.

Over a scathing dissent by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the D.C. Circuit upheld the PCAOB on the grounds that (a) PCAOB members are sufficiently subordinate to the SEC to count as “inferior,” and (b) both the appointments provisions and limited removability under Sarbanes-Oxley are constitutional under Morrison v. Olson. These holdings plainly invite a reconsideration of Morrison, which is the Supreme Court opinion most discomfiting to champions of the unitary executive. Morrison upheld Congress’s decision to create an officer called “independent counsel,” who would be appointed by the judiciary – permissible only for “inferior” officers – and subject to removal only for good cause and only by the attorney general. Following a sort of multi-factor balancing test, the Supreme Court concluded that independent counsels count as “inferior” for constitutional purposes, and that their limited removability did not deprive the president of his capacity to discharge his Article II functions. It is the removal point in Morrison that most gives presidential unitarians heartburn. Were the Supreme Court now to insist that all officers of the United States must be removable at will by the president, that might well signal the president’s entitlement also to command their exercise of discretionary authority. (I say “might well” because the points are analytically distinct. A president entitled to fire officers at will might still be legally required to allow them to exercise their discretion as vested and then fire them post hoc.)

As it happens, however, of the seven Justices in the Morrison v. Olson majority, only one – Justice Stevens – remains on the Court. Justice Scalia has since been joined on the Court by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito, all of whom, whether as jurists or as government lawyers, have been notably staunch advocates of the “unitary executive.” The apparent “swing vote,” as is often the case, belongs to Justice Kennedy, who recused himself in Morrison and who, in other contexts, has sometimes seemed sympathetic to categorical claims of inherent executive power. There is thus some real doubt as to the enduring vitality of the Morrison analysis.

Because five Justices may, of course, decide anything, it is technically true that a majority in the PCAOB case would have the option of using the case either to limit Morrison to its facts or overrule Morrison’s approach to the removal issue. The latter especially might seem to bolster unitary executive theorists and would raise doctrinal doubts – at least at the “tea leaf” level – about the constitutionality of independent agencies. Or, the Court might decide the case modestly, leaving Morrison’s broad separation of powers implications untouched. (I assume that the Court did not grant certiorari in the case simply to affirm the D.C. Circuit.)

A modest opinion would likely turn on the “inferior officer” issue. That is, it would be enough to invalidate the PCAOB’s mode of appointment to find its members are “principal,” not “inferior” officers, and can thus be appointed only by the president and with the Senate’s advice and consent. Whether PCAOB members count as inferior officers is, however, not necessarily an easy question. Although they receive substantial SEC supervision and appear to lack significant final, unreviewable policymaking authority, the PCAOB has important investigative and prosecutorial powers that involve genuine discretion.

Commenters predicting that the PCAOB case will provide the occasion to limit Morrison sometimes point to the case of Edmond v. United States, 520 U.S. 651 (1997), in which the Court unanimously (through an opinion by Justice Scalia) overturned the appointment by the Secretary of Transportation of civilian members of the Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals. The opinion noted, however, that the civilian members were not “inferior” under at least two of the Morrison v. Olson criteria: they are not limited in “tenure” to a single defined task and they are not limited in “jurisdiction” to focusing on a single individual or set of defendants. The Scalia opinion pointedly went on, however, to state that “‘inferior officers’ are officers whose work is directed and supervised at some level by others who were appointed by presidential nomination with the advice and consent of the Senate.” The obvious suggestion was that this test, not the Morrison balancing of factors was the better test. Advocates of “unitary executive” theory may be hoping that the PCAOB case at least reads Edmond as overturning Morrison’s approach to inferiority. (It would seem an odd move since Edmond acknowledges that its result is consistent with Morrison.) Of course, even if Morrison’s approach to inferiority were overturned, the holding would leave independent agencies intact. The commissioners and board members who head our key independent agencies are appointed by the president with Senate advice and consent, so there is no appointments issue raised. Congress, however, whenever it wanted to divest the president of appointments power, would have to render the officer whose duties are at stake substantially subordinate to an officer whom the president does appoint. That would put an end to any prospect of resurrecting the precise model of special prosecution enacted after Watergate – but perhaps Judges Laurence Walsh and Kenneth Starr already accomplished that.

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