Separation of powers

  • October 24, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Keith Bradley

    Who do you think is the most powerful individual in government, after the president? Some might say the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General or the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board. According to a panel of the D.C. Circuit, it is actually the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. On that ground, the court in PHH v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has just held it unconstitutional that, under the Dodd-Frank Act, the director can only be dismissed for cause.

    For those unfamiliar with the agency, it is the federal regulator of consumer protection in financial services—things like mortgage and credit-card lending, consumer reporting, debt collection, checking accounts, etc. The Dodd-Frank Act created the Bureau, inspired in large part by then-Professor Elizabeth Warren’s idea for a finance analog to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Bureau has a budget of about $480 million and just over 1,500 employees—a quarter or so as big as, say, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. The Bureau is certainly influential in its sphere; in a six-month period it reports securing $244 million in relief for consumers harmed by violations of federal consumer financial law. Yet, whether you think the Bureau is doing a good job or a bad job in the various areas it regulates, it is not immediately evident that its director is the second-most powerful official in the entire government.

    The opinion’s rhetoric reveals that this panel lost its mooring to the Constitution. The judges’ concern was that the director has “unilateral power,” by which the court really meant that the director runs the Bureau by himself, not as part of a multi-member commission or board. A commission or board is superior, the court said, because it poses less threat to individual liberty. To be sure, the Supreme Court has observed that the separation of powers protects individuals as well as the rival branches. But individual liberty is not the Constitution’s only value. To assess the validity of the Bureau, the question is not simply how it affects liberty, but how it measures up against the actual framework of the Constitution.

    To see the all-consuming importance of individual liberty to this D.C. Circuit panel, it will be useful first to run through the other justifications it offered.

    First, the opinion professed to be suspicious because having a single agency head with for-cause protection is novel. Setting aside whether that mode of constitutional analysis is wise, the panel’s historical review was incomplete. The National Bank Act of 1864 established the Comptroller of the Currency and it permitted (and still permits) the President to remove the Comptroller only “upon reasons to be communicated . . . to the Senate.” Textually and in terms of effect, “upon reasons” seems pretty similar to a “for cause” limitation. Assessing this historical example would be important for any careful examination of whether for-cause protection for a single agency head is a novelty. The D.C. Circuit panel dismissed it in a footnote stating that the Comptroller is an at-will official—for which the court cited no precedent and provided no explanation.

  • February 19, 2016

    by Nanya Springer

    In the week following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, confusion and misinformation became widespread with regard to U.S. leaders’ constitutional obligations to fill the vacant seat. To explain what the Constitution requires of President Obama and the U.S. Senate, as well as the ramifications of a prolonged vacancy on the high Court, noted professor and legal expert Erwin Chemerinsky on Wednesday joined ACS for a discussion about what comes next.

    Chemerinsky immediately dispelled the myth that a president should not nominate a Supreme Court justice in an election year by simply reading the text of the Constitution. He explained, “What it says in Article II, Section 2, paragraph 2, is that the president ‘shall appoint Ambassadors, other Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States . . . with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.’ So, the Constitution creates a duty for the president to appoint Supreme Court justices by using the word ‘shall.’ There is no clause in Article II that says, ‘but not in an election year.’” He added that “presidents throughout American history have nominated in an election year, the last year of their term.”

    Chemerinsky provided historical data, noting that "over the entire course of American history, 24 times presidents have nominated individuals in an election year . . . and in 21 of 24 instances, the nominee has been confirmed by the Senate. That’s 87.5 percent. If you look at the entire course of American history, and all presidential nominations to the Supreme Court, 86.9 percent have been conformed. So there’s no statistical difference between nominations in the last year of presidency and nominations that come at any other time of the presidency.”

    Clearly, there are consequences that result from having an eight-member Supreme Court, particularly in the event of a 4-4 split. In that situation, Chemerinsky explained, the Court may choose to reconsider the case and seek a resolution on narrow or procedural grounds, put the case over for reargument the next term, or affirm the lower court’s decision without opinion. The latter situation would create complications in the presence of a circuit split because “the same federal law will have varying meanings in different parts of the country.”

    To listen to the full discussion, click here.

  • February 19, 2016

    by Nanya Springer 

    In The Huffington Post, ACS President Caroline Fredrickson urges the U.S. Senate to fulfill its constitutional duty and “give fair and prompt consideration” to any Supreme Court nominee.

    ACS Director of Strategic Engagement Jill Dash comments to Paul Waldman in The Washington Post about the improbability that a new Supreme Court would immediately overturn high-profile decisions. “The four more liberal justices currently on the Court take precedent and stare decisis seriously,” adds ACS Issue Brief author Samuel Bagenstos.

    Perry Cooper at Bloomberg BNA says class actions may see a Renaissance in the near future and notes ACS Board member Erwin Chemerinsky’s prediction that Spokeo Inc. v. Robins will result in a 4-4 split decision.

    In the Emory Corporate Governance and Accountability Review, Caroline Poplin examines the pharmaceutical industry’s misuse of First Amendment doctrine, and ACS Board member Reuben Guttman, with Paul J. Zwier, examines wrongful marketing and pricing practices.

  • June 3, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Chris Edelson, assistant professor of government, American University School of Public Affairs. Chris is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

    Presidential candidates may find it easy to score political points by talking tough, especially when there are lots of things for Americans to be afraid of in the context of national security.  Governor Scott Walker, a candidate for the Republican nomination, is showing his ability to play this game.  However, while this approach may score Walker points with voters, the governor is playing a dangerous game when it comes to presidential power under the Constitution.  This is a scenario that has become all too familiar since 9/11.

    While campaigning in New Hampshire last weekend, Walker told voters that “I'm not eager to go into open-ended engagements, but I'm not afraid to lay down the law when we have to.”  He declared that “I just want people to know that while I'm ready to be firm, my first intention, my first instinct, isn't to send in military forces.  But I'm certainly not going to rule it out.”  He further explained that “In Iraq, people ask me, 'Would you put boots on the ground?’  I don't rule anything out.  The last thing you want to do is send a message to your adversaries, how far you're willing to go, how long you want to be there.  That's a foolhardy military strategy that sets up failure.  So I wouldn't rule it out.  But I wouldn't lead with it.”

    Walker’s rhetoric may remind some of dialogue from a John Wayne movie or Tom Clancy novel, but what’s more important is his assumption that it would be up to him, as president, to make these decisions unilaterally.  In this vein, Walker argued that “We need a commander-in-chief who understands going forward that radical Islamic terrorism is a threat to us all and will act to do something about it. . . . I'd rather take the fight to them instead of waiting until they bring the fight to us."  Note the first person references.  Walker’s model for decisions about the use of military force doesn’t seem to include much of a role for Congress.  Instead, he envisions a decision-making process dominated by the president.  Walker imagines himself making unilateral decisions as to when, whether, and how to use military force.

  • December 9, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Vikram David Amar writes at Verdict why the federalism lessons of the 2012 Affordable Care Act case weaken the argument in King v. Burwell.

    In Reuters, Joan Biskupic, Janet Roberts, and John Shiffman consider the small group of elite lawyers that dominate the Supreme Court docket.

    Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic writes about applying the “broken windows” theory to the police.

    At Bloomberg View, Noah Feldman reviews the recent Supreme Court case on Amtrak that considers how much lawmaking authority Congress can delegate to other bodies.