Tag: Supreme Court

Obama’s First Signing Statement

obama-signs-billPresident Obama issued his first signing statement last week. While approving the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill, he reserved the right to reinterpret, evade, or ignore a number of the bill’s provisions. To some conservatives, that smelled like vindication; and some liberals found it fishy. Who’s right? Both, to some extent.

During the Bush years, “signing statements” came to stand for a much broader set of issues than the practice itself. After President Bush used one to basically announce that, veto-proof majority or no, he didn’t have to follow the McCain Detainee Treatment Act, “signing statements” in the public mind became shorthand for the Bush theory that the president is sole constitutional “decider” on all matters related to national security—in much the same way that the PATRIOT Act became shorthand for overzealousness in homeland security. The obnoxiousness of each—open defiance in the signing statement case, the dopey Orwellianism of the acronym with PATRIOT—made them symbols, even though neither represented the worst abuses in the fight against terrorism.

But what really matters is the underlying constitutional theory, not the particular quasi-legislative device it’s reflected in. Which is worse: openly announcing that you’re not going to obey new congressional restrictions on torture—as Bush did with the 2006 McCain Amendment—or secretly violating the old ones for years? The latter, clearly. At least a signing statement puts you on notice.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama, unlike McCain, never promised to end the practice of signing statements entirely. Obama’s position was more nuanced. When it comes to signing statements, some nuance is appropriate. I don’t agree with the ABA’s blanket condemnation of the practice. As the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, despite the Supreme Court’s 1983 repudiation of the legislative veto, Congress continues to smuggle legislative vetoes into omnibus spending bills. One could argue that the president’s only recourse is to veto the bill–and more vetoes of spending bills would surely be welcome. But it seems to me that in such cases, issuing a signing statement is a venial sin at worst. There’s a vast difference between that sort of signing statement and one that asserts that the president cannot be bound by a law barring torture.

Most of the objections Obama lodged in his signing statement fall well short of the Bush-Cheney end of the spectrum. But there’s at least one that looks particularly dodgy:

United Nations Peacekeeping Missions. Section 7050 in Division H prohibits the use of certain funds for the use of the Armed Forces in United Nations peacekeeping missions under the command or operational control of a foreign national unless my military advisers have recommended to me that such involvement is in the national interests of the United States. This provision raises constitutional concerns by constraining my choice of particular persons to perform specific command functions in military missions, by conditioning the exercise of my authority as Commander in Chief on the recommendations of subordinates within the military chain of command, and by constraining my diplomatic negotiating authority. Accordingly, I will apply this provision consistent with my constitutional authority and responsibilities.

Here Obama echoes Bushian claims about the extent of the president’s authority under the commander-in-chief clause. But given the context, perhaps the better parallel is with Bill Clinton. President Clinton also asserted the power to ignore congressional restrictions on his ability to place U.S. troops under foreign command. That sort of executive unilateralism in the service of multilateralism was distinctly troubling. As one commentator noted in 2000:

Responding to congressional efforts to stop the new policy, the Clinton administration has claimed a broad constitutional power in the president to delegate military command authority to any person. According to the administration, the president’s commander in chief power allows him to select whomever he believes necessary for military success…. That position has serious constitutional and policy defects. First, the administration’s legal justification for its recent multilateral command policy fails to account for the Constitution’s limitation on the delegation of federal power outside of the national government….

You know who wrote that? John Yoo. My head hurts.

An Eminent Domain Injustice

“My name is Susette Kelo, and the government stole my home.”

That was how former New London, Connecticut resident Susette Kelo, who lost her home in one of the most troubling legal battles against eminent domain abuse, began her talk at the Cato Institute in January.

The court ruled that Susette Kelo’s little pink house in New London, and the homes of her neighbors could be taken by the government and given over to a private developer based on the mere prospect that the new use for her property could generate more taxes or jobs.

At this time, the property is still empty.

In this new mini-documentary produced by Austin Bragg and Caleb Brown, those who fought on Kelo’s behalf tell her story.

For an in depth look at Kelo’s case, read Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage by Jeff Benedict.

For more videos like this one, subscribe to Cato’s YouTube channel.

Sanford Rejects Faustian Bargain

Yesterday, as expected, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford became the first governor to reject some of his state’s share of stimulus funds, spurning $700 million (of the about $8 billion headed his way) that he said would harm his state’s residents in the long run.  South Carolina’s General Assembly (controlled by Republicans who have long opposed Sanford’s attempts to cut spending, lower taxes, and generally reform government operations), using a provision of the stimulus bill inserted by Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), nevertheless plans to seek the funds without the governor’s support.  They cite section 1607 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provides that, notwithstanding a requirement for gubernatorial certification of a request for funds:

If funds provided to any State in any division of this Act are not accepted for use by the Governor, then acceptance by the State legislature, by means of the adoption of a concurrent resolution, shall be sufficient to provide funding to such State.

The question arises, setting aside the relative merits of both sides’ positions, whether the governor (or someone else) could challenge this “alternative certification” provision on constitutional grounds.  Here are some initial thoughts:

A state executive (and/or citizens of the given state) could bring colorable claims under the Tenth Amendment (powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the States and the people) , state separation of powers (legislature exercising executive power), and the non-delegation doctrine (Congress delegating its legislative authority to non-federal actors). Whether such challenges would be successful is a different matter.

The strongest claim would probably be under a combination of the Tenth Amendment and state law (depending on what the state constitution and statutes says about the federal grant process), especially given that much of the federal money is likely to come with strings/mandates attached – or would otherwise pervert state budgeting processes (as Sanford spelled out in a letter to state legislators). That is, depending on the particular program funds in question, it could well be that the federal government is doing an end-run around the state executive in “commandeering” (a term of art taken from the important Supreme Court case of Printz v. United States) state agencies without the full lawful acquiescence of the state government – i.e., without presentment of a bill for the executive to sign in the normal course of legislative action.

Moreover, I’m not sure how federal legislation could lawfully trump a state constitutional/statutory provision requiring that, say, federal monies only be accepted by state agencies subject to executive certification. If it could, then what’s to stop the federal government from putting in a further alternative provision allowing certification by majority vote of a state supreme court, let alone by town councils, agency heads, or any other imaginable alternatives? No, a conclusion to the contrary seems facially contrary to the separation of powers, disrupting state political structures in a way that the federal government cannot do by simple legislation.

As a caveat, the above analysis hinges on the substance of the relevant state constitution and statutes (and I haven’t yet thoroughly studied South Carolina’s, though I suspect they’re favorable to the points I’m making). The point is, it is not at all clear that Section 1607 should be considered safe from legal challenge – though courts will likely go out of their way to avoid constitutional conflicts or deciding what they may characterize to be “political” questions.

Tax Credits, Courts, and Cabers

As Adam Schaeffer notes on this blog today, education tax credits have won in court, again. This time in Arizona.

I’ve long argued that their superior resistance to court challenge is one of many reasons to favor tax credits over other approaches to school choice. But there’s one court that even credits are likely to run into trouble with: the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 9th Circuit is the most statist appellate court in the nation, and it has been sitting on an education tax credit case, Winn v. Garriott, for more than a year. For the record, I expect it to rule against the program sometime in 2009. If it does, that ruling will be appealed and almost certainly overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Supporters of educational freedom should both brace themselves for this setback and also put it in perspective. The 9th Circuit is overturned more often than a caber at the Highland games.

Supreme Court Will Not Hear al-Marri Appeal

The Supreme Court previously granted certiorari to the appeal of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, the only enemy combatant taken into custody domestically and detained in a military brig. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that he could continue to be detained as an alleged al Qaeda operative without trial. The Supreme Court reversed its decision to hear the case today.

The Obama administration moved him back into the civilian criminal justice system, and denied that it was doing so to keep the lower domestic detainee precedent intact. It argued that denying review while vacating the Fourth Circuit’s decision would serve the ends of justice. Apparently, the Court agreed.

As I have said before, domestic counterterrorism is a law enforcement task, not a military one. The Washington Post and New York Times both wanted the Supreme Court to hear the case and rule that domestic detention is unconstitutional.

Obama’s actions seem to indicate either a lack of interest or a disagreement with the sweeping power claimed by President Bush, that presidents can simply whisk off any person in the U.S. — including citizens — to a military prison without a trial. But now that the Supreme Court has declined to rule on the executive’s claims in this case, we will not have the benefit of a Supreme Court precedent repudiating the executive’s overreach. Whether or not Obama tries to repeat what Bush did, another president will likely try to do it again. Not good.

“It Is a Sordid Business, This Divvying Us by Race”

Yesterday Cato filed a brief in what will be one of the most talked-about cases in the current Supeme Court term, Ricci v. DeStefano.

In Ricci, the City of New Haven, Connecticut developed an exam for firefighters seeking promotion to command positions. The city went out of its way to ensure that the exam was race-neutral and tested only relevant skills and abilities. When the exam results came down, however, white candidates had done better than their African-American and Hispanic peers. Given the few command positions available and the city’s rule that the highest scorers on an exam be promoted first, few minority firefighters would thus have been eligible for promotion. After a series of meetings and political machinations, the city refused to certify the results of the exam and promote anyone. Several of the firefighters who would have been eligible for promotion filed a lawsuit, claiming racial discrimination under Title VII.

The district court, affirmed by the court of appeals, granted summary judgment for the defendants, holding that the City’s alleged fear of an adverse impact claim (a different type of racial discrimination claim under Title VII) – based merely on the fact that the exam results yielded a racial disparity – was a legitimate reason for its decision not to certify the exams.

Cato’s brief, joined by the Reason Foundation and the Individual Rights Foundation, points out the absurd incentives at play: if the lower court’s ruling stands, employers will throw out the results of exams (or other criteria) that produce racial disparity, even if those exams are race-neutral, entirely valid, and extremely important to the employer and (as in this case) the public.

The Case will be argued April 22.