Guest Essayist: Steven H. Aden, Senior Legal Counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund

Federalist 77 “complete[s] a survey of the structure and powers of the executive department,” which, Hamilton urged, “combines, as far as republican principles will admit, all the requisites to energy” the Federal Executive would require to fulfill the duties of his office.  Anticipating the skepticism of his audience, the pre-eminent Federalist added one “remaining inquiry”: “Does it also combine the prerequisites to safety, in a republican sense – a due dependence on the people, a due responsibility?”  Not to worry, Hamilton soothed:  “In the only instances in which the abuse of the executive authority was materially to be feared [i.e., appointments], the Chief Magistrate of the United States [i.e., the President] would, by that plan, be subjected to the control of a branch of the legislative body. What more could be desired by an enlightened and reasonable people?”

Hamilton’s rhetorical caution with his Empire State audience may have stemmed from the depth of contention the issue of appointments had engendered in the Constitutional Convention.  The final compromise settled on language that reflected the desire to maintain a strong separation between the powers of the Executive and Legislative branches.

The late Justice Byron White, writing in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), in which the Supreme Court held that Congress had violated the Appointments Clause by constituting the Federal Election Commission with a majority of commissioners appointed by Congress instead of the President, explained the importance of the clause to the Federal system and ultimately the approval of the Federal Constitution:

The decision to give the President the exclusive power to initiate appointments was thoughtful and deliberate. The Framers were attempting to structure three departments of government so that each would have affirmative powers strong enough to resist the encroachment of the others. A fundamental tenet was that the same persons should not both legislate and administer the laws.

The Convention proposed, in alternative versions, that both Houses of Congress should appoint judicial officers, then that the Senate should do so.  Judicial and Executive officers were finally lumped together under the Appointments Clause, with the presumption being that the Judiciary being (in Hamilton’s phrase) “the least dangerous branch (Federalist 78),” Congress’ oversight of the President’s power of appointing federal judges would suffice for checks and balances over that branch.

Time and experience have revealed both the wisdom of the balance the Framers struck by the Appointments Clause and their myopic failure to foresee the real dangers posed by a life-tenured federal judiciary.  As to the latter, check Judge Vaughn Walker’s opinion in the Proposition 8 case last week, cavalierly tossing aside millennia of moral teaching on marriage as “irrational” and “discriminatory.”  As to the former, Executive nominations have rarely been voted down, perhaps demonstrating the “steady administration” inherent in a system in which “the circumstances attending an appointment…would naturally become matters of notoriety,” as Hamilton put it in Federalist 77.  One truly “notorious” exception was that of Senator John Tower, a powerhouse of American politics who was denied an appointment as Secretary of Defense 1989 due to a confluence of political and personal factors that seemed to bear out the wisdom of conferring the power of “salutary restraint” on Congress over presidential nominations.  The Left thought he had too many ties to defense contractors, and the Right condemned his extramarital infidelities, heavy drinking, and pro-abortion views.  Presuming a relative equipoise of power in the Senate (absent today), when both sides of the aisle have reasons to deny an appointment, it suggests that – as “Publius” predicted – the Executive is obliged to nominate moderate candidates to guide federal policy and programs, keeping the ship of state (in theory) more or less on course.

As to the hysterical political theater the Supreme Court confirmation process has become, that of course began with the nomination of eminent jurist Robert Bork to the  Supreme Court in 1987, whom Senate partisans voted down in part because of his perceived role in arrogating too much authority to the Executive Branch.  That story begins much earlier, but I will tell it as a kind of morality play whose lesson is that in the pas-de-trois dance for power between the three “co-equal” branches, “what goes around comes around,” and the consequences for overreaching may be severe.

Among President Richard Nixon’s manifold abuses of power, none inflamed his political enemies more than the “Saturday Night Massacre” of October 1973.  Nixon had appointed a Special Prosecutor for the Watergate Scandal, Archibald Cox, as a result of a promise his Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, had made to the Senate Judiciary Committee.  When Cox subpoenaed Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire him.  After all, Nixon reasoned, Cox was an “inferior officer,” whose tenure was at the pleasure of the Administration.  Richardson refused to fire Cox, though, and resigned in protest.  Nixon then ordered the Deputy Attorney General to fire Cox, and he likewise refused and resigned.  Nixon turned to next-in-line Robert Bork, then Solicitor General.  Bork was of the opinion that as a creature of the Executive, the special prosecutor was an “inferior officer” who served at Nixon’s pleasure, and he accordingly fired him.  In the brouhaha that ensued, Congress re-asserted its power over the Executive Branch by passing the Independent Counsel Act, restricting the authority of the Executive over congressionally authorized investigations.

On October 23, 1987, the Senate rejected Judge Bork’s confirmation after a heated public debate over his political positions.  Among the chief objections was that by backing Nixon’s authority, Bork had shown himself, in the words of the New York Times, “an advocate of disproportionate powers for the executive branch of Government, almost executive supremacy.”  A decade later, Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s investigations into President Clinton’s improprieties led in turn to the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Paula Jones v. William Clinton that the separation of powers doctrine did not absolve a sitting President from having to respond to charges of sexual harassment by a low-level state employee.  Jones v. Clinton may have marked the low ebb of Presidential power (though it was perhaps also the high water mark for the rule of law).  Over two decades and both Republican and Democratic administrations, the Legislative and Judicial branches had taken advantage of the character flaws of Chief Executives to substantially reduce the President’s authority.  Conversely, the power of the unaccountable Supreme Court and the uncontrollable Congress appears to be on the rise.  One hopes that the American people will soon find ways to exert a “salutary restraint” on these branches as well, and begin to return constitutional authority to the People, with whom it truly resides.

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Steven H. Aden is senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal alliance that employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.


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