Essay 23 - Guest Essayist: Steven H. Aden

“He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”

The late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist declared that judicial independence is the “crown jewel” of America’s constitutional system. Given the paramount value the Founders placed on the right to a jury trial, this seems counterintuitive. Surely judges can’t make decisions “independently” from those made by juries, in most cases. (In criminal cases, juries have virtually unlimited authority to acquit; in civil cases, however, their decisions are subject to the judge’s review and may be set aside if they are patently unreasonable.) From whom should judges be independent, and to whose authority should they be accountable?

For the Colonists of the Revolutionary period, the answer was plain and simple: judges should be accountable to the people they serve, acting through their own legislatures, and not to the King alone. The Indictment, presented by the Declaration of Independence, charged that King George “[H]as made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”

The experience of Massachusetts was still fresh in the minds of the Founders. An act of Parliament in 1773 had decreed that the salaries of judges would be paid by the King at his discretion, and forbidden them to receive salaries from the colony’s legislature. John Adams, a Bostonian and later contributor to the Declaration and America’s second president, observed, “This as the Judges Commissions were during pleasure made them entirely dependent on the Crown for Bread [as] well as office.” Adams explained:

It was by all Agreed, As the [Royal] Governor was entirely dependent on the Crown, and the [colonial] Council in danger of becoming so if the Judges were made so too, the Liberties of the Country would be totally lost, and every Man at the Mercy of a few Slaves of the Governor.

After the founding of the Republic, the focus shifted to the question of the new federal judiciary under Article III of the Constitution. The perceived danger of a centralized federal court system was a rallying point for anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution of 1787, so much so that Alexander Hamilton famously assured the new states that the judiciary would be “the least dangerous” branch, as it had no army or police force to impose its will, nor the power over the treasury. The question of accountability would be solved in two ways: First, Sec. 1 of Article III provided that “[t]he judicial Power of the United States[] shall be vested in one [S]upreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish,” thereby making all federal courts below the Supreme Court accountable to the people through their Congress. Further, Sec. 1 said, all federal judges “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.” For Hamilton, protecting the salaries of federal judges was as critical as protecting their jobs: “In the general course of human nature, a power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will,” he cautioned. So, for the Framers of the Constitution, the balance between independence and accountability in the federal judicial system would be struck by appointing judges with lifetime tenure and salary security, who could only be removed by impeachment, like the president.

In the states, this balance has been sought in different ways. Although some states have a similar system of appointment and job security, a majority of states select at least higher-level judges by popular ballot, although some mandate that elections be held on a non-partisan basis. This form of popular selection has given rise to its own set of problems stemming from judges’ need to represent majoritarian views in order to be elected by a popular vote. In some states, a compromise approach has been adopted, by which judges are initially appointed by the governor from a list of candidates drawn up by an independent “judicial selection commission” and then subjected to a popular “retention election” some years into their tenure.

In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to decide if the federal constitution has anything to say about the fundamental fairness of state judicial elections. One of the largest coal companies in America, Massey Coal Co. of West Virginia, was facing a jury award against it for fraud in the amount of 50 million dollars. One of the justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court had refused to recuse himself from hearing Massey Coal’s appeal, even though he had received election campaign contributions amounting to $3 million from the Chairman of the Board of Massey Coal. The supreme court of West Virginia twice heard the appeal, and twice reversed the judgment against Massey Coal by a vote of 3-2. The second time, the justice who received Massey Coal’s largesse rejected the results of a public opinion poll that showed that over two-thirds of West Virginians doubted his ability to be fair and impartial in the case.

The U.S. Supreme Court concluded (albeit by a split 5-4 vote) that the federal constitution’s guarantee of due process of law required recusal under the circumstances. Echoing the Founders in the Declaration, and the Framers of the Constitution, the Supreme Court’s majority observed, “It is axiomatic that ‘[a] fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process….’ Under our precedents there are objective standards that require recusal when ‘the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decisionmaker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.’”

So the federal guarantee of due process sets constitutional limits on the judicial selection systems of the sovereign states, the Court concluded. Massey Coal was a Rubicon so wide that many constitutional scholars and judges believe it should never have been crossed. But the lesson Massey Coal teaches is central to the federal system of dual sovereignty: that while states are not bound to emulate the federal judiciary’s means of calibrating judicial independence and accountability, whatever the means they choose to employ have to ensure the constitutional right to due process in all cases.

Steven H. Aden serves as Chief Legal Officer & General Counsel at Americans United for Life. Aden joined Americans United for Life in August 2017, overseeing all legal operations of America’s most effective pro-life organization. Aden is a highly experienced litigator, having appeared in court against Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry dozens of times and appointed by the attorneys general of six states to defend pro-life laws. A prolific author and analyst on sanctity of life issues and constitutional jurisprudence, Aden is admitted to the bars of the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Hawaii (inactive), and is a member of the bars of the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous federal circuit and district courts. He has practiced law since 1990 and earned his J.D. (cum laude) from Georgetown University Law Center and his B.A. from the University of Hawaii.

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Essay 22 - Guest Essayist: Steven H. Aden

“He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.”

Judges are powerful people. Those who preside over criminal courts have the power to fine or imprison convicted defendants, up to limits set out by statute. Depending on their roles, other judges have the power to impose fines for civil wrongs, or to decide weighty matters involving marriage and the custody of children. Lesser judicial offices include administrative judges who preside over disputes relating to compensation for injured workers, social security payments for the injured and elderly, or labor disputes between workers and employers. In light of the power they wield over our everyday lives, who can hold judges accountable? Today and tomorrow, Constituting America considers how the Framers of the Declaration of Independence answered this question, and how their answer led to a system of judicial independence that has become the envy of the world.

To King George and the English at the time of the American Revolution, the sources of authority for all Englishmen, wherever they were in a widening world, were the Crown first, and through him, the Parliament. The Declaration’s “Indictment” of King George III levied two charges that turned on the English government’s refusal to accommodate the Colonists’ demand for courts and judges that were based in the Colonies and answerable for their decisions to the people of the Colonies. First, the Signers of the Declaration charged, “He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.” In other words, the King had stymied attempts to establish Colonial courts with any real authority. Criminal trials by jury were available, but often only in England, a daunting journey. After all, it was over 3,000 miles by slow sailing vessel to London, a trip that took four to eight weeks, depending on the wind, and was always hazardous. At the end of that, would a jury comprised of Londoners truly be a “jury of one’s peers?” And what about the right to call witnesses in one’s defense – the foundation of due process? If they couldn’t make the dangerous and lengthy trip with the accused, he was out of luck.

The right to trial by jury, which had been guaranteed in the English Bill of Rights since 1689 (and, in fact, included in the Magna Carta in 1215), was the spark that lit the flame of the Revolution. The right to a jury trial had been recognized in every Colonial charter. The trial of newspaperman John Peter Zenger in 1735 for “seditious libel,” based upon publishing a column critical of the Royal Governor of New York’s decision to remove a judge from the bench, resulted in a verdict of “not guilty” from a jury of Zenger’s peers. The resulting freedom to publish even controversial opinions led to a growing clamor in the Colonies for other liberties. In response, the British Crown began to restrict both the autonomy of Colonial courts and the right to a jury trial.

Two of the “Intolerable Acts” of 1774, enacted by Parliament and approved by King George to punish the Colony of Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party, included stringent limits on the right to a jury trial. The Massachusetts Government Act granted the royal governor the power to choose judges, and county sheriffs – also appointed by the governor – could appoint jurors, resulting in Royal control over the colony’s judicial system. The Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice granted the governor the power to move a trial to another colony or to Great Britain if he determined that a “fair” trial could not be had at that location, thereby eliminating the right to a trial by one’s peers.

Things were coming to a head. Future president John Adams thundered, “Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them, we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.” And Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration, would later write to essayist Thomas Paine (Common Sense), “I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

In the next grievance, we’ll consider the second charge against King George and his judges: that he had made judges “dependent on his will alone” for their jobs and salaries.

Steven H. Aden serves as Chief Legal Officer & General Counsel at Americans United for Life. Aden joined Americans United for Life in August 2017, overseeing all legal operations of America’s most effective pro-life organization. Aden is a highly experienced litigator, having appeared in court against Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry dozens of times and appointed by the attorneys general of six states to defend pro-life laws. A prolific author and analyst on sanctity of life issues and constitutional jurisprudence, Aden is admitted to the bars of the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Hawaii (inactive), and is a member of the bars of the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous federal circuit and district courts. He has practiced law since 1990 and earned his J.D. (cum laude) from Georgetown University Law Center and his B.A. from the University of Hawaii.

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Vote: (5 to 4) Majority: Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito. Dissenters: Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer.

Gonzales v. Carhart is one of those rare cases that highlights the difference an election can make to Supreme Court decision-making. While the Justices of the Supreme Court are (arguably) largely immune from political pressure because they serve for life, they are nominated by Presidents and confirmed by Senates that answer to the People. For this reason, the makeup of the Court is unavoidably a product of the political process, and this process can yield strikingly different results depending on the makeup of the bench.

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Guest Essayist: Steven Aden


“The Most Absurd Political Campaign of Our Time”:  Teddy Roosevelt, Alton Parker and the Election of 1904

The candidates who squared off in the presidential election of 1904, Republican President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt and Democrat Alton Parker, were both native to New York State; beyond that one commonality, they were a study in contrasts.  Parker was tall and rangy, but with a tentative demeanor that seemed to apologize for looming over others.  Parker resigned his post as the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, to run for the nation’s highest office.  True to his calling and by all accounts a thoughtful decision maker on the bench, Parker was quiet and professorial, and an unimpressive speechmaker with a voice like a cracked reed.   The barrel-chested, bull-voiced Roosevelt, on the other hand, had been tapped for the vice presidency by William McKinley on the strength of his renown as the Rough Rider who led his troops up San Juan Hill in 1898, as if he had carried the country on his shoulders to victory in the Spanish-American War.  The living embodiment of the national will that found its expression in “Manifest Destiny” and the Monroe Doctrine, Roosevelt was arguably the most physical president America has ever had.  Sometimes overcome by pent-up energy, Roosevelt would jump up from his seat in the Oval Office and hike in a straight line for five miles, climbing, jumping, and swimming all barriers natural or manmade he encountered on the way.  This exercise exhausted the few staffers and security officers who could keep up with him, but Roosevelt would return refreshed and invigorated.

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One Saturday morning a month, I take my eight-year-old son and my seven-year-old daughter to the neighborhood big-box hardware store for “Kid’s Craft Day.” They get an apron to wear and an assemble-it-yourself kit with instructions for building a flower pot rack or a wooden photo frame. For an hour, they get to pound nails, glue joints, and slap paint on a project that has no risks or liability attached to it. And while they’ll hopefully have the pride that comes from a solid job at the end, as every mom and dad there knows, this time together isn’t really about the finished product, but about learning the process of carefully following directions.

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Guest Essayist: Steven H. Aden, Senior Counsel and Vice President of the Center for Life at Alliance Defending Freedom

“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” With those understated words, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall ushered in the modern era of judicial review – the notion that it is up to judges, not legislators or presidents, to finally interpret and give meaning to the nation’s Constitution and laws.

During the founding era, Alexander Hamilton had written Federalist 78, to assure those wary of a strong federal judiciary that “[T]he judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution,” because it holds neither the power of the sword, as the Executive (Presidential) Branch does, nor the power of the purse strings, as the Legislative Branch (Congress) does. Read more

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

Amendment IX

“The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

Despite 220 years of constitutional interpretation, there really isn’t much one can say about the Ninth Amendment.  And that’s just what James Madison and the Framers intended.

The Ninth Amendment is that rare creature in American politics, a success story conceived in humility.  The first eight amendments of the Bill of Rights established freedom of worship, the freedoms of assembly, speech, press and petition, the rights to bear arms, to be free from government intrusions into citizens’ homes, to due process and to a jury of one’s peers, and many others.  Having penned what may have been the finest articulation of the rights of man in human history, Madison and his colleagues could have been forgiven for giving way to hubris and capping it with a rhetorical flourish.  Instead, they added a caution, by way of an afterthought.  The Ninth Amendment’s quiet caveat has done much more to protect fundamental rights from government encroachment than its humble phrasing would suggest.

The Bill of Rights exists because a compromise was required to satisfy the Anti-Federalists and States that were cautious about ratifying into existence a federal government of broad powers.  The Ninth Amendment exists because another compromise was necessary to satisfy those in the Federalist camp who believed that an enumeration of rights would tend to negate recognition of rights left unmentioned.  Madison, Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists contended that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary because the federal government’s powers were delineated by and limited to those set forth in Article I, Section 8 [link to John Baker’s blog on this provision  – ] Hamilton’s Federalist 84 queried, “Why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?”  But the Anti-Federalists, led by Thomas Jefferson, prevailed, and history has affirmed their wisdom as through expansive interpretations of the Necessary and Proper Clause and the Commerce Clause the mantle of federal power has come to envelope virtually every aspect of life from the light bulbs in our ceilings to the “individual mandate” to purchase health insurance.  The enumeration of rights stands as a bulwark against that tide of federal authority in the sphere of private life, speech and conduct.  On the other hand, the Ninth Amendment lifts its staying hand against the argument that these rights, and only these, stand between the citizen and his seemingly omnipotent (and, with digital technology, increasingly omnipresent) government.

That the rights enumerated in the first eight amendments are not all the rights we possess may strike one at first as a challenging notion.  For rights that went unenumerated at the time, but became “self-evident” (in the words of the Declaration) much later, consider the right to be free, expressed in the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery (1865); the right to vote (Amendment XIV in 1870); and the right to vote for women, which came a half-century later (Amendment XIX in 1920).  Except for the salutary effect of the Ninth Amendment, it might have been presumed that no other fundamental human rights existed outside of those enumerated in 1789 – that the “canon of human rights” was closed, not subject to further elaboration through constitutional amendment.  Or perhaps what is worse, it might have been supposed that all “rights” secured by the people through amendment of the Constitution subsequent to the Founding were not “fundamental” human rights, but only positive political rights secured through an effective application of the Social Contract.  For unenumerated fundamental rights that have yet to be affirmed in the written constitution, consider the right of conscience; the right of parents to raise and educate their children outside of the government school system (unrecognized in parts of Europe and elsewhere), or the right to be free from genetic manipulation.

Mark Twain quipped, “Some compromise is essential between parties which are not omniscient.” Our generations, and generations to come, will have to struggle with the meaning of rights enumerated and unenumerated, and with the wisdom of further constitutional amendments.  Thankfully, because the two great forces in the making of the Constitution were willing to admit their fallibility and broker resolutions, we have the wisdom of the Bill of Rights, and the wisdom of the “Bill of Other Rights” – the Ninth Amendment.

Steven H. Aden is the Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, .

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

Article I, Section 6, Clause 2

2: No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.

Philander Knox, Dick Nixon and the Saxbe Fix.  For some quizzical reason, “X” marks the spot in the constitutional text where a tempest of teapot proportions persistently brews when Section 6 nixes Executive picks.

The pedestrian second clause of Section 6 provides two obscure but important checks on the power of both the Executive and the Legislative Branch, colloquially known as the  “Emoluments Clause” and the “Incompatibility Clause,” respectively.  The second clause is as crystalline in meaning as a constitutional text can be, and has engendered virtually no historical dispute, except occasional quibbles over whether a trusteeship or a military commission constituted an “Office” for purposes of the clause.  President George Washington and other Founders regarded the Incompatability Clause as an unbreachable bar to cabinet service.  Washington withdrew his nomination of William Patterson to the Supreme Court because Patterson had been a senator when the office of Associate Justice was created and the Senate term Patterson had been elected for had not expired.  (Washington got his man nonetheless by subsequently re-nominating Patterson to the Court after his term expired.)  Since then, the Incompatibility Clause has been largely respected, with an occasional deviation.

The Emoluments Clause, on the other hand, has been much abused and misused. The Clause, which applies when Congress has voted to raise the salary or benefits (“emoluments”) attending the cabinet position during the nominated member’s tenure in Congress, was regarded by James Madison and others as an important check on potential collusion over cabinet appointments between the two “most dangerous” branches.  The clause would prevent the President from creating new cabinet positions for sitting members of Congress, thereby inhibiting vote-buying, and prevent Congress from raising the salary of a newly appointed cabinet minister as he or she is on the way out the door, inhibiting graft.  The Emoluments Clause is a “pox on both their houses,” in contrast to most of the other constitutional checks and balances that operate on a single branch of the federal government.

Philander C. Knox enters the story about a century ago, when President William Howard Taft in 1909 nominated Senator Knox to the post of Secretary of State.  But Knox had been elected to a Senate term that would not expire until 1911, and during his term Congress had voted to increase the salary of cabinet officers to $12,000 annually.  After much deliberation, Congress voted to revert the salary of the Secretary of State to $8,000, and Knox took office.

What could have been known as the “Knox Fix” (if that era had been as inclined to Seussian alliteratives as ours is) was employed by the administration of President Richard Nixon in 1973 in support of the nomination of Senator William Saxbe as Attorney General.  Nixon’s Acting Solicitor General, Robert Bork, defended the proposed “Saxbe fix” before Congress by arguing that the spirit of the Emoluments Clause would be met, if not the letter:

The purpose of the constitutional provision is clearly met if the salary of an office is lowered after having been raised during the Senator’s or Representative’s term of office…. So, with the bill lowering the salary of the office of Attorney General [from $60,000] to that level, $35,000, which it stood when Senator Saxbe became a Senator, you would have a situation where the rationale of the constitutional provision was met.[1]

This rather cynical interpretation of the Emoluments Clause has become au courant among Beltway sophisticates, and it is routinely invoked when the clause pops up like an uninvited uncle at Thanksgiving.  President William Clinton, for example, invoked The Fix to appoint Senator Lloyd Bentsen as Treasury Secretary.    Constitutional law professor Michael Stokes Paulsen explains how the “purpose” of the clause has vaulted over the actual rule it imposes:

By repealing the pay increase, the statute ensures that Lloyd Bentsen is not the personal financial beneficiary of any increase in emoluments.  But the statute cannot repeal history; it cannot undo the fact that the emoluments of the office had been “encreased” during the period for which Bentsen had been elected to the Senate.  And that is the constitutional rule provided by the Emoluments Clause.  Congress can no more legislate away a violation of that rule than it can by statute raise the chronological age of a thirty-two-year-old in order to make him eligible to serve as President.  Bentsen’s appointment is unconstitutional regardless of the subsequent legislative “fix.”[2]

Thus, as with many of those pesky “minor” constitutional provisions, the Emoluments Clause has been “more honour’d in the breach than the observance.”[3]     Musing about the apparent flexibility of this provision and similar castaways of “our Living Constitution,” Professor Michael Stokes Paulsen muses, “What gives?  The answer is that the Constitution gives, at least most of the time, when the provision involved is one that people today regard as a nuisance and where the likelihood appears small that a lawsuit will be brought against the violators.”[4]   Still, one has to say that the clause has had a salutary effect on the separation of presidential and legislative powers by hitting those who breach it where it hurts career politicians the most – right in their wallets, in the form of a pay cut.  Its letter may be dead, but its spirit is still kicking.

Steven H. Aden is the Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, .

[1]              Letter from President Richard M. Nixon to Senator Gale McGee (Nov. 8, 1973), in To Insure that the Compensation and Other Emoluments Attached to the Office of Att’y Gen. Are Those Which Were in Effect on January 1st, 1969, Hearings on S. 26733 Before the Senate Comm. on Post Office and Civil Service, 93rd Cong., 1st Sess. 6 (1973) id. at 9 (testimony of Acting Attorney General Robert H. Bork).

[2]              Michael Stokes Paulsen, Is Lloyd Bentsen Unconstitutional?, 46 Stan. L. Rev. 907, at 909 (April 1994).  Professor Paulsen observes that the “other” Emoluments Clause, in Article I, Section 9, provides that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States] shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State,” thus demonstrating that “where the framers intended that a disability be removable by subsequent legislation, they so specified….”  Id., at 909 n.6.

[3]           William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act I Scene 4.

[4]             Paulsen, supra, n.2, at 907-08.  In fact lawsuits have been brought to enforce the Emoluments Clause, notably challenging President Jimmy Carter’s nomination of Abner Mikva to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and President Obama’s nomination of Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, but the courts have dismissed those bringing the challenges as lacking standing – the legal authority to bring a court suit.

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.