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Context of 'August 23, 1985 - December 1985: Justice Department Moves to Include Presidential Signing Statements in Legislative Histories'

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Congress passes the Competition in Contracting Act. President Reagan signs the bill but issues a signing statement instructing the executive branch that a portion of the bill is unconstitutional, and directs agencies not to obey the law created by that section. A losing bidder who would have won a contract under that portion of the bill files a lawsuit, and a federal judge rules that the Reagan administration has no choice but to follow the entirety of the law. Attorney General Edwin Meese insists that the executive branch has the inherent power to interpret the Constitution as it sees fit, and declares the administration will not obey the judge’s ruling. An appeals court upholds the judge’s ruling and criticizes the Reagan administration for trying to seize a sort of line-item veto power without going through Congress. The House Judiciary Committee votes to cut off funding for Meese’s office unless the White House obeys the court rulings, and Meese withdraws his objections. [Savage, 2007, pp. 231-232]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, House Judiciary Committee, Edwin Meese, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

According to former Reagan Justice Department official Terry Eastland, writing in his 1992 book Energy in the Executive, the process of selecting Antonin Scalia as a Supreme Court Justice begins now, well before anyone knows there will be a vacancy for him. Attorney General Edwin Meese asks his assistant attorney general, William Bradford Reynolds, to advise him in preparing a nominee, “just in case.” Reynolds assembles a team of Justice Department officials, who examine about twenty possible choices, mostly federal judges, focusing primarily on conservative judicial philosophy. Two individuals stand out: Robert Bork and Scalia. Eastland writes, “Neither was ranked over the other; both were regarded as the best available, most well-qualified exponents of Reagan’s judicial philosophy.” Both are seen as powerful and influential legal figures. When Chief Justice Warren Burger announces his decision to retire from the bench, Reynolds advises Meese to choose Justice William Rehnquist to replace Burger as Chief Justice (see September 26, 1986), and to choose either Bork or Scalia to replace Rehnquist. Reagan makes the final decision: Scalia. [Dean, 2007, pp. 133]

Entity Tags: Robert Bork, Edwin Meese, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Terry Eastland, US Department of Justice, William Bradford Reynolds

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Steven Calabresi joins the Justice Department. Calabresi is a young conservative lawyer who has clerked for appeals court Robert Bork, who failed to secure a position on the Supreme Court just months before (see July 1-October 23, 1987). Calabresi, a co-founder of the Federalist Society of conservative lawyers and judges, joins forces with another ambitious young Justice Department lawyer, John Harrison, and the two begin working to expand the power of the president. Calabresi and Harrison decide that an aggressive use of presidential signing statements can advance the president’s authority to the detriment of the legislative and judicial branches. Unfazed by a recent judicial rejection of just such signing statement usage (see 1984-1985), Calabresi and Harrison write a memo to Attorney General Edwin Meese advocating the issuing of more signing statements as part of a larger strategy to increase the president’s influence over the law. Calabresi and Harrison are interested in how what they call “activist judges” use the legislative history of a bill that became law to interpret that law’s meaning in subsequent judicial actions. The two lawyers believe that by issuing signing statements, the president can create a parallel record of presidential interpretations of potentially ambiguous laws to help guide judicial decisions. Meese approves of the idea, and in December has the West Publishing Company, which prints the US Code Congressional and Administration News, the standard collection of bills’ legislative history, begin including presidential signing statements in its publications. In 2007, author Charlie Savage will call Meese’s move “a major step in increasing the perceived legitimacy of the device.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 232] In 2007, Calabresi will say: “I initially thought of signing statements as presidential legislative history. I’ve subsequently come to think of them as being important vehicles by which presidents can control subordinates in the executive branch. They subsequently came to be important to the unitary executive [theory of presidential power].” [Savage, 2007, pp. 234]

Entity Tags: John Harrison, Charlie Savage, Federalist Society, West Publishing Company, US Department of Justice, Edwin Meese, Robert Bork, Steven Calabresi, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Ralph Tarr, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, drafts a memo explaining how the White House has issued signing statements up until now (see August 23, 1985 - December 1985), and makes recommendations on how to improve the process. Tarr, acting at the behest of an aide to Attorney General Edwin Meese, issues what author Charlie Savage will call “a prescient seven-page manifesto.” Tarr writes that signing statements are “presently underutilized and could become far more important as a tool of presidential management of the agencies, a device for preserving issues of importance in the ongoing struggle for power with Congress, and an aid to statutory interpretation for the courts.” Tarr writes that signing statements have the potential to be used as a threat “with which to negotiate concessions from Congress.” The statements can also be used to tell executive branch agencies how to interpret a law: “The president can direct agencies to ignore unconstitutional provisions or to read provisions in a way that eliminates constitutional or policy problems. This direction permits the president to seize the initiative in creating what will eventually be the agency’s interpretation.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 232-233]

Entity Tags: Edwin Meese, Charlie Savage, Ralph Tarr, Reagan administration, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Justice Department lawyer Samuel Alito, a member of the department’s Litigation Strategy Working Group, writes a memo advocating the creation of a pilot project designed to increase the frequency and impact of presidential signing statements (see August 23, 1985 - December 1985 and October 1985). The rationale is to use signing statements to “increase the power of the executive to shape the law.” Alito focuses on the use of signing statements to parallel the legislative history of a bill, a relatively modest view, but still recognizes the potentially revolutionary nature of the idea. He writes that signing statements must be used incrementally, so as not to draw undue attention from civil libertarians and key Congressional members. “[D]ue to the novelty of the procedure and the potential increase of presidential power,” he writes, “[C]ongress is likely to resent the fact that the president will get the last word on questions of interpretation.” Alito suggests that President Reagan begin issuing signing statements only on bills affecting the Justice Department, and later issue such statements for bills that affect other areas of the federal government. “As an introductory step, our interpretative statements should be of moderate size and scope,” he writes. “Only relatively important questions should be addressed. We should concentrate on points of true ambiguity, rather than issuing interpretations that may seem to conflict with those of Congress. The first step will be to convince the courts that presidential signing statements are valuable interpretive tools.” President Reagan will issue signing statements that challenge, interpret, or actually rewrite 95 sections of bills, far more than any other president. His successor, George H. W. Bush, will challenge 232 sections of bills. [Savage, 2007, pp. 233-234]

Entity Tags: Litigation Strategy Working Group, George Herbert Walker Bush, Samuel Alito, US Department of Justice, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Edwin Meese.Edwin Meese. [Source: GQ (.com)]Attorney General Edwin Meese receives a report, “Separation of Powers: Legislative-Executive Relations.” Meese had commissioned the report from the Justice Department’s Domestic Policy Committee, an internal “think tank” staffed with hardline conservative scholars and policy advisers.
Recommendations for Restoring, Expanding Executive Power - The Meese report approvingly notes that “the strong leadership of President Reagan seems clearly to have ended the congressional resurgence of the 1970s.” It lays out recommendations for restoring the power taken from the executive branch after Watergate and Vietnam, and adding new powers besides. It recommends that the White House refuse to enforce laws and statutes that “unconstitutionally encroach upon the executive branch,” and for Reagan to veto more legislation and to use “signing statements” to state the White House’s position on newly passed laws. It also assails the 1972 War Powers Resolution and other laws that limit presidential power.
Reinterpreting the Separation of Powers and the Concept of 'Checks and Balances' - Perhaps most importantly, the Meese report claims that for 200 years, courts and scholars alike have misunderstood and misinterpreted the Founders’ intentions in positing the “separation of powers” system (see 1787 and 1793). The belief that the Constitution mandates three separate, co-equal branches of government—executive, judicial, and legislative—who wield overlapping areas of authority and work to keep each of the other branches from usurping too much power—a concept taught in school as “checks and balances”—is wrong, the report asserts. Instead, each branch has separate and independent sets of powers, and none of the three branches may tread or encroach on the others’ area of responsibility and authority. “The only ‘sharing of power’ is the sharing of the sum of all national government power,” the report claims. “But that is not joint shared, it is explicitly divided among the three branches.” According to the report, the White House should exercise total and unchallenged control of the executive branch, which, as reporter and author Charlie Savage will later explain, “could be conceived of as a unitary being with the president as its brain.” The concept of “checks and balances” is nothing more than an unconstitutional attempt by Congress to encroach on the rightful power of the executive. This theory of presidential function will soon be dubbed the “unitary executive theory,” a title adapted from a passage by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. [Savage, 2007, pp. 47-48] Charles Fried, Reagan’s solicitor general during the second term, will later write that though the unitary executive theory displays “perfect logic” and a “beautiful symmetry,” it is difficult to defend, because it “is not literally compelled by the words of the Constitution. Nor did the framers’ intent compel this view.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 50]

Entity Tags: Charles Fried, Reagan administration, Domestic Policy Committee, US Department of Justice, Ronald Reagan, Edwin Meese, Charlie Savage

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Campaigning on behalf of conservative Republican candidates in an attempt to have the GOP retain control of the Senate, Ronald Reagan goes on a campaign tour of the South, where he alludes to Republicans’ plans for exerting control of the nation’s court system. Typical of Reagan’s stump speech is the following one he delivers on behalf of embattled Republican incumbent James Broyhill: “Since I’ve been appointing federal judges to be approved by people like Jim Broyhill in the Republican Senate, the federal judiciary has become tougher, much tougher, on criminals. Criminals are going to jail more often and receiving longer sentences. Over and over the Democratic leadership has tried in the Senate to torpedo our choices for judges. And that’s where Jim Broyhill can make all the difference. Without him and the Republican majority in the Senate, we’ll find liberals like Joe Biden and a certain fellow from Massachusetts deciding who our judges are. And I’ll bet you’ll agree; I’d rather have a Judiciary Committee headed by Strom Thurmond than one run by Joe Biden or Ted Kennedy.” Broyhill will be defeated, and Democrats will regain control of the Senate in spite of Reagan’s efforts, in large part because of Southern blacks offended by such speeches. The new Democratic leadership, responding to the voters, will help block the racially questionable Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court (see July 1-October 23, 1987). [Dean, 2007, pp. 140]

Entity Tags: Joseph Biden, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, James Broyhill, Strom Thurmond, Senate Judiciary Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Robert Bork.Robert Bork. [Source: National Constitution Center]The controversial nomination of conservative judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court is defeated in the US Senate. Bork is denied a seat on the Court in a 58-42 vote, because his views are thought to be extremist and even some Republicans vote against him.
'Right-Wing Zealot' - Bork, nominated by President Reagan as one of the sitting judges who most completely reflects Reagan’s judiciary philosophy (see 1985-1986), is characterized even by administration officials as a “right-wing zealot.” Reagan also wants a nominee to placate the hard right over their disaffection caused by the brewing Iran-Contra scandal. However, to make him more palatable for the majority of Americans, Reagan officials attempt to repackage Bork as a moderate conservative. Senate Judiciary Committee member Edward Kennedy (D-MA) attacks Bork’s political philosophy, saying before the committee hearings: “[In Bork’s America] women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is the—and is often the only—protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.… No justice would be better than this injustice.” Kennedy’s words provoke complaint, but the characterization of Bork is based on his lengthy record of court verdicts and his large body of judicial writings.
Racial Equality Issues - Although there is no evidence to suggest that Bork is himself a racist, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write that “his positions on civil rights were an anathema to all who cared about equality in America.” Constitutional law professor Herman Schwartz will write in 2004, “Bork condemned the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause decisions outlawing the poll tax (to him it was just ‘a very small tax’), the decision establishing the one-person, one-vote principle, abolishing school segregation in the District of Columbia, barring courts from enforcing racially restrictive housing covenants, preventing a state from sterilizing certain criminals or interfering with the right to travel, and prohibiting discrimination against out-of-wedlock children…. Bork’s hostility to governmental action on behalf of minorities did not stop with his critique of court action. In 1963 he criticized a section of the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964 that required white businesses to serve blacks as resting on a principle of ‘unsurpassed ugliness.’”
Ready to Fight - The Reagan administration understands that Bork’s nomination is opposed; on July 1, the day of his announced nomination, the media reports that Reagan will try to ensure Bork’s confirmation by waging an “active campaign.” Even Senate-savvy James Baker, Reagan’s chief of staff, is uncertain about Bork’s chances at being confirmed, and further worries that even if Bork wins the fight, the cost to Reagan’s political capital will be too high.
His Own Worst Enemy - Conservatives Justice Department official Terry Eastland will later say Senate Democrats sabotage Bork’s chances at faring well in the confirmation hearings, even positioning his table to ensure the least favorable angles for Bork on television. However, the public’s opinion of Bork is unfavorable, and Dean will write: “[I]t was not the position of his chair in the hearing room that made Bork look bad, but rather his arrogance, his hubris, and his occasional cold-bloodedness, not to mention his equivocations and occasional ‘confirmation conversions,’ where he did what no one else could do. He made himself a terrible witness who did not appear to be truthful.” The confirmation conversions even surprise some of his supporters, as Bork abandons his previous stances that the First Amendment only applies to political speech, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause does not apply to women. The Senate Judiciary Committee passes Bork’s nomination along to the full Senate, where Bork is defeated 58-42.
The Verb 'To Bork' - In 2007, Dean will write, “Bork’s defeat made him both a martyr and a verb,” and quotes conservative pundit William Safire as writing that “to bork” someone means to viciously attack a political figure, particularly by misrepresenting that figure in the media. [Dean, 2007, pp. 137-143]

Entity Tags: Herman Schwartz, US Department of Justice, Gregory Peck, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, US Supreme Court, William Safire, Ronald Reagan, James A. Baker, Senate Judiciary Committee, Terry Eastland, Robert Bork, John Dean

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

After Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court fails (see July 1-October 23, 1987), President Reagan nominates an equally hard-line conservative, appeals court judge Douglas Ginsberg. Ginsberg withdraws his nomination after the press learns that he had ignored a serious conflict-of-interest problem while at the Department of Justice, that he had smoked marijuana as both a student and a professor at Harvard Law School, and that, though Ginsberg professes to be stringently anti-abortion, his wife is a doctor who has herself performed abortions. Reagan will nominate a third and final selection for the Court, the somewhat more moderate Anthony Kennedy. [Washington Post, 1998; Federal Judicial Center, 9/26/2006; Dean, 2007, pp. 143-144]

Entity Tags: Harvard University Law School, Douglas Ginsberg, US Department of Justice, US Supreme Court, Ronald Reagan, Robert Bork, Anthony Kennedy

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

When Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first and only African-American to serve on the Court, announces his retirement, the Bush administration is ready with a far more conservative replacement. President Bush himself is already under fire for previously naming a moderate, David Souter, to the Court, and Bush is determined to give his conservative base someone they can back. Although Bush had wanted to nominate an appropriately conservative Hispanic, his eventual nomination is Clarence Thomas, who is completing his first year as a judge on the DC Court of Appeals. Thomas has two qualifications that Bush officials want: like Marshall, he is African-American; unlike Marshall, he is as conservative a jurist as Antonin Scalia (see September 26, 1986) or Robert Bork (see July 1-October 23, 1987). Two of former President Reagan’s closest legal advisers, C. Boyden Gray and Lee Liberman (a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society), privately call Thomas “the black Bork.” Bush calls Thomas “the most qualified man in the country” for the position. [New York Times, 7/2/1991; Dean, 2007, pp. 146-153] During the July 2 press conference to announce Thomas’s nomination, Bush says: “I don’t feel he’s a quota. I expressed my respect for the ground that Mr. Justice Marshall plowed, but I don’t feel there should be a black seat on the Court or an ethnic seat on the Court.” For his part, Thomas extols his upbringing as a desperately poor child in Georgia, crediting his grandmother and the nuns who taught him in Catholic schools as particular influences on his life and values. Republican senator Orrin Hatch says that opposing Thomas will be difficult: “Anybody who takes him on in the area of civil rights is taking on the grandson of a sharecropper.” [New York Times, 7/2/1991] However, the non-partisan American Bar Association’s recommendation panel splits on whether Thomas is qualified or not, the first time since 1969 the ABA has failed to unanimously recommend a nominee. Twelve panelists find Thomas “qualified,” two find him “not qualified,” and none find him “well qualified.” One senior Congressional aide calls the assessment of Thomas “the equivalent of middling.” [New York Times, 8/28/1991; Dean, 2007, pp. 146-153] In 2007, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write, “For the president to send a nominee to the Supreme Court with anything less than a uniformly well-qualified rating is irresponsible, but such decisions have become part of the politicization of the judiciary.” Thomas, himself a beneficiary of the nation’s affirmative action programs, opposes them, once calling them “social engineering;” he has no interest in civil rights legislation, instead insisting that the Constitution should be “color-blind” and the courts should stay out of such matters. Civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental groups are, in Dean’s words, “terrified” of Thomas’s nomination. To overcome these obstacles, the Bush administration decides on a strategy Dean calls “crude but effective… us[ing] Thomas’s color as a wedge with the civil rights community, because he would pick up some blacks’ support notwithstanding his dismal record in protecting their civil rights. [New York Times, 7/2/1991; Dean, 2007, pp. 146-153] The nomination of an African-American quells some of the planned resistance to a conservative nominee promised by a number of civil rights organizations. [New York Times, 7/2/1991] Three months later, Thomas will be named to the court after a bitterly contentious brace of confirmation hearings (see October 13, 1991).

Entity Tags: Orrin Hatch, US Supreme Court, Lee Liberman, Robert Bork, John Dean, Thurgood Marshall, David Souter, American Bar Association, Bush administration (41), Antonin Scalia, George Herbert Walker Bush, Clayland Boyden Gray, Clarence Thomas

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Walter Dellinger, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, writes of the necessity for presidential signing statements: “If the president may properly decline to enforce a law, at least when it unconstitutionally encroaches on his powers, then it arguably follows that he may properly announce to Congress and to the public that he will not enforce a provision of an enactment he is signing. If so, then a signing statement that challenges what the president determines to be an unconstitutional encroachment on his power, or that announces the president’s unwillingness to enforce… such a provision, can be a valid and reasonable exercise of presidential authority.” President Clinton will issue signing statements challenging or commenting on 140 legislative provisions during his eight years in office (see February 1996). [Savage, 2007, pp. 235]

Entity Tags: Walter Dellinger, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Clinton administration, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

According to reporter and author Charlie Savage, the White House staff quickly coalesces into two camps: “Bush People[,] mostly personal friends of the new president who shared his inexperience in Washington,” which includes President Bush’s top legal counsels, Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers, both corporate lawyers in Texas before joining Bush in Washington. The second group is “Cheney People—allies from [Vice-President Dick] Cheney’s earlier stints in the federal government (see May 25, 1975, November 18, 1980, 1981-1992, 1989, and June 1996) who were deeply versed in Washington-level issues, a familiarity that would allow their views to dominate internal meetings. These included [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and other cabinet secretaries, key deputies throughout the administration, and David Addington, Cheney’s longtime aide who would become a chief architect of the administration’s legal strategy in the war on terrorism” (see July 1, 1992 and (After 10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Savage will observe, “Given the stark contrast in experience between Cheney and Bush, it was immediately clear to observers of all political stripes that Cheney would possess far more power than had any prior vice president.”
'Unprecedented' Influence - Cheney will certainly have “unprecedented” influence, according to neoconservative publisher William Kristol, who himself had served as former Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. “The question to ask about Cheney,” Kristol will write, is “will he be happy to be a very trusted executor of Bush’s policies—a confidant and counselor who suggests personnel and perhaps works on legislative strategy, but who really doesn’t try to change Bush’s mind about anything? Or will he actually, substantively try to shape administration policy in a few areas, in a way that it wouldn’t otherwise be going?”
Expanding the Power of the Presidency - Cheney will quickly answer that question, Savage will write, by attempting to “expand the power of the presidency.” Savage will continue: “He wanted to reduce the authority of Congress and the courts and to expand the ability of the commander in chief and his top advisers to govern with maximum flexibility and minimum oversight. He hoped to enlarge a zone of secrecy around the executive branch, to reduce the power of Congress to restrict presidential action, to undermine limits imposed by international treaties, to nominate judges who favored a stronger presidency, and to impose greater White House control over the permanent workings of government. And Cheney’s vision of expanded executive power was not limited to his and Bush’s own tenure in office. Rather, Cheney wanted to permanently alter the constitutional balance of American government, establishing powers that future presidents would be able to wield as well.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 7-9] Larry Wilkerson, the chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, will say after leaving the administration: “We used to say about both [Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s office] and the vice president’s office that they were going to win nine out of 10 battles, because they were ruthless, because they have a strategy, because they never, never deviate from that strategy. They make a decision, and they make it in secret, and they make it in a different way than the rest of the bureaucracy makes it, and then suddenly, foist it on the government—and the rest of the government is all confused.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 299]
Signing Statements to Reshape Legislation, Expand Presidential Power - To that end, Cheney ensures that all legislation is routed through his office for review before it reaches Bush’s desk. Addington goes through every bill for any new provisions that conceivably might infringe on the president’s power as Addington interprets it, and drafts signing statements for Bush to sign. In 2006, White House counsel Bradford Berenson will reflect: “Signing statements unite two of Addington’s passions. One is executive power. And the other is the inner alleyways of bureaucratic combat. It’s a way to advance executive power through those inner alleyways.… So he’s a vigorous advocate of signing statements and including important objections in signing statements. Most lawyers in the White House regard the bill review process as a tedious but necessary bureaucratic aspect of the job. Addington regarded it with relish. He would dive into a 200-page bill like it was a four-course meal.” It will not be long before White House and Justice Department lawyers begin vetting legislation themselves, with Addington’s views in mind. “You didn’t want to miss something,” says a then-lawyer in the White House. [Savage, 2007, pp. 236]

Entity Tags: David S. Addington, Bradford Berenson, Alberto R. Gonzales, Charlie Savage, William Kristol, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bush administration (43), Harriet E. Miers, George W. Bush, Lawrence Wilkerson

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration seizes the new opportunities to expand the power of the presidency that present themselves as part of the government’s response to the attacks (see (After 10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). The Bush-Cheney legal team, largely driven by Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff (see January 21, 2001), aggressively pushes for new opportunities to expand executive branch authorities.
'Bravado,' 'Close-Minded Group of Like-Minded People' - A senior White House official later tells author and reporter Charlie Savage of the “pervasive post-9/11 sense of masculine bravado and one-upmanship when it came to executive power.” In Savage’s words, and quoting the official, “a ‘closed group of like-minded people’ were almost in competition with one another, he said, to see who could offer the farthest-reaching claims of what a president could do. In contrast, those government lawyers who were perceived as less passionate about presidential power were derided as ‘soft’ and were often simply cut out of the process” (see also September 25, 2001).
Suspicion of Oversight - “The lawyers for the administration felt a tremendous amount of time pressure, and there was a lot of secrecy,” the official will say. “These things were being done in small groups. There was a great deal of suspicion of the people who normally act as a check inside the executive branch, such as the State Department, which had the reputation of being less aggressive on executive power. This process of faster, smaller groups fed on itself and built a dynamic of trying to show who was tougher on executive power.”
Addington and Yoo: Outsized Influence - While nominally the leaders of the White House legal team are Attorney General John Ashcroft and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, neither has as much influence as lawyers and staffers ostensibly of lower rank than themselves. Ashcroft is a vociferous supporter of the administration’s anti-terrorism policies, but is not a member of Bush’s inner circle and sometimes disagrees with the White House’s legal moves. Neither Ashcroft nor Gonzales have prior experience dealing with the legal issues surrounding executive power and national security. Two of the driving forces behind the White House’s push for more presidential power are Cheney’s chief counsel, David Addington, and an obscure deputy in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), John Yoo. Because of a dispute between Ashcroft and the Bush inner circle over who should lead the OLC, there is no official chief of the OLC until November 2002, leaving Yoo and his fellows free to be as aggressive as they like on expanding presidential power and handling the war on terrorism. When the OLC chief, law professor Jay Bybee, finally arrives, he, like Ashcroft and Gonzales, finds himself hampered by his lack of knowledge of the law as it pertains to national security. Savage will later write, “When he finally started work, Bybee let deputies continue to spearhead the review of matters related to the war on terrorism.” Yoo is only a deputy assistant attorney general, but he has “signing power”—the ability to make his opinion legally binding—and is rarely reviewed by his peers because much of his work is classified. [Savage, 2007, pp. 76-78] As for Addington, Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, will later say that he was the leader of the small but highly influential group of lawyers “who had these incredible theories and would stand behind their principles [Cheney, Bush, and others], whispering in their ears about these theories, telling them they have these powers, that the Constitution backs these powers, that these powers are ‘inherent’ and blessed by God and if they are not exercised, the nation will fall. He’d never crack a smile. His intensity and emotions and passion for these theories are extraordinary.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 84]

Entity Tags: US Department of State, Lawrence Wilkerson, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), Charlie Savage, David S. Addington, Jay S. Bybee, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John C. Yoo, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Vice President Cheney gives one of the first public indications that he and his office have a keen and active interest in expanding the power of the presidency (see January 21, 2001). Interviewed by ABC’s Cokie Roberts, Cheney openly discusses his interest in reversing the restraints placed on the presidency after Watergate and the Vietnam War. He calls the restraints “unwise compromises” that serve to “weaken the presidency and the vice presidency.” His job, he explains, is to reverse the “erosion of [presidential] powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job.” Cheney says he has laid out his case to President Bush, who agrees with his rationale and his agenda. “One of the things that I feel an obligation on—and I know the president does, too, because we talked about it—is to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 75-76]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Cokie Roberts

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law creating the Institute of Education Sciences, a subsidiary of the Department of Education. The new institute is designed to generate independent statistics about student performance. The law stipulates that the institute’s director may conduct and publish research “without the approval of the secretary [of education] or any other office of the department.” President Bush issues a signing statement indicating that contrary to the law, the director will be responsible to the secretary of education. Since the president has the power to control the actions of all executive branch officials, the statement asserts, “the director of the Institute of Education Sciences shall [be] subject to the supervision and direction of the secretary of education.” Bush’s signing statement directly contradicts the letter and the intent of Congress’s law. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 240]

Entity Tags: US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law that states US officials in Iraq cannot prevent an inspector general for the Coalition Provisional Authority from carrying out any investigation. The inspector general will inform Congress if officials refuse to cooperate with his inquiries. President Bush issues a signing statement directly contradicting the law. According to Bush’s statement, the inspector general “shall refrain” from investigating anything involving sensitive plans, intelligence, national security, or anything already being investigated by the Pentagon. The inspector cannot tell Congress anything if the president decides that disclosing the information would impair foreign relations, national security, or executive branch operations. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: Coalition Provisional Authority, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush meets privately with acting Attorney General James Comey to discuss the Justice Department’s refusal to reauthorize the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program (see Late September, 2001). (Comey will later refuse to discuss the conversation during testimony before Congress.) After the meeting, Bush meets privately with FBI Director Robert Mueller, Comey’s partner in opposing the program (see March 10-12, 2004). After his meeting, Mueller tells Comey, “[W]e have the president’s direction to do what we believed, what the Justice Department believed was necessary to put this matter on a footing where we could certify its legality.” Author and reporter Charlie Savage will later write, “Comey, [Office of Legal Counsel chief Jack] Goldsmith, and their colleagues spent the next several weeks making a series of undisclosed changes to the warrantless surveillance program—during which time the original program continued to operate, even though the president had been told it was illegal.” Outside experts will later speculate that Comey and Goldsmith had constrained the program’s scope by imposing stricter controls on who can be monitored without a warrant. Some will decide that the program now monitors only communications specifically suspected to have a connection to al-Qaeda, not the more general “suspected terrorism” communications. They will also speculate that the authorization for the program now relies on Congress’s Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF—see September 14-18, 2001), not the president’s inherent authority as commander in chief. But, Savage will write, the program still allows wiretapping without a judge’s approval, and therefore is still illegal. [Savage, 2007, pp. 188]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Charlie Savage, US Department of Justice, Robert S. Mueller III, James B. Comey Jr., Jack Goldsmith

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes an intelligence bill that requires the Justice Department to inform it as to how often and in what situation the FBI is using special “national security” wiretaps on US soil. The bill also requires the Justice Department to give oversight committees copies of administration memos outlining any new interpretations of domestic-spying laws. It contains 11 other sections mandating reports about such issues as civil liberties, security clearances, border security, and counternarcotics efforts. President Bush signs the bill, then issues a signing statement asserting his right to ignore or override every element of it. He can and will withhold information from Congress as he sees fit, he claims in the statement. [Savage, 2007, pp. 238-239]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law requiring the director of national intelligence (DNI) to recruit and train women and minorities to be spies, analysts, and translators in order to ensure diversity in the intelligence community. President Bush signs the bill, then issues a signing statement ordering the executive branch—including the DNI—to construe the law in a manner consistent with a constitutional clause guaranteeing “equal protection” for all: a legalistic phrasing designed to sidestep the law. Bush has long been an opponent of any sort of affirmative action program; as recently as 2003, the Supreme Court ruled against the Bush administration’s “equal protection” arguments and in favor of a race-conscious affirmative action program. In his signing statement, Bush advances the “equal protection” argument over affirmative action in spite of the Supreme Court’s rejection of that argument. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 240-241]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Office of the Director of National Intelligence, US Supreme Court, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law forbidding US troops in Colombia, who are there advising the government in its struggle against Marxist rebels funded by drug money, from engaging in any combat against the rebels except in self-defense. The law also caps the number of American soldiers deployed in Colombia at 800. President Bush issues a signing statement that only he, as the commander in chief, can place restrictions on the use of US armed forces. Therefore, the executive branch will construe the law “as advisory in nature.” [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: US International Relations, Civil Liberties

Attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales turns in supplementary written answers to expand upon and clarify his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee (see January 6, 2005 and January 6, 2005). Buried in the documents is what reporter Charlie Savage will call “an explosive new disclosure.” Gonzales reveals that the Bush administration had secretly decided that the Convention against Torture, an international treaty, only has force on domestic soil, where the US Constitution applies. Noncitizens held overseas have no rights under the treaty, Bush lawyers concluded. Legal scholars from all sides of the political continuum denounce the administration’s position. Judge Abraham Sofaer, who negotiated the treaty for the Reagan administration, will write a letter to Congress informing it that President Reagan had never intended the treaty’s prohibition on torture and brutal treatment to apply only on US soil. However, the Bush administration stands by its position. [Savage, 2007, pp. 213]

Entity Tags: Senate Judiciary Committee, Abraham Sofaer, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), Charlie Savage

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law that forbids the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and their contractors from firing or otherwise punishing any employee who informs Congress about possible wrongdoing. President Bush issues a signing statement that says only he or his appointees will decide whether employees of either agency can give information to Congress. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, US Department of Energy

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

John Roberts.John Roberts. [Source: In These Times]John Roberts is approved by the Senate to become the new chief justice of the US Supreme Court, replacing the recently deceased William Rehnquist (see September 5, 2005). Roberts, who once clerked for Rehnquist while Rehnquist was an associate justice, also served in the Reagan Justice Department and as an associate counsel to then-President Reagan. He was deputy solicitor general in the first Bush administration. George W. Bush appointed him to the DC Circuit Court in 2001. [White House, 9/29/2005] Roberts was originally nominated to succeed the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor, but when Rehnquist died, Bush quickly withdrew the nomination for associate justice and refiled Roberts’s name for chief justice.
Characteristics and History - Roberts appeals to conservatives for a number of reasons; he has a powerful legal intellect, is soft-spoken, personable, and telegenic, and has not been outspoken about his views on issues like abortion and the right to privacy. Law professor Stephen Wermiel, who knows Roberts well, said in July that Roberts is not “somebody who… comes off as gruff or overbearing, which some people will recall was a factor in the [Robert] Bork hearings in 1987” (see July 1-October 23, 1987). Wermiel called Roberts’s nomination “a stroke of brilliance on the White House’s part.” One area of controversy surrounds Roberts’s work with Governor Jeb Bush of Florida during the bitterly contested 2000 presidential election, where Roberts helped construct the strategies used in the Bush v. Gore case that awarded George W. Bush the presidency. Another is Roberts’s membership in the Federalist Society, an organization of conservative activist judges, lawyers, and legal thinkers. A third is his advocacy, during his time with the first Bush administration, for scrapping decades of law providing for the separation of church and state in order to allow prayer in public schools. [National Public Radio, 7/20/2005] Four days before President Bush nominated him to the Court, Roberts voted in favor of upholding the Bush administration’s assertions about its wartime powers in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006), ruling that Bush need not consult Congress before setting up military commissions, and ruling that Bush is not bound by the strictures of the Geneva Convention. Liberals are unhappy with his stance against abortion, his representation as a private attorney of corporate mining interests seeking to dodge environmental regulations and of businesses trying to evade affirmative action requirements, as well as his attempts to curb environmentalists’ efforts to save endangered species. In 2007, reporter Charlie Savage will write that while progressives and liberals busily attacked Roberts for his positions on various “hot-button” issues, “[a]lmost lost amid the hubbub was” Roberts’s “unwavering commitment to the [expansion of] presidential power,” dating back to his 1980-81 clerkship under Rehnquist and his tenure as a White House lawyer under Ronald Reagan (see June-July 1983, October 1983, February 13, 1984, and May 16, 1984). [Savage, 2007, pp. 251-255]
Quick Confirmation - The Senate agreed to expedite Roberts’s confirmation process in order to allow him to preside over the next session of the Supreme Court in October, and so gave its members little time to peruse his record. Roberts sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, and is confirmed by a 78-22 vote. Roberts hit a brief snag when he divulged that he had met with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales just six days before hearing oral arguments in the Hamdan case, had met with Vice President Cheney and a select coterie of top White House officials while considering his verdict, and had met with Bush for the president’s final approval on the Court nomination the same day that he handed down his favorable ruling. Though 22 Democrats vote against his confirmation, because Roberts’s ascension to the Court does not change the ideological balance among the nine justices (Roberts is replacing the equally conservative Rehnquist), Senate Democrats decided not to filibuster his nomination. [Dean, 2007, pp. 154-155; Savage, 2007, pp. 252]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Stephen Wermiel, Senate Judiciary Committee, Federalist Society, George W. Bush, Charlie Savage, John G. Roberts, Jr, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Harriet Miers.Harriet Miers. [Source: Harpers.org]After President Bush successfully places conservative judge John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court (see September 29, 2005), he names White House counsel and personal friend Harriet Miers to replace the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor on the Court.
Firestorm of Criticism - The media reacts adversely to this; Miers is said to be insufficiently qualified for the position and to have been chosen because of her loyalty to Bush. Her nomination is further derailed by opposition from hard-line conservatives, who do not believe she is conservative enough in her beliefs, particularly on abortion. Miers is certainly a weak choice from most viewpoints—she has no constitutional law experience and lacks a reputation as a strong legal thinker. She has never been a judge, nor even published an academic law journal article. Even conservative stalwart Robert Bork, who is still a center of controversy from his failed Court nomination (see July 1-October 23, 1987), calls Miers’s nomination “a disaster on every level.” When a letter Miers had written Bush for his birthday in 1997 is published in the media—in which Miers gushed over Bush in breathless, almost schoolgirlish prose, calling him “cool!” and “the best governor ever!”—the derision hits a fever pitch. When she submits a questionnaire to the Senate Judiciary Committee listing her background and qualifications for the job, a questionnaire almost devoid of pertinent and specific information, the ranking members of the committee threaten to have her do it over, a humiliation she avoids by withdrawing her name from consideration.
Trumped-Up Dispute over Executive Privilege - The Senate asks to see Miers’s White House memos to judge the quality of her legal work, and the White House refuses, citing executive privilege. Many view the dispute as a trumped-up conflict designed to allow the Bush administration to save what little face it can in the debacle; neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer had suggested engineering just such a “conflict” to stage “irreconcilable differences over documents” that would allow the Bush White House to withdraw Miers’s nomination over the issue.
Withdrawal - Miers indeed asks Bush to withdraw her nomination, and Bush cites the documents dispute in announcing the decision to pull Miers from consideration: “It is clear that senators would not be satisfied until they gained access to internal documents concerning advice provided during her tenure at the White House—disclosures that would undermine a president’s ability to receive candid counsel,” Bush says. “Harriet Miers’s decision demonstrates her deep respect for this essential aspect of the Constitutional separation of powers—and confirms my deep respect and admiration for her.” Bush settles on another nominee, Samuel Alito, to replace O’Connor (see October 31, 2005 - February 1, 2006). [Savage, 2007, pp. 262-266; Dean, 2007, pp. 155]
Staunch Advocate for Expanded Executive Power - In 2007, reporter and author Charlie Savage will write that, in his view, the Bush administration chose Miers for a simple reason: she is a staunch advocate for the continued expansion of presidential power. “Miers… could be counted on to embrace Bush’s expansive view of presidential powers,” he will write. Miers is quite loyal to Bush “and, through him, the institution he represented.” Miers’s adoration of Bush on a personal level would further guarantee her “solid support for any presidential claim of power that might come before the Court,” he will write. “Like Roberts before her, she was an executive branch lawyer who identified with the task of defending the prerogatives of the president.” On the questionnaire she submits to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Miers writes that as White House counsel, she has gained significant constitutional experience in “presidential prerogatives, the separation of powers, executive authority, and the constitutionality of proposed regulations and statutes.… My time serving in the White House, particularly as counsel to the president, has given me a fuller appreciation of the role of the separation of powers in maintaining our constitutional system. In that role, I have frequently dealt with matters concerning the nature and role of the executive power.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 265-267]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, John G. Roberts, Jr, Sandra Day O’Connor, Samuel Alito, Senate Judiciary Committee, Harriet E. Miers, Charlie Savage, George W. Bush, Bush administration (43), Charles Krauthammer, Robert Bork

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law requiring the Customs and Border Patrol to relocate its illegal immigrant checkpoints near Tucson, Arizona, every seven days in order to prevent smugglers from being able to avoid those checkpoints. President Bush signs the law, then issues a signing statement saying that the Border Patrol should view the “relocation provision as advisory rather than mandatory” because, in his view, only the president has the constitutional authority to decide how to deploy law enforcement officers. As a result of Bush’s signing statement, Border Patrol authorities disobey the law, and explain to investigators from the Government Accountability Office that the law is not mandatory, but “advisory.” White House spokesman Tony Fratto later says in response to the Border Patrol’s refusal to obey the law: “The signing statements certainly do and should have an impact. They are real.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 242-243; Boston Globe, 6/19/2007]

Entity Tags: US Customs and Border Protection, George W. Bush, Tony Fratto, Government Accountability Office

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Congress passes a law that says when Congress makes a request, scientific information “prepared by government researchers and scientists shall be transmitted [to Congress] uncensored and without delay.” President Bush contradicts this legal assertion in a signing statement that says he can order researchers to withhold any information from Congress if he decides its disclosure could impair foreign relations, national security, or the workings of the executive branch. [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Former White House official Lewis Libby, facing criminal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for his involvement in the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see October 28, 2005), joins the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank that focuses on foreign policy and national security. Libby is a senior fellow whose focus will be issues related to terrorism and Asia, and will also advise the institute on strategic planning. Other prominent conservatives who are members of the Hudson Institute are former Reagan administration Solicitor General Robert Bork (see October 19-20, 1973 and July 1-October 23, 1987), and former National Security Agency Director William Odom (see September 16, 2004). Libby will be paid a salary commensurate with his White House remuneration of $160,000. [Washington Post, 1/6/2006]

Entity Tags: Robert Bork, Bush administration (43), Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Valerie Plame Wilson, William Odom, Hudson Institute

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

During the Senate hearings to confirm conservative jurist Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, the questioning turns to Alito’s views on the “unitary executive” theory (January 1, 1992). The theory seems to have originated in the Reagan administration’s Justice Department (see April 30, 1986), where Alito worked in the Office of Legal Counsel.
Lawyer Testifies to Unitary Executive - Former Clinton White House counsel Beth Nolan testifies about the theory and its potential for dramatically revamping the power of the presidency: “‘Unitary executive’ is a small phrase with almost limitless import. At the very least, it embodies the concept of presidential control over all executive functions, including those that have traditionally been executed by ‘independent’ agencies and other actors not subject to the president’s direct control.… The phrase is also used to embrace expansive interpretations of the president’s substantive powers, and strong limits on the legislative and judicial branches.” Nolan cites a November 2000 speech by Alito to the Federalist Society, where Alito said in part, “the president is largely impervious to statutory law in the areas of foreign affairs, national security, and Congress is effectively powerless to act as a constraint against presidential aggrandizement in these areas.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 100-106] During the questioning session, Alito denies ever discussing the idea of inherent presidential powers during that speech.
Evasive Answers in Hearings - Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) says in his opening statement that he intends to press Alito on his support for what Durbin calls “a marginal theory at best… yet one you’ve said you believe.” Durbin notes that the Bush administration has repeatedly cited the theory to justify its most controversial policies and decisions, particularly in conducting its war on terror. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) adds: “The president is not a king, free to take any action he chooses without limitation, by law.… In the area of executive power, Judge Alito, you have embraced and endorsed the theory of the unitary executive. Your deferential and absolutist view of separation of powers raises questions. Under this view, in times of war the president would, for instance, seem to have inherent authority to wiretap American citizens without a warrant, to ignore Congressional acts at will, or to take any other action he saw fit under his inherent powers. We need to know, when a president goes too far, will you be a check on his power or will you issue him a blank check to exercise whatever power alone he thinks appropriate?” [Savage, 2007, pp. 271-272] However, Alito refuses to address the issue in the hearings, giving what one journalist calls “either confused or less than candid” answers to questions concerning the subject.
Failure to Recall - During questioning, Alito turns aside inquiries about his avowed support for the unitary executive theory, saying he was merely talking about the idea that a president should have control over lesser executive branch officials, and was not referring to the usurpation of Congressional power by the executive. Further questions elicit nothing but a dry definition of the term. Asked about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s stinging dissent in the 2004 Hamdi v. Rumsfeld case (see June 28, 2004), where Thomas wrote that the authors of the Constitution believed a unitary executive was essential to the implementation of US foreign policies, Alito says he does not recall Thomas’s mention of the phrase. Asked about Bush’s signing statement that attempted to invalidate the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 30, 2005), Alito merely recites the definition of a signing statement, and refuses to actually state his position on the issue (see February 6, 1986 and After). Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), disturbed by Alito’s refusal to address the subject, says he will vote against him in part because of Alito’s embrace of “the gospel of the unitary executive.” Kennedy cites one of the authors of the theory, law professor Steven Calabresi, one of the founders of the Federalist Society, who, Kennedy says, “acknowledged that, if the concept is implemented, it would produce a radical change in how the government operates.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 100-106; Savage, 2007, pp. 271-274]
ACLU Opposes Alito - The ACLU, for only the third time in its history, formally opposes Alito’s nomination, in part because of Alito’s embrace of the unitary executive theory of the presidency, citing Alito’s “expansive view of executive authority and a limited view of the judicial role in curbing abuses of that authority.” In its 86-year history, the ACLU has only opposed two other Court nominees: William Rehnquist and former Solicitor General Robert Bork. [American Civil Liberties Union, 1/9/2006]
Opposition Fails - However, none of this is effective. Alito is sworn in less than a month later, after Democrats in the Senate fail to successfully mount a filibuster against his confirmation. [CNN, 2/1/2006]

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Samuel Alito, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Beth Nolan, US Department of Justice, Bush administration (43), US Supreme Court, American Civil Liberties Union

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Speaking to a cheering crowd of military families in Kansas, President Bush declares that he has no intention of following the laws requiring warrants for wiretaps (see December 15, 2005 and December 18, 2005) because Congress authorized the use of military force against terrorists (AUMF—see September 14-18, 2001), and because he has the power to bypass laws at his own discretion in the interest of national security. The Kansas appearance is part of an election-style “blitz” of appearances around the country designed to build support for the warrantless wiretapping program, and to bolster support for Republicans in the midterm elections (see January 20, 2006). “I’m not a lawyer, but I can tell you what [the AUMF] means,” he says. “It means Congress gave me the authority to use necessary force to protect the American people but it didn’t prescribe the tactics.… If [terrorism suspects] are making phone calls into the United States, we need to know why, to protect you.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 203]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Steven Calabresi, one of the architects of the ‘unitary executive’ theory, says Bush’s use of signing statements has gone too far.Steven Calabresi, one of the architects of the ‘unitary executive’ theory, says Bush’s use of signing statements has gone too far. [Source: MeFeedia]Legal scholars and constitutional experts decry President Bush’s claim that he can ignore or disobey laws with impunity. An examination by Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage finds that to date, Bush has claimed the authority to disobey over 750 laws enacted since he took office (see January 20, 2001 and After, After September 11, 2001, January 27, 2002, November 5, 2002, March 12, 2004 and After, November 6, 2003, December 2004, December 17, 2004, Dec. 23, 2004, January 17, 2005, August 8, 2005, October 18, 2005, December 30, 2005, and January 23, 2006). He claims that as president, he has the power to override any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution. While the Constitution assigns Congress the power to write the laws and the president the duty “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” Bush asserts that he has no mandate to “execute” a law he believes is unconstitutional. Administration spokespersons have repeatedly said that Bush “will faithfully execute the law in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution,” but it is Bush who decides what is and is not constitutional. Many legal scholars disagree with Bush’s position, and accuse him of attempting to usurp Congressional power for himself.
Philip Cooper - Law professor Phillip Cooper says over the Bush administration’s tenure, it has relentlessly worked to concentrate ever more governmental power into the White House. “There is no question that this administration has been involved in a very carefully thought-out, systematic process of expanding presidential power at the expense of the other branches of government,” Cooper says. “This is really big, very expansive, and very significant.”
Christopher Kelley - Political science professor Christopher Kelley notes that Bush uses signing statements to abrogate Congressional powers in a manner inconsistent with Constitutional mandates. “He agrees to a compromise with members of Congress, and all of them are there for a public bill-signing ceremony, but then he takes back those compromises—and more often than not, without the Congress or the press or the public knowing what has happened,” Kelley says.
David Golove - Law professor David Golove says Bush has besmirched “the whole idea that there is a rule of law” because no one can be certain of which laws Bush thinks are valid and which he thinks he can ignore. “Where you have a president who is willing to declare vast quantities of the legislation that is passed during his term unconstitutional, it implies that he also thinks a very significant amount of the other laws that were already on the books before he became president are also unconstitutional,” Golove says. To the extent that Bush is interpreting the Constitution in defiance of Supreme Court rulings, Golove notes, he threatens to “overturn the existing structures of constitutional law.” When a president ignores the Court and is not restrained by a Congress that enables his usurpations, Golove says, the Constitution can be made to simply “disappear.” Golove adds, “Bush has essentially said that ‘We’re the executive branch and we’re going to carry this law out as we please, and if Congress wants to impeach us, go ahead and try it.’”
Jack Beerman - Law professor Jack Beermann says: “The president is daring Congress to act against his positions, and they’re not taking action because they don’t want to appear to be too critical of the president, given that their own fortunes are tied to his because they are all Republicans. Oversight gets much reduced in a situation where the president and Congress are controlled by the same party.”
Steven Calabresi - Former Justice Department official Steven Calabresi, who came up with the idea of using signing statements to counter Congressional powers during the Reagan administration (see August 23, 1985 - December 1985), now says, “I think what the administration has done in issuing no vetoes and scores of signing statements (see September 2007) is not the right way to approach this.”
Bruce Fein - Former Reagan Justice Department official Bruce Fein says: “This is an attempt by the president to have the final word on his own constitutional powers, which eliminates the checks and balances that keep the country a democracy. There is no way for an independent judiciary to check his assertions of power, and Congress isn’t doing it, either. So this is moving us toward an unlimited executive power.” [Boston Globe, 4/30/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 243]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Charlie Savage, Christopher Kelley, Jack Beermann, Bruce Fein, David Golove, George W. Bush, Phillip Cooper, Steven Calabresi

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Board of Governors of the American Bar Association (ABA) votes unanimously to investigate whether President Bush has exceeded his presidential authority by using signing statements to assert that he can ignore or override laws passed by Congress (see April 30, 2006 and September 2007). ABA president Michael Greco, who served with former Republican govenor William Weld (R-MA), appoints a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel of legal experts, including former government officials, legal scholars, and retired FBI Director William Sessions, to carry out the inquiry. The ABA Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine will work for two months on a report (see July 23, 2006). [Savage, 2007, pp. 244-245]

Entity Tags: Michael Greco, ABA Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine, American Bar Association, George W. Bush, William Weld, William S. Sessions

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Inspired in part by the American Bar Association’s upcoming task force report on President Bush’s use of signing statements to ignore the law (see July 23, 2006), Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) holds a hearing on signing statements. Specter asks the White House to send either Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or Steven Bradbury, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, to testify to the use of the statements. Instead, in what some observers feel is a calculated snub, the White House sends Michelle Boardman, a low-ranking Justice Department deputy. Boardman refuses to answer questions about the use of signing statements by Bush, and instead argues that Bush has shown respect to Congress by using signing statements to indicate his refusal to comply with legislation rather than vetoing entire bills. “Respect for the legislative branch is not shown through [making] a veto,” she tells the assembled committee members. “Respect for the legislative branch, when we have a well-crafted bill, the majority of which is constitutional, is shown when the president chooses to construe a particular statement in keeping with the Constitution, as opposed to defeating an entire bill that would serve the nation.” The president has the power and responsibility to ignore any portion of any law passed by Congress when he feels it conflicts with the Constitution, she says, even in cases “where the Supreme Court has yet to rule on an issue, but the president has determined that a statutory law violates the Constitution.” She notes that previous presidents also used signing statements to raise constitutional questions about specific portions of selected legislation. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) is unconvinced by Boardman’s arguments. Bush is using signing statements, he says, “to advance a view of executive power that, as far as I can tell, has no bounds. [The White House has] assigned itself the sole responsibility for deciding which laws it will comply with, and in the process has taken upon itself the powers of all three branches of government.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 248-249]

Entity Tags: Michelle Boardman, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), US Department of Justice, Senate Judiciary Committee, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Steven Bradbury, Arlen Specter, Russell D. Feingold

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The American Bar Association (ABA)‘s Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine issues its final report for its investigation into whether President Bush has exceeded his presidential authority by using signing statements to assert that he can ignore or override laws passed by Congress (see June 4, 2006).
Bush Violating the Constitution - The report concludes that Bush is violating the Constitution by signing a bill and then issuing a signing statement declaring that he will refuse to obey selected sections of that bill. The president’s own belief that a particular provision of a law is unconstitutional carries no legal weight, and gives him no right to ignore or disobey that provision, the task force finds. The Constitution gives presidents only two options: veto a bill, or sign it and enforce it. “The president’s constitutional duty is to enforce laws he has signed into being, unless and until they are held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court,” the report reads. “The Constitution is not what the president says it is.”
De Facto Line-Item Veto - Signing statements as used by Bush and earlier presidents (see 1984-1985, August 23, 1985 - December 1985, October 1985, February 6, 1986 and After, and November 1993) are evolving into a kind of back-door line-item veto, which the Constitution does not grant presidents—especially when Congress cannot override it. “A line-item veto is not a constitutionally permissible alternative,” the report reads, “even when the president believes that some provisions of a bill are unconstitutional. A president could easily contrive a constitutional excuse to decline enforcement of any law he deplored, and transform his qualified veto into a monarch-like absolute veto.”
Bringing the Presidency Back into Alignment - Over 150 newspaper editorial boards, columnists, and cartoonists quickly endorse the ABA’s call to end the abuse of signing statements. Some critics of the ABA report say that, in attempting to avoid singling out Bush for criticism, the task force failed to address the root issue behind the signing statements—the unitary executive theory espoused by the administration (see April 30, 1986). Instead of asking that signing statements themselves be ended, some critics say, the Bush administration’s attempts to usurp other branches’ power for the presidency must be curbed. Law professor Laurence Tribe calls the Bush administration “pathological power holders” and “misfits” who are abusing a valid presidential tool. Task force member Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman, says the fundamental issue is to bring the presidency back into proper alignment with the other two branches. “It’s not about Bush, it’s about what should be the responsibility of a president,” he says. “We are saying that the president of the United States has an obligation to follow the Constitution and exercise only the authority the Constitution gives him. That’s a central tenet of American conservatism—to constrain the centralization of power.” [American Bar Association, 7/23/2006 pdf file; Savage, 2007, pp. 245-247]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, ABA Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine, Bush administration (43), Mickey Edwards, Laurence Tribe, American Bar Association

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush has abused his prerogative to issue “signing statements” that state the White House’s interpretion of Congressionally passed laws (see Early 2005), according to former White House counsel John Dean and constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe.
History - Signing statements have no weight in law, but presidents have traditionally used them to state their belief that a particular legislative provision is unconstitutional, and on rare occasion (before the current president) to state their refusal to enforce that provision. Since Jimmy Carter’s administration, various Justice Department officials have said presidents can refuse to enforce a particular provision of signed, legally binding legislation. [Dean, 2007, pp. 112-116] A group of young conservative lawyers in the Reagan administration decided that signing statements were a powerful, and stealthy, way to expand presidential power.
Dean: Bush's Use of Signing Statements 'Extraordinary' - However, Dean says that Bush has used signing statements far more extensively than any president before him. Dean notes that, while presidential signing statements themselves are not illegal or inherently wrong, “[i]t is Bush’s abuse of them that is extraordinary.” Dean writes there has been no concerted effort to find out if Bush is just saying he will not comply with the inordinate number of legislative provisions he has objected to, or if he is refusing to comply with them in practice. If the latter is the case, Dean writes, “he should be impeached immediately… because it would be an extraordinary breach of his oath” of office.
Tribe: Bush's Signing Statements 'Bizarre,' 'Reckless' - Dean cites Tribe, who said in 2006, “[W]hat is new and distressing [about Bush’s use of signing statements] is the bizarre, frighteningly self-serving, and constitutionally reckless character of those views—and the suspicion that the president either intends actually to act on them with some regularity, often in a manner that won’t be publicly visible at the time, or intends them as declarations of hegemony and contempt for the coordinate branches—declarations that he hopes will gradually come to be accepted in the constitutional culture as descriptions of the legal and political landscape properly conceived and as precedents for later action either by his own or by future administrations.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 112-116; Joyce Green, 2007] Political science professor Christopher Kelley agrees. Kelley, who studied the Bush administration’s use of signing statements, says: “What we haven’t seen until this administration is the sheer number of objections that are being raised on every bill passed through the White House. That is what is staggering. The numbers are well out of the norm from any previous administration.”
Signing Statements Supplanting Vetoes - In another disturbing trend, according to author and reporter Charlie Savage, Bush is using signing statements to supplant the traditional presidential veto. By mid-2007, Bush had vetoed just two bills. In contrast, Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, vetoed 37 bills. George H. W. Bush vetoed 44, and Ronald Reagan vetoed 78. Legal experts studying Bush’s signing statements conclude that Bush and his legal team are using signing statements to function almost as line-item vetoes, a power the president does not have. The Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the Founding Fathers wanted the president to either accept a Congressional bill or reject it entirely, and if Congress overrode the veto, then the president had no other recourse than to follow the new law. But now, Savage writes, “the Bush-Cheney administration had figured out that if a president signed a bill and then instructed the government to consider selected provisions null (see December 30, 2005), he could accomplish much the same thing. Moreover, it was an absolute power because, unlike when there is a regular veto, Congress had no opportunity to override his legal judgments.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 230-231]

Entity Tags: Laurence Tribe, John Dean, US Department of Justice, George W. Bush, Charlie Savage, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., Christopher Kelley

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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