What Is The Unitary Executive Theory?

I think there is some confusion about the unitary executive theory and what it has become under the Bush Adminstration. Initially, it meant something less ambitious than what the Bush Administration turned it into. The older theory was describe by now Justice Alito, as follows:

In a speech to the Federalist Society in 2001, Alito said:

When I was in OLC [] . . ., we were strong proponents of the theory of the unitary executive, that all federal executive power is vested by the Constitution in the President. And I thought then, and I still think, that this theory best captures the meaning of the Constitution’s text and structure . . . .” “[T]he case for a unitary executive seems, if anything, stronger today than it was in the 18th Century.

Frankly, this is not a remarkable nor important view of the theory. The problem is what is has become under the Bush Administration:

Here’s what it means for Bush:

The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President, evidenced in Title X, of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.

The Bybee Memo put it this way:

Any effort by the Congress to regulate the interrogation of battlefield combatants would violate the Constitution’s sole vesting of the Commander in Chief authority in the President. . . . Congress can no more interfere with the President’s conduct of the interrogation of enemy combatants than it can dictate strategic or tactical decisions on the battlefield.

This is the pernicious Unitary Executive theory as we know it today. It is utterly unsupported by the Constitution and the jurisprudence. I’ll explain on the flip.

In December 2005, I wrote this post on the subject:

Does War Make Presidents Kings?

by Armando

Fri Dec 23, 2005 at 08:34:26 AM PDT

Despite much noisemaking, even from non-conservative sources, it is now clear that legal justification for President Bush’s authorization of warrantless domestic electronic surveillance rests entirely on the argument that Article II of the Constitution vests the Executive with plenary Commander in Chief powers which can not be restricted by the other branches of our federal government. The Justice Department’s feeble apologia for the President’s actions makes clear that the claim that FISA permits what the President has authorized is based on the view that if FISA does NOT permit it, then FISA is unconstitutional:

Justice says:

[U]nder established principles of statutory construction the AUMF and FISA must be construed in harmony to avoid any conflict . . .

I agree. But Justice continues the passage in dishonest fashion:

. . . between FISA and the President’s Article II authority as Commander in Chief.

Come again? The conflict to be avoided is between the law duly enacted by Congress, FISA, and the Bush claim of unfettered Commander in Chief power? Say what? No, the conflict to be avoided is between AUMF and FISA! Justice cites a case, Zadvydas v. Davis. I presume Justice is referencing this:

“[I]t is a cardinal principle” of statutory interpretation, however, that when an Act of Congress raises “a serious doubt” as to its constitutionality, “this Court will first ascertain whether a construction of the statute is fairly possible by which the question may be avoided.”

So what Justice is saying is that if FISA is interpreted as limiting the President’s Article II Commander in Chief power, then it would be unconstitutional. Thus, it should be construed as permitting Bush’s ordering of warrantless domestic electronic surveillance. And here we arrive again at the questions that can not be avoided — Is FISA unconstitutional? Does the President have plenary powers when acting as Commander in Chief?

Professor Cass Sunstein states that:

The legal questions raised by President Bush’s wiretapping seem to me complex, not simple.

With due respect to Professor Sunstein, the legal questions may be hard ones, I don’t think they are, but they are NOT complex. They are very straight forward. What we have are claims by President Bush of unenumerated inherent authority under Article II of the Constitution for the Executive that conflict with the express undisputed powers of the Congress, pursuant to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. To wit – the President claims that FISA, an Congressional enactment that is clearly within the express powers of Congress, is nonetheless unconstitutional because it impinges upon the President’s power as Commander in Chief as granted in Article II.

The proposition is a simple one – in time of war, the Commander in Chief powers granted the President by Article II of the Constitution are superior to the powers granted to the Congress by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. When they conflict, the President’s Commander in Chief power prevails. That is the argument. It is not complex at all.

Two Supreme Court decisions, one expressly and one implicitly, address this issue most directly. They are Youngstown Co. v. Sawyer and Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. I’ve discussed Hamdi previously.

In Youngstown, Justice Black stated:

We are asked to decide whether the President was acting within his constitutional power when he issued an order directing the Secretary of Commerce to take possession of and operate most of the Nation’s steel mills. The mill owners argue that the President’s order amounts to lawmaking, a legislative function which the Constitution has expressly confided to the Congress and not to the President. The Government’s position is that the order was made on findings of the President that his action was necessary to avert a national catastrophe which would inevitably result from a stoppage of steel production, and that in meeting this grave emergency the President was acting within the aggregate of his constitutional powers as the Nation’s Chief Executive and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States. . . .

The President’s power, if any, to issue the order must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself. There is no statute that expressly authorizes the President to take possession of property as he did here. Nor is there any act of Congress to which our attention has been directed from which such a power can fairly be implied. Indeed, we do not understand the Government to rely on statutory authorization for this seizure. There are two statutes which do authorize the President to take both personal and real property under certain conditions.  However, the Government admits that these conditions were not met and that the President’s order was not rooted in either of the statutes. The Government refers to the seizure provisions of one of these statutes ( 201 (b) of the Defense Production Act) as “much too cumbersome, involved, and time-consuming for the crisis which was at hand.”

. . . It is clear that if the President had authority to issue the order he did, it must be found in some provision of the Constitution. And it is not claimed that express constitutional language grants this power to the President. The contention is that presidential power should be implied from the aggregate of his powers under the Constitution. Particular reliance is placed on provisions in Article II which say that “The executive Power shall be vested in a President . . .”; that “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”; and that he “shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.”

The order cannot properly be sustained as an exercise of the President’s military power as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The Government attempts to do so by citing a number of cases upholding broad powers in military commanders engaged in day-to-day fighting in a theater of war. Such cases need not concern us here. Even though “theater of war” be an expanding concept, we cannot with faithfulness to our constitutional system hold that the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces has the ultimate power as such to take possession of private property in order to keep labor disputes from stopping production. This is a job for the Nation’s lawmakers, not for its military authorities.

Nor can the seizure order be sustained because of the several constitutional provisions that grant executive power to the President. In the framework of our Constitution, the President’s power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker. The Constitution limits his functions in the lawmaking process to the recommending of laws he thinks wise and the vetoing of laws he thinks bad. And the Constitution is neither silent nor equivocal about who shall make laws which the President is to execute. The [343 U.S. 579, 588]  first section of the first article says that “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States . . . .” After granting many powers to the Congress, Article I goes on to provide that Congress may “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

The President’s order does not direct that a congressional policy be executed in a manner prescribed by Congress – it directs that a presidential policy be executed in a manner prescribed by the President. . . . The power of Congress to adopt such public policies as those proclaimed by the order is beyond question. . . . The Constitution does not subject this lawmaking power of Congress to presidential or military supervision or control.

It is said that other Presidents without congressional authority have taken possession of private business enterprises in order to settle labor disputes. But even if this be true, Congress has not thereby lost its exclusive constitutional authority to make laws necessary and proper to carry out the powers vested by the Constitution “in the Government of the United States, or any Department or Officer thereof.”

The Founders of this Nation entrusted the lawmaking power to the Congress alone in both good and bad times. It would do no good to recall the historical events, the fears of power and the hopes for freedom that lay behind their choice. Such a review would but confirm our holding that this seizure order cannot stand.

(Emphasis supplied.) Black’s opinion casts serious doubt on the President’s claim of inherent authority. Certainly the actions of President Bush can be considered a form of lawmaking that Black clearly states is beyond the province of the Presidency. But more importantly, it is patent that even if the President has such inherent authority under Article II, such authority can not impinge upon the Congress’ lawmaking power granted by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. If Youngstown remains good law, as it does, then the President’s claims must fail.

Justice Frankfurter’s concurrence also is apt to the present circumstances:

By the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, Congress said to the President, “You may not seize. Please report to us and ask for seizure power if you think it is needed in a specific situation.” . . . But it is now claimed that the President has seizure power by virtue of the Defense Production Act of 1950 and its Amendments. And the claim is based on the occurrence of new events – Korea and the need for stabilization, etc. – although it was well known that seizure power was withheld by the Act of 1947, and although the President, whose specific requests for other authority were in the main granted by Congress, never suggested that in view of the new events he needed the power of seizure which Congress in its judgment had decided to withhold from him. The utmost that the Korean conflict may imply is that it may have been desirable to have given the President further authority, a freer hand in these matters. Absence of authority in the President to deal with a crisis does not imply want of power in the Government. Conversely the fact that power exists in the Government does not vest it in the President. The need for new legislation does not enact it. Nor does it repeal or amend existing law.

History repeats itself. Again a President makes farfetched claims of power superior to that of the Congress. Again a President makes such claims in a time of war. Unfortunately, at this time there are too many who try to render the claims legitimacy. But Justice Frankfurter properly dispatched similar claims thusly:

Apart from his vast share of responsibility for the conduct of our foreign relations, the embracing function of the President is that “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed . . . .” Art. II, 3. The nature of that authority has for me been comprehensively indicated by Mr. Justice Holmes. “The duty of the President to see that the laws be executed is a duty that does not go beyond the laws or require him to achieve more than Congress sees fit to leave within his power.” Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52, 177 . The powers of the President are not as particularized as are those of Congress. But unenumerated powers do not mean undefined powers. The separation of powers built into our Constitution gives essential content to undefined provisions in the frame of our government.

. . . A scheme of government like ours no doubt at times feels the lack of power to act with complete, all-embracing, swiftly moving authority. No doubt a government with distributed authority, subject to be challenged in the courts of law, at least long enough to consider and adjudicate the challenge, labors under restrictions from which other governments are free. It has not been our tradition to envy such governments. In any event our government was designed to have such restrictions. The price was deemed not too high in view of the safeguards which these restrictions afford. I know no more impressive words on this subject than those of Mr. Justice Brandeis:

“The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted by the Convention of 1787, not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was, not to avoid friction, but, [343 U.S. 579, 614]  by means of the inevitable friction incident to the distribution of the governmental powers among three departments, to save the people from autocracy.” Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52, 240, 293.

The much cited concurrence of Justice Jackson describes the actions taken by President Bush from the Constitutional standpoint, even granting the inherent power theory being forwarded:

When the President takes measures incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress, his power is at its lowest ebb, for then he can rely only upon his own constitutional powers minus any constitutional powers of Congress over the matter. Courts can sustain exclusive presidential control in such a case only by disabling the Congress from acting upon the subject.  Presidential claim to a power at once so conclusive and preclusive must be scrutinized with caution, for what is at stake is the equilibrium established by our constitutional system.

. . . This leaves the current seizure to be justified only by the severe tests under the third grouping, where it can be supported only by any remainder of executive power after subtraction of such powers as Congress may have over the subject. In short, we can sustain the President only by holding that seizure of such strike-bound industries is within his domain and beyond control by Congress. Thus, this Court’s first review of such seizures occurs under circumstances which leave presidential power most vulnerable to attack and in the least favorable of possible constitutional postures.

. . . The Solicitor General seeks the power of seizure in three clauses of the Executive Article, the first reading, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” Lest I be thought to exaggerate, I quote the interpretation which his brief puts upon it: “In our view, this clause constitutes a grant of all the executive powers of which the Government is capable.” If that be true, it is difficult to see why the forefathers bothered to add several specific items, including some trifling ones. 

The example of such unlimited executive power that must have most impressed the forefathers was the prerogative exercised by George III, and the description of its evils in the Declaration of Independence leads me to doubt that they were creating their new Executive in his image. Continental European examples were no more appealing. And if we seek instruction from our own times, we can match it only from the executive powers in those governments we disparagingly describe as totalitarian. I cannot accept the view that this clause is a grant in bulk of all conceivable executive power but regard it as an allocation to the presidential office of the generic powers thereafter stated.

The clause on which the Government next relies is that “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States . . . .”  . . . [T]his loose appellation is sometimes advanced as support for any presidential action, internal or external, involving use of force, the idea being that it vests power to do anything, anywhere, that can be done with an army or navy.

. . . Assuming that we are in a war de facto, whether it is or is not a war de jure, does that empower the Commander in Chief to seize industries he thinks necessary to supply our army? The Constitution expressly places in Congress power “to raise and support Armies” and “to provide and maintain a Navy.” (Emphasis supplied.) This certainly lays upon Congress primary responsibility for supplying the armed forces. Congress alone controls the raising of revenues and their appropriation and may determine in what manner and by what means they shall be spent for military and naval procurement. I suppose no one would doubt that Congress can take over war supply as a Government enterprise. On the other hand, if Congress sees fit to rely on free private enterprise collectively bargaining with free labor for support and maintenance of our armed forces, can the Executive, because of lawful disagreements incidental to that process, seize the facility for operation upon Government-imposed terms?

There are indications that the Constitution did not contemplate that the title Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy will constitute him also Commander in Chief of the country, its industries and its inhabitants. He has no monopoly of “war powers,” whatever they are. While Congress cannot deprive the President of the command of the army and navy, only Congress can provide him an army or navy to command. It is also empowered to make rules for the “Government and Regulation of land and naval Forces,” by which it may to some unknown extent impinge upon even command functions.

That military powers of the Commander in Chief were not to supersede representative government of internal affairs seems obvious from the Constitution and from elementary American history. Time out of mind, and even now in many parts of the world, a military commander can seize private housing to shelter his troops. Not so, however, in the United States, for the Third Amendment says, “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” Thus, even in war time, his seizure of needed military housing must be authorized by Congress. It also was expressly left to Congress to “provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions . . . .” 11 Such a limitation on the command power, written at a time when the militia rather than a standing army was contemplated as the military weapon of the Republic, underscores the Constitution’s policy that Congress, not the Executive, should control utilization of the war power as an instrument of domestic policy. Congress, fulfilling that function, has authorized the President to use the army to enforce certain civil rights. 12 On the other hand. Congress has forbidden him to use the army for the purpose of executing general laws except when expressly authorized by the Constitution or by Act of Congress. 

. . . We should not use this occasion to circumscribe, much less to contract, the lawful role of the President as Commander in Chief. I should indulge the widest latitude of interpretation to sustain his exclusive function to command the instruments of national force, at least when turned against the outside world for the security of our society. But, when it is turned inward, not because of rebellion but because of a lawful economic struggle between industry and labor, it should have no such indulgence. His command power is not such an absolute as might be implied from that office in a militaristic system but is subject to limitations consistent with a constitutional Republic whose law and policy-making branch is a representative Congress.

Justice Burton noted this salient fact that is also present in regard to President Bush’s actions:

The controlling fact here is that Congress, within its constitutionally delegated power, has prescribed for the President specific procedures, exclusive of seizure, for his use in meeting the present type of emergency. Congress has reserved to itself the right to determine where and when to authorize the seizure of property in meeting such an emergency. Under these circumstances, the President’s order of April 8 invaded the jurisdiction of Congress. It violated the essence of the principle of the separation of governmental powers. Accordingly, the injunction against its effectiveness should be sustained.

Justice Clark wrote:

I conclude that where Congress has laid down specific procedures to deal with the type of crisis confronting the President, he must follow those procedures in meeting the crisis; but that in the absence of such action by Congress, the President’s independent power to act depends upon the gravity of the situation confronting the nation. I cannot sustain the seizure in question because here, as in Little v. Barreme, Congress had prescribed methods to be followed by the President in meeting the emergency at hand.

So too has Congress prescribed the methods to follow here. The very methods President Bush has violated.

In dissent, Chief Justice Vinson wrote:

There is no statute prohibiting seizure as a method of enforcing legislative programs. Congress has in no wise indicated that its legislation is not to be executed by the taking of private property (subject of course to the payment of just compensation) if its legislation cannot otherwise be executed. . . . Whatever the extent of Presidential power on more tranquil occasions, and whatever the right of the President to execute legislative programs as he sees fit without reporting the mode of execution to Congress, the single Presidential purpose disclosed on this record is to faithfully execute the laws by acting in an emergency to maintain the status quo, thereby preventing collapse of the legislative programs until Congress could act. . . . In his Message to Congress immediately following the seizure, the President explained the necessity of his action in executing the military procurement and anti-inflation legislative programs and expressed his desire to cooperate with any legislative proposals approving, regulating or rejecting the seizure of the steel mills. Consequently, there is no evidence whatever of any Presidential purpose to defy Congress or act in any way inconsistent with the legislative will.

In the present situation, President Bush has not only deliberately defied the legislative will, he expressed no desire whatsoever to cooperate with the Congress on the matter. Indeed, his actions were kept secret from most of the Congress and the American People.

So, I restate, the issue is not complex. The questions are not difficult. The actions of President Bush are outrageous, criminal, and deserve censure, at the least.

To understand the perniciousness of the Unitary Executive theory it is important to understand it and describe it accurately. Everything Bush does is not an act in furtherance of the Unitary Executive theory.


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    • Armando on October 1, 2007 at 02:04

    I do not remember my Daily Kos password so I can’t import the post in html.

  1. as yet another example of his belief that he has, essentially, royal powers. in his “mind,” it clearly has little to do with theory or legal definitions. but thanks for the clarification!

    • Valtin on October 1, 2007 at 02:26

    You are certainly correct on Bush and the UET. As for Alito and his opinions, here’s an alternative discussion about his thinking on UET from the Institute for Public Accuracy (more blockquotes!, emphases are mine):

    Judge Samuel Alito has stated in the course of the hearings that he subscribes to the concept of the unitary executive. While in the Reagan administration, he helped expand the practice of presidential statements upon signing of legislation. Presidential signing statements may express how a president interprets the law he is signing.

    The Washington Post has reported that Alito wrote in 1986: “Since the president’s approval is just as important as that of the House or Senate, it seems to follow that the president’s understanding of the bill should be just as important as that of Congress. … [B]y forcing some rethinking by courts, scholars, and litigants, it may help to curb some of the prevalent abuses of legislative history.”

    A leading expert on bill signing statements and the unitary executive, Kelley is author of a dissertation on the unitary executive and the presidential signing statement as well as the paper “Rethinking Presidential Power — The Unitary Executive and the George W. Bush Presidency.”

    Kelley said today: “While other administrations have made use of bill signing statements since Reagan, the current administration is doing something unlike what others have done, citing the unitary executive an unprecedented number of times in these signing statements. Judge Alito seemed to indicate that the concept of the unitary executive simply applied to the executive controlling inferior offices, but he must know better. For instance, the ‘Oath’ clause of the Constitution demands that the president protect both the office of the presidency as well as the United States Constitution. To ensure the president lives up to that solemn oath, he issues a bill signing statement that may be used to refuse to defend or enforce provisions of law the president independently determines to be unconstitutional, as well as to define vague, unclear, or undefined provisions of law.

    “Judge Alito, who has written on aspects of the unitary executive, clearly should know that his understanding of the unitary executive is more than his description offered during his Senate testimony.” Kelley is currently a visiting assistant professor in the department of political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

  2. you’re really good.

  3. seriously, thanks for the rundown.  this makes a lot of things more clear to me now. 

    sadly, it makes more unclear why a congress would allow its inherent powers to be siphoned off……but i was never going to get that anyway.

  4. post is excellent.


  5. unitary executive as the primary example of the Illuminati plan to destroy America in just six years.
    No, he’s not incompetent you just didn’t understand the real motives.

  6. On Sept 12,2007, Bush extended the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1622(d) which got me poking around and led me to many citations which discussed the unitary executive and the philosophy of the Nazi’s favorite dude, Carl Schmitt.  His philosophy is all over what we are seeing today in the extraordinary power grab.  An interesting piece by William S.Scheuerman discussing him and the unitary may be found here: Journal of Political Philosophy  Scheuerman notes that it is of interest that so much of the discussion centers around Schmitt’s theories when he espoused an extralegal view of the unitary executive and poohed poohed liberal democracy.  I am an amateur round these parts of political theory and would love to read what some better informed folks here think of this.

      • Armando on October 1, 2007 at 03:51

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