Monday, May 01, 2006

Happy Law Day!

Jack Balkin at Balkinization:

Today, May the 1st, is Law Day, celebrating the Rule of Law, which, under this Administration, has been honored more in the breach than the observance. Indeed, this article by Charlie Savage in the Boston Globe points out that
President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution. Among the laws Bush said he can ignore are military rules and regulations, affirmative-action provisions, requirements that Congress be told about immigration services problems, ''whistle-blower" protections for nuclear regulatory officials, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.
Savage is pointing to one of the effects of the explosion of Presidential signing statements under the Bush Presidency: Bush's decision-- instead of vetoing legislation-- to state that certain parts of laws that he signs are unconstitutional and will not be enforced or will be applied in very limited ways. One effect of this policy, as I've described here, is that the President may be directing his subordinates to refuse to enforce a wide variety of federal laws in secret, with little or no public accountability, and with no effective way for the courts or Congress to hold him to his duties to enforce the law and "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" under the Constitution....

The irony is that, at least in the early years of the Republic, the only time that Presidents tended to use their power of veto was when they believed that a law was unconstitutional. Bush's decision *never* to veto any bills he believes are unconstitutional is in some tension with his duties under the Constitution, at least if his views about unconstitutionality are in good faith. Surely Presidents shouldn't be required to veto every bill that passes their desk that has a constitutional difficulty, especially if the problem is a relatively minor part of a major piece of legislation. However, it is hard to argue that none of the 750 bills he claims are unconstitutional don't deserve a veto if he is serious about the constitutional claims he is making. One suspects that the President is primarily interested in escaping accountability for executive actions rather than having courts determine the constitutionality of provisions the President objects to; this is especially the case in the area of foreign relations, prisoner detention and prisoner interrogation.

The Bush Administration didn't want Congress regulating how the it treated prisoners, regarding any such interventions as unconstitutional; at the same time, it didn't want the courts deciding the question of constitutionality either. It simply wanted to be free of legal obligations or responsibilities in this area other than those that it choose for itself.
Rule of Law, R.I.P.

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