All posts by Louis Fisher

Louis Fisher is Scholar in Residence at the Constitution Project. Previously he worked for four decades at the Library of Congress as Senior Specialist in Separation of Powers (Congressional Research Service, from 1970 to 2006) and Specialist in Constitutional Law (the Law Library, from 2006 to 2010. During his service with CRS he was research director of the House Iran-Contra Committee in 1987, writing major sections of the final report.

Basic Principles of the War Power

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution assigned to Congress many of the powers of external affairs previously vested in the English king. That allocation of authority is central to America’s democratic and constitutional system. When decisions about armed conflict, whether overt or covert, slip from the elected members of Congress, the principles of self-government and popular sovereignty are undermined. Political power shifts to an executive branch with two elected officials and a long history of costly, poorly conceived military commitments. The Framers anticipated and warned against the hazards of Executive wars. In a republican form of government, the sovereign power rests with the citizens and the individuals they elect to public office. Congress alone was given the constitutional authority to initiate war.

Legislative control over external affairs took centuries to develop. The English Parliament gained the power of the purse in the 1660s to restrain the king, but the power to initiate war remained a monarchical prerogative. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690), John Locke identified three functions of government: legislative, executive, and “federative.” The last embraced “the power of war and peace, leagues and alliances, and all the transactions with all persons and communities without the commonwealth.”  To Locke, the federative power (what today we call foreign policy) was “always almost united” with the Executive. Any effort to separate the executive and federative powers, he counseled, would invite “disorder and ruin.”

 

United States v. Klein: Judging Its Clarity and Application

Professor Wasserman offers several evaluations of the Supreme Court’s 1872 decision in Klein. In places he states that it was issued in a “pathological period,” is confusing to read, and therefore difficult to apply. Yet elsewhere in his article he finds the decision to be understandable and recognizes that it offers several clear separation of powers principles. Between those two competing and conflicting positions, the latter analysis is on firmer ground. His article focuses on two recent national security issues – the 2008 statute granting immunity to telecoms that provided assistance to NSA surveillance, and the Military Commissions Act (MCA) of 2006 – to determine whether they are consistent with and controlled by Klein.

PATHOLOGICAL PERIODS

Professor Wasserman describes Klein as the product of what Vincent Blasi “has called a period of constitutional pathology, a period reflecting ‘an unusually serious challenge to one or more of the central norms of the constitutional regime.’” Pathological periods, Blasi says, are marked by a “sense of urgency stemming from societal disorientation if not panic.” They come at a time of “a shift in basic attitudes, among certain influential actors if not the public at large,” concerned with what Wasserman calls “central constitutional commitments.” Panic can affect structural features, including formal and informal separation of powers and checks and balances, which may “exert much less of a restraining influence” on the political branches and the public.” Rigorous judicial review “must be reserved for extreme cases challenging pathological laws and action . . . as a bulwark against overreaching officials and citizens.”

Klein arose, Wasserman points out, “in a previous pathological period –Reconstruction.” That is true, but what does that say about the clarity of the decision and subsequent ability to apply it with confidence? Good things and bad things come out of periods of stress and panic. The“pathological” period after the Civil War yielded three constitutional amendments: the Thirteenth (abolishing slavery), the Fourteenth (establishing new rights), and the Fifteenth (extending the right to vote). Those years opened up new professional opportunities for women. Some branches of government may perform well, others poorly. The requirement each time is to analyze a particular case or action to determine how well a political institution carries out its constitutional duties. In considering Klein in the context of the politics of 1872, the Court was clearly under stress but issued a decision that pushed back against indefensible legislation and did so in a manner that gave clear and valued guidance to future legislation and litigation.

Detention and Military Trial of Suspected Terrorists: Stretching Presidential Power

The system of detention and military trial authorized by President George W. Bush on November 13, 2001, and additional claimed authority to hold terrorist suspects indefinitely without process, have been litigated in several judicial circuits, moving from district courts to the Supreme Court and back down again. In 2006, these authorities returned to the Court for further exploration in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Regrettably, until very recently the separation of powers issues raised by the President’s initiatives received little attention from Congress, which, under the Constitution, has primary responsibility over military courts, tribunals “inferior to the supreme Court,” “Offenses against the Law of Nations,” the war power, and “Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” Because of congressional passivity, the principal checks on presidential power have been supplied instead by litigants and courts. The constitutional issues that emerge from this concentration of power in the presidency form the central theme of this article.