Ignoring History: The Lawlessness of Obama Executive Orders

On Tuesday, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the National Defense Authorization Act 91-3, leaving President Obama no choice but to sign it in lieu of suffering a humiliating veto override. Within the act, there is a provision banning the President from moving the enemy combatants held at Guantanamo Bay (GITMO) into the United States or third countries, thereby blocking the President from fulfilling his wrongheaded campaign promise in a stunningly bipartisan fashion.

Not to be deterred by an act of Congress (he is only an inveterate invertebrate when dealing with real enemies like Russia and Iran after all), the White House has hinted the President may use executive powers to flout popular will and bring detainees into the US anyway. Some like Senator Dianne Feinstein and others are suggesting the President could have the authority to do this under his Constitutional Powers as our Commander-in-Chief. They argue the President has essentially unlimited powers over just about any tactical decision in war-time. Funny, precisely these arguments have been made before, only to be blasted in one of the most important Supreme Court decisions you probably haven’t heard about (more on that below!).

These current arguments calling for more power to be placed in the executive are particularly rich, coming in a week when a Federal Appeals Court upheld an injunction on Obama’s executive order rewriting our nation’s immigration laws. Now, the President is turning to the Supreme Court hoping for a more receptive hearing; however, the case in favor of his order is so dubious he spent years explaining how he couldn’t “fix” immigration laws by executive fiat.

One’s view of the constitutionality of his immigration order and potential GITMO one should transcend your view of whether they are wise policy. The core issue is exactly how much power is vested in each branch of government, not whether the underlying policy is well-intentioned. While questions of process often illicit droopy eyes, its importance cannot be understated. Our founders built an intricate system of checks and balances to carefully ward off tyranny, and upsets in this balance can have long-lasting implications. We can take for granted how much of a historical (and sadly even contemporary) anomaly the peaceful transition of power we enjoy every Inauguration day is.

I’m not saying we are on the verge of despotic rule; the issue here is cut and dry so there is no need to hyperbolize. Rather, it is about ensuring that powers remain at the proper branch to avoid the tyranny of one branch over another at the expense of public’s will. Allowing power to wrongly accumulate risks an incremental, creeping tyranny. For 85 years, we have seen more power coalesce around the Presidency, primarily at the expense of the legislature, a phenomenon that has happened under both parties’ watch, to the point where congressional law at times feel like mere guidelines for the President. Here on GITMO in particular, we have a congress asserting its right, but a President looking to ignore it anyway, the public’s opinion be damned.

In actuality (where I happen to live), this is not an unprecedented situation, rather there is a specific precedent that crystallizes the illegality of such an executive order. In 1950, Harry Truman was President, and we were waging war in the Korea Peninsula. Truman faced a steelworker’s strike, which would have disrupted the supply of arms to our forces. Truman saw keeping steel mills open as a matter of national security. Now, Congress had passed two laws, the Taft-Hartley Act and the Selective Service Act (its applicability in this case can be debated), which could have been used to keep the mills operating. Instead, he circumvented the will of Congress and unilaterally seized the plants to be run under the watchful eye of the Federal Government. Believe it or not, legal calamity ensued.

In a 6 to 3 decision in Youngstown v. Sawyer, the Court delivered one of the biggest pushbacks against a Presidential power grab in the century. Truman’s argument that his war powers granted him the ability to seize private property was found sorely wanting. In his concurring opinion (which is the opinion whose influence has endured time in this case), Justice Robert Jackson explained the three tiers of Presidential power (courtesy of Findlaw, emphasis mine):

  1. When the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum, for it includes all that he possesses in his own right plus all that Congress can delegate. In these circumstances, [343 U.S. 579, 636] and in these only, may he be said (for what it may be worth) to personify the federal sovereignty. If his act is held unconstitutional under these circumstances, it usually means that the Federal Government [343 U.S. 579, 637] as an undivided whole lacks power. A seizure executed by the President pursuant to an Act of Congress would be supported by the strongest of presumptions and the widest latitude of judicial interpretation, and the burden of persuasion would rest heavily upon any who might attack it.
  2. When the President acts in absence of either a congressional grant or denial of authority, he can only rely upon his own independent powers, but there is a zone of twilight in which he and Congress may have concurrent authority, or in which its distribution is uncertain. Therefore, congressional inertia, indifference or quiescence may sometimes, at least as a practical matter, enable, if not invite, measures on independent presidential responsibility. In this area, any actual test of power is likely to depend on the imperatives of events and contemporary imponderables rather than on abstract theories of law.
  3. 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 [343 U.S. 579, 638] 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.

Essentially, Jackson believes the Court needs to view Presidential power in three ways. In the first situation when the President is acting thanks to an act of congress, he has the most authority (both his and Congress’s combined). In the second, Congress is silent, which could lead to a fuzzy gray area over whether it is Congressional or Presidential authority. This means the President is not due the same level of deference as when Congress acts alongside him. In the third situation, the President acts against an act of Congress (either clear or implied), so his power is at the lowest ebb because the Court needs to disable Congress’s ability to legislate in that area. As such, the Court would be ruling for the President and against the Congress, threatening the balance of powers.

Incidentally, the President’s immigration executive order falls squarely into the third category where he is trying to move directly against the intent of our immigration laws. As congress indisputably has the authority to write our immigration laws, the President’s power here is non-existent, and his executive order is blatantly lawless.

Now while Gitmo also clearly falls into the third category, it is a bit trickier constitutionally as the President definitely has more power when it comes to waging war than in domestic affairs, though this power is not absolute. In Youngstown, Jackson found Truman was in the third scenario as well—the parallel fortuitously continues. The Court did determine that Congressional laws dictating the process for dealing with strikes (that were totally ignored by Truman) were still relevant during war-time as the powers of the Commander-in-Chief are actually “cryptic” to quote Jackson contrary to what Obama’s cheering squad now suggests. Jackson goes on (emphasis mine):

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.

This statement clearly goes against the pre-planned argument from Obama’s allies that Congress is meddling in tactical matters. That fact is not in and of itself problematic, particularly because we are dealing in part with an internal issue where the President would be bringing enemy combatants into the United States itself. Jackson eloquently notes the danger of letting a President use his foreign powers to assert additional powers within our borders (emphasis mine):

But no doctrine that the Court could promulgate would seem to me more sinister and alarming than that a President whose conduct of foreign affairs is so largely uncontrolled, and often even is unknown, can vastly enlarge his mastery over the internal affairs of the country by his own commitment of the Nation’s armed forces to some foreign venture….


This argument holds whether we are dealing with enemy combatants or steel plants. The idea our elected representatives would be powerless over what happens within our country is abhorrent to the very essence of democracy. Moreover, this line of attack doesn’t just come from our Courts, it is directly address by our founders themselves. Jackson again (emphasis mine if you hadn’t caught on by now):

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.

Our founders went out of their way to expressly give our Congress legislative power in a tactical matter (housing soldiers) when it occurs on our soil. Ironically, many feel like the 3rd amendment is quaint if not anachronistic, serving no purpose in a modern society such as ours. They are wrong as the wider applicability is clear. The founders did not envision a President being able to take total power, Roman dictator style, during a time of war. They went out of their way to carve a role for Congress when the matters of war are internal in nature. How often in the course of human history have we seen dictators use foreign adventures as an excuse to tighten their grip back home? That is anathema to our carefully crafted constitution, ensuring democracy and balanced powers in peace and war time alike.

Given this reasoning, it isn’t hard to see that Congressional laws in that 1952 case were relevant and that Truman over-stepped. Was Truman attempting to become a dictator? Of course not; in totality, he was still one of our finer Presidents. This was merely a case where he reached too far in a time of war, and the Supreme Court took the opportunity to draw a clear line in the sand regarding Presidential power. By the same token, one doesn’t have to think Obama is a dictator to find his executive orders to be an overreach.

If there is any cogent argument differentiating a GITMO executive order from Truman’s in Youngstown v. Sawyer, I have yet to come across it. With Obama planning to sign the NDAA that has GITMO restrictions, any executive order would clearly fall in Jackson’s third scenario (contradiction with Congress’s intent) where Presidential authority is at its weakest. Bringing detainees into the United States proper is without a doubt an internal matter, giving Congress the constitutional power to legislate on the issue. That simple fact evaporates what legs that aspect of order stands on.

What about the aspect of the law that bans the President from sending detainees to Libya, Syria, or elsewhere? Does the fact the United States proper is not involved negate the specific “internal” Congressional powers implied by the 3rd amendment? In short, no. In 2008’s Boumediene v. Bush, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion makes clear the US has “de facto” sovereignty over GITMO, making the fundamental rights of the constitution applicable there. This ruling functionally makes GITMO “internal,” providing Congress with authority. In other words, Congress has the power to put restrictions on the closure of GITMO and transfer inmates anywhere, not just to the United States but to Libya and other third countries as well.

Looking at simple Supreme Court precedent underlines the sheer lawlessness of Obama’s plans. In Youngstown, Presidential powers are clearly delineated, and on both immigration (where Courts are already standing up) and GITMO (where an executive order may be in the works), his power is at its nadir. Plus, it now appears Democrats plan to argue that being in war gives a President absolute power (funny, it seems like just 8 years ago they argued the opposite), but this does not jive with our history or the obvious intent of our founders and is really an effort to stack powers inside an Imperial President. No matter your policy preference, this is dangerous as it takes power away from the power of the people’s representatives in Congress who are a necessary check. Our constitutional balance of power is a delicate one; we mustn’t unnecessarily tamper with it and risk breaking it for our next generation. Certainly not to score cheap political points.

Obama has been fond of shamelessly saying Republicans want a return to the 1950’s for women’s rights. Well, it appears in his zeal over studying 1950’s contraception policy, he skipped over that decade’s constitutional lessons. Ironic; he was a constitutional professor after all. Must’ve skipped those classes.