Balkinization  

Friday, January 18, 2008

Youngstown Category Three: The Commander in Chief at the Lowest Ebb

Marty Lederman

Can the President disregard the torture statute, or the Uniform Code of Military Justice, if he concludes that the restrictions in such statutes make the successful prosecution of an armed conflict more difficult? Is FISA unconstitutional as applied to the war against al Qaeda? Can the President disregard the Geneva Conventions? The Habeas Act? Legislative restrictions on detention, interrogation, combat, etc.?

Our readers will recognize these questions -- arguably the most important constitutional questions of the Bush Administration -- as implicating "Category Three" of the tripartite scheme for evaluating the Commander in Chief's powers that Justice Jackson articulated in the Steel Seizure Case. In such cases, where the President acts contrary to the express or implied will of the legislature, his powers are, in Jackson's words, "at their lowest ebb." But a low tide is not the same as an empty basin. Almost all observers have long concluded that there are some statutes restricting the Commander in Chief that Congress may not enact--in particular, statutes that amount to the direction of the "conduct of [military] campaigns," or the so-called "micromanagement" of war. Is there such a category of statutory restrictions that would violate the Commander in Chief Clause? If so, what does it consist of?

With my friend and former OLC colleague David Barron, I have been working on a paper addressing these questions for a while now, and I'm pleased to be able to report that it is now completed. It is appearing in two parts. The first article is now available online at the Harvard Law Review website. The second article, consisting largely of a constitutional history of the manner in which the three branches (and commentators) have treated the question from 1789 to the present day, will be published in about a month. Below the fold are the HLR abstracts of the two articles.

NOTE: I am disabling the comments function on this post because, as many of you have rightly complained, there are several regular commentors who have made our comments section virtually unreadable and who refuse to refrain from their usual back-and-forth. Professor Barron and I would, however, very much welcome comments on the articles. Please e-mail me at the address to the left if you have any comments, and perhaps I will post especially valuable reactions in a separate post. Thanks.

Abstract of the first article:
Over the past half-century, discussions of constitutional war powers have focused on the scope of the President’s “inherent” power as Commander in Chief to act in the absence of congressional authorization. In this Article, Professors Barron and Lederman argue that attention should now shift to the fundamental question of whether and when the President may exercise Article II war powers in contravention of congressional limitations, when the President’s authority as Commander in Chief is at its “lowest ebb.”

Contrary to the traditional assumption that Congress has ceded the field to the President when it comes to war, the Commander in Chief often operates in a legal environment instinct with legislatively imposed limitations. In the present context, the Bush Administration has been faced with a number of statutes that clearly conflict with its preferred means of prosecuting military conflicts. The Administration’s response, based on an assertion of preclusive executive war powers, has been to claim the constitutional authority to disregard many of these congressional commands.

This Article is the first of a two-part effort to determine how the constitutional argument concerning such preclusive executive war powers is best conceived. Professors Barron and Lederman demonstrate that, notwithstanding recent attempts to yoke the defense of executive defiance in wartime to original understandings, there is surprisingly little historical evidence supporting the notion that the conduct of military campaigns is beyond legislative control. Thus stripped of its assumed roots in a supposedly longstanding tradition, and considered in light of the long pattern of executive acceptance of constraining statutes, the Administration’s recent assertion of preclusive war powers is revealed as a radical attempt to remake the constitutional law of war powers.

This Article begins by explaining why the debate about the “lowest ebb” is now emerging as the primary constitutional war powers question, and by addressing the methodological missteps that have typically infected this debate. It then explores recent attempts to identify the preclusive prerogatives of the Commander in Chief and explains why the tests often deployed to cabin the scope of the presumed preclusive power are flawed.

Finally, it reviews the relevant Supreme Court precedent, along with the constitutional text, the historical context in which the text was written, and the original understandings, and sets the stage for the post-Founding historical review contained in the next Article.
Abstract of the second article:
Over the past half-century, discussions of constitutional war powers have focused on the scope of the President’s “inherent” power as Commander in Chief to act in the absence of congressional authorization. Professors Barron and Lederman argue that attention should now shift to the fundamental question of whether and when the President may exercise Article II war powers in contravention of congressional limitations, when the President’s authority as Commander in Chief is at its “lowest ebb.” This Article is the second part of a two-part effort to determine how the constitutional argument concerning such preclusive executive war powers is best conceived.

In the companion Article, Professors Barron and Lederman described the structural forces responsible for this shift in the ground of debate and demonstrated that evidence from the Founding era does not reveal an original understanding that the Commander in Chief enjoyed preclusive authority over matters pertaining to warmaking. In this Article, they move the story forward and systematically examine how the three branches have actually considered and treated this issue from 1789 to the present day. They examine those cases in which the President has asserted or relied upon a claim of preclusive war powers. They also review the discussions of this issue that have appeared in Supreme Court opinions; in major debates on the floor of Congress; and in the leading constitutional and war powers treatises, articles, and books of the past two centuries.

This historical review shows that the view embraced by most contemporary war powers scholars — namely, that our constitutional tradition has long established that the Commander in Chief enjoys some substantive powers that are preclusive of congressional control with respect to the command of forces and the conduct of campaigns — is unwarranted. In fact, Congress has been an active participant in setting the terms of battle and the conduct and composition of the armed forces and militia more generally, while the Executive (at least until recently) generally has accepted such legislative constraints as legitimate. Although history is not dispositive of the constitutional question, legislators and executive branch actors should not abandon two hundred years of historical practice too hastily, and should resist the new and troubling claim that the Executive is entitled to unfettered discretion in the conduct of war.

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