Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Note to Senator Specter -- A Youngstown Refresher

Marty Lederman

Dear Senator Specter: On several occasions, most recently at yesterday's hearing with the Attorney General, you have articulated the following reasoning in (possible) support of the legality of the NSA surveillance program:

1. Several courts of appeals held, pre-FISA, that the President has "inherent" constitutional authority to engage in warrantless electronic surveillance for purposes of foreign affairs or national security, even where such surveillance might intercept communications of U.S. persons -- at least as long as the surveillance passes Fourth Amendment muster. (NOTE: The leading pre-FISA case, Zweibon v. Mitchell, held that such warrantless surveillance would not satisfy Fourth Amendment scrutiny where the target of the surveillance is not a foreign power or agent of a foreign power. See page 1356 n.10 here.)

2. If the President has an "inherent power" to engage in certain conduct, then a duly enacted statute may not restrict the President's exercise of that conduct.

3. FISA restricts such conduct.


4. If the courts of appeals were correct that the President has an "inherent" power to engage in such warrantless surveillance, FISA's restrictions of it are unconstitutional. As you put it yesterday, if the President has such an inherent power, then the provision of FISA establishing the "exclusive means" of electronic surveillance is "superseded."
This is not correct, because premise No. 2 is wrong -- a category error.

The President has a great number of constitutional powers -- call them "inherent" (or , as in Hamdan, "independent") powers -- that he may exercise in the absence of statutory restriction. (This is basically what's described in "Category II" of Jackson's Youngstown concurrence.)

But the fact that a power is "inherent" does not mean that it is exclusive, or non-defeasible.

For examaple, under the Commander-in-Chief Clause alone -- at least as it has come to be understood in modern times -- the President has "inherent" authority: to set rules for the military; to establish courts martial and (possibly) military tribunals; to deploy troops; to govern and make rules for occupied territory; to seize enemy property (think of the Emancipation Proclamation); to engage in defensive military measures; even, to some undetermined and contested degree, to introduce troops into hostilities (e.g., Korea, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, etc.); and so on.

But this does not mean that Congress may not enact statutes to regulate these functions. Of course it can. For exmaple, the Court held in Swaim v. United States, 165 U.S. 553 (1897), that the President has inherent authority to convene courts-martial in the absence of statutory authority. But that doesn't mean that Congress cannot, by statute, regulate how such courts-martial will operate. And once it does so, the President is bound to comply with statutory limits. See Loving v. United States, 517 U.S. 738 (1996).

Similarly, in Hamdan itself, the Court assumed for purposes of argument (see top of page 28) what has been assumed since the Civil War, namely, that the President may constitutionally convene military commissions to try suspected enemies for violations of the laws of war without the sanction of Congress in cases of controlling necessity. But, the Court went on to explain, "Whether or not the President has independent power, absent congressional authorization, to convene military commissions, he may not disregard limitations that Congress has, in proper exercise of its own war powers, placed on his powers. See Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U. S. 579, 637 (1952) (Jackson, J., concurring)."

In other words, deciding that a presidential power is "inherent" or "independent" does not begin to answer the question of whether it is defeasible, or regulable, by statute.

Thus, even if those courts of appeals you cite were correct that the President would have "inherent" constitutional authority to engage in warrantless electronic surveiilance, FISA placed limits on such surveillance and specifically restricted the President from doing what his "inherent" powers might allow. That limitation is perfectly constitutional. Nor did the courts of appeals in those cases suggest otherwise. To the contrary, in the one case decided after enactment of FISA, United States v. Truong Dihn Hung, the court indicated that FISA’s restrictions were constitutional. See 629 F.2d at 915 n.4 (noting that "the imposition of a warrant requirement, beyond the constitutional minimum described in this opinion, should be left to the intricate balancing performed in the course of the legislative process by Congress and the President").

Therefore the provisions of your bill that would elimimate that "exclusive means" restriction, and that would expressly reinstate a provision ceding the President the right to act in accord with his inherent powers, would undo FISA altogether and work a radical change in the law that has governed surveillance for almost 30 years. Perhaps that would be advisable social policy; perhaps not. But it would decidedly not be business as usual. See my previous post here, and Patrick Keefe in Slate today, summarizing the radical changes in the Specter bill.

For further explanation, see our letters here and (most recently) here, and Jack Balkin's Youngstown primer post here. And Walter Dellinger to similar effect (with a similar plea to Senator Specter) in the immediate wake of Hamdan.

Hope this clarifies matters. At the very least, all this confusion with respect to the notion of "inherent" powers -- as if such an adjective were in the Constitution itself! -- is proof-positive that we ought to heed Justice Jackson’s caution that "[l]oose and irresponsible use of adjectives colors all non-legal and much legal discussion of presidential powers," and that terms such as "'[i]nherent' powers, 'implied' powers, 'incidental' powers, 'plenary' powers, 'war' powers and 'emergency' powers" are often bandied about "without fixed or ascertainable meanings." 343 U.S. at 646-647.




What good does it do to find away around the state secrets doctrine if the price you pay for accomplishing that is legalizing the program?!?

Passing this bill would moot the most serious legal issues raised by the various lawsuits, leaving only the 4th amendment question, which might well be decided in the president's favor.

It seems to me vast extrapolation for CinC powers invocation as the means to assure utter stealth to administrative fiat, which is what I see in Specter's draft: whatever Gonzales swears belongs only before FISC goes there for one year without review. That's working from the ten-minute draft Sen Specter published almost a week ago. I need to do as ML and others have done, and review the subsequent hearing which has taken place. I would be agreeing more with the Specterization of FISC if I trusted every future AG to hew to the letter of the law and make secret only what is essential to seal. As I read the VWalker decision from the denial of MTD in the ATT secrets case issued today, I observed that there is a separate place on the internet that shows what Air Force claimed were secrets when later released under FOIA so some widows could read the cause of a plane crash, turned out to be not so secret, but more the kind of classification that belonged mostly in a rearguard action file. Judge Walker's history cites that case based on the kinds of tests it clarified; but, that document, as well, I continue studying. I am glad your associates are on the forefront exposing the specious turns of phrase and convenient absence of precedents in Sen Specter's draft.
After the Harman thread the other day, I reviewed that link; it was their side of the aisle's draft from months ago; though I have yet to find the Heather Wilson reproposal along Republican thoughtways, promised for reading yesterday in the lower chamber.
The entire Specter view in the FISA matter continues to evoke the same sensibility that JB pegged a few weeks ago nearby, that once lubricated the executive unitary way of effecting regulatory exercise of power is a self propagating modality that plunges ever farther away from the fairness standards of ordinary checks and balances, all in the name of the worrisome counterpoint of civil insult caused by terrorists. It is as if only part of the government is functioning, and mostly in secret here.

Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I'm not living.
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