by John Grove
Earlier this week, Professor Hubbard made the important observation that President Trump’s declaration of emergency must be considered within a historical and constitutional context. I disagree, however, with Professor Hubbard’s general view that the use of domestic emergency powers can be seen as an outgrowth of our constitutional system of separated powers, so long as it is utilized with circumspection and is subject to judicial review. Instead, I believe presidential emergencies are fundamentally at odds with the principle of the separation of powers and pose a significant challenge to that view of our constitutional system.
Professor Hubbard is correct to suggest that the constitutional framers expected the President to be able to act with speed and unity in times of national crisis. However, their final product does not contain any indication that presidents would, after the declaration of a crisis, have constitutional authority to exercise powers beyond those delegated by Article II.
The constitution itself does not grant any specific authority on the part of the executive to suspend the normal operation of law and take on new powers. If we are to find any such constitutional authority, it must be derived from Article II, Sec. 1, which states that the “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America,” or Article II, Sec. 3 which states that the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” This latter source I find untenable, as modern emergency declarations do not execute laws but alter them. It may be argued that identifying times of crisis and utilizing the whole force of the nation in the manner best suited to address that crisis is an inherent part of “executive power” and, therefore, is constitutionally assigned to the president by Article II, Sec. 1, however.
There may be some evidence for this. It has long been argued that there are certain exigencies to which a legislative body, with its deliberate and slow character, cannot adequately respond. John Locke, for instance, argued that the executive authority possessed “prerogative” powers to act for the good of society outside the established law if and when the legislature is unable to act. Yet, by the time the constitution was ratified, prerogative powers in Great Britain had been systematized and limited, and many powers considered to be prerogatives of the Crown, such as the pardon power and refusal of the royal assent (veto), when incorporated into the American constitution, were specifically codified and listed. They were not left to the discretion of the president. Furthermore, the only power the constitution specifically recognizes to suspend the normal legal order in time of crisis is the authority to suspend habeas corpus. This is, however (Abraham Lincoln’s example notwithstanding), granted to Congress in Article I, not to the president.
While presidents continue to make rhetorical appeals to an inherent constitutional authority to declare emergencies, most declarations (and, indeed, all which abide by the requirements of the National Emergencies Act), rely upon specific statutes passed by Congress which authorize presidential actions in certain circumstances. Here, I believe, is the real origin of contemporary emergency declarations. Over the years, Congress has regularly and willingly ceded its decision-making authority to the executive for the sake of ease, efficiency and flexibility. This is not limited to times of emergency, as the vast majority of domestic regulation empowers executive branch agencies to decide, through administrative rule-making, substantive regulations. Declarations of emergency merely highlight this tendency in starker relief. The separation of powers has some drawbacks and one of them is that it makes it difficult to speedily adopt new policies. The regular use of national emergencies addresses this problem, but it does so from outside the framework of separated powers, as it allows for the executive branch to exercise legislative power.
Consider the National Emergencies Act. This law was intended as a restriction on presidential authority to declare emergencies, yet it still authorized the president, without Congressional input, to unilaterally decide when an emergency exists, and to identify what powers he would wield to rectify it: A remarkable power. Congress initially seemed to understand just how much authority they were ceding to the president, as the original version of the National Emergencies Act allowed Congress to override a president’s declaration of emergency with a simple majority vote of both houses (the president being unable to veto the resolution). In 1983, however, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not simply abolish the presidential veto for certain acts of Congress, and found that portion of the act unconstitutional. The Court, thereby, made Congress choose: Either allow the president unilateral authority to declare an emergency – knowing it can only be rejected by overriding the president’s veto – or refuse to allow the executive to usurp your legislative authority. Congress chose the former and amended the National Emergencies Act to allow presidents to veto a Congressional resolution overruling an emergency declaration, essentially removing Congress’s oversight of such acts. This is what happened last week.
Another difficulty that arises from viewing presidential emergencies as simply one part of the system of separated power is the role of the courts. Professor Hubbard suggests that the Supreme Court ought to have final say on whether a president has overstepped his constitutional authority in a given emergency, just as it does on other separation of powers issues. But the Court can and should not play arbiter of what constitutes a national emergency or crisis. This is the essence of what the Court has called a “political question” with no clear legal answer. What does “crisis” mean? What circumstances justify a new, immediate and extra-legislative response? These are questions with no legal or constitutional answer and ought to be reserved for the political branches of government to decide. The Court should, of course, police the actions presidents take in the name of a national emergency to protect the rights of citizens, as it most famously did in the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company case, but it cannot take it upon itself to decide what does and does not constitute an emergency.
This brings us back to Congress. It is Congress which possesses the constitutional authority to decide what policies and funding are appropriate in what circumstances, and it is Congress which ought to restrain presidential actions. Long ago, executive prerogative was justified by observing that legislatures were often not in session and could not easily be recalled to address a pressing crisis. In the age of internet communication, cell phones and air travel, we ought to consider whether this is still a necessity, or whether it might not be appropriate for Congress to retake its legislative authority.