Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Can the President refuse to defend a law?

After it was announced that the Obama Administration would no longer defend DOMA in court, Republican Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown had the following comment today:

"...We can't have presidents deciding what laws are constitutional and what laws are not. That is a function of the judicial branch, not the executive."

Brown is echoing what many Republicans have said. He is also betraying his own ignorance of the American political system. As a sitting United States Senator, that is rather sad.

In reality, *no* branch of government has been designated the specific function of declaring laws unconstitutional - not even the Judiciary. While it is often said the Judiciary fills that role, the fact is that nowhere does the US Constitution authorize the Supreme Court to do so. The seed of that 'authority' was planted in 1803, when the Court decided in Marbury vs. Madison that a Congressionally-enacted law was invalid due to its unconstitutionality.

However, the development of that authority within the Judiciary does not mean that other branches of government are free to ignore issues on Constitutionality. When the President takes his oath of office, he specifically swears the following:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

The President takes an oath to defend the US Constitution. He is not defending the Constitution if he or his administration are trying to preserve laws which violate that same Constitution.

The error Scott Brown makes - and one which many critics of Obama's decision are making - is the adoption of a simplistic view of government that ignores the overriding importance of the concept of the separation and balance of powers between the three branches of government.

On a simple level, it is often said that the Legislature "makes" the laws, and the Executive "carries out the laws." But that view skews the balance of power and makes it appear as if the President is merely a servant or administrator to Congress, whose only function is to do as he is told. Such a view sees the Legislature as superior to the President, and able to order him about to carry out their orders.

That is NOT how the structure of our national government was envisioned. Rather, it was conceived as being comprised of three separate branches, co-equal, each providing checks and balances to the others...and deliberately inefficient and inexact in the exercise of its powers. The ability of one branch to "check" another branch is one of the most basic features of the American System.

In 1788, within months of the adoption of the Constitution, James Madison, quoting the great political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, wrote in Federalist Paper No. 47,

"When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body," says he, "there can be no liberty, because apprehensions may arise lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws to execute them in a tyrannical manner."

In other words, when these two branches 'merge' - or when one branch of government has the authority both to create laws AND force them to be carried out - tyranny may result.

It IS the President's responsibility to defend the Constitution...just as it is the Legislature's responsibility, AND the Judiciary's responsibility. No branch of government is 'superior,' and none is merely a servant to carry out the wishes of the other.

We see this all the time in less controversial settings:

Congress passes a law, and the Supreme Court refuses to convict someone under it.

The President authorizes a program, and Congress refuses to authorize spending to carry it out.

A Legislature passes laws against smoking marijuana, and the Executive branch (Mayors, Police Departments) choose NOT to enforce that law during a huge rock concert.

A president nominates Judges and Cabinet Appointees, and the Senate refuses to vote them up or down.

This happens on a regular basis. There is nothing different in the present case. Congress passed a law, DOMA, that is clearly Unconstitutional on multiple levels. Several Courts have already held that DOMA is Unconstitutional. The President is merely carrying out his responsibilities under the US Constitution to defend that document against laws which violate both its letter and spirit. It is a messy system, but it is messy on purpose...and any effort to insist that the President merely do as Congress tells him is certainly as un-American as it gets.

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