FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Unitary King George

by MARJORIE COHN

As the nation focused on whether Congress would exercise its constitutional duty to cut funding for the war, Bush quietly issued an unconstitutional bombshell that went virtually unnoticed by the corporate media.

The National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive, signed on May 9, 2007, would place all governmental power in the hands of the President and effectively abolish the checks and balances in the Constitution.

If a “catastrophic emergency”–which could include a terrorist attack or a natural disaster–occurs, Bush’s new directive says: “The President shall lead the activities of the Federal Government for ensuring constitutional government.”

What about the other two co-equal branches of government? The directive throws them a bone by speaking of a “cooperative effort” among the three branches, “coordinated by the President, as a matter of comity with respect to the legislative and judicial branches and with proper respect for the constitutional separation of powers.” The Vice-President would help to implement the plans.

“Comity,” however, means courtesy, and the President would decide what kind of respect for the other two branches of government would be “proper.” This Presidential Directive is a blatant power grab by Bush to institutionalize “the unitary executive.”

A seemingly innocuous phrase, the unitary executive theory actually represents a radical, ultra rightwing interpretation of the powers of the presidency. Championed by the conservative Federalist Society, the unitary executive doctrine gathers all power in the hands of the President and insulates him from any oversight by the congressional or judicial branches.

In a November 2000 speech to the Federalist Society, then Judge Samuel Alito said the Constitution “makes the president the head of the executive branch, but it does more than that. The president has not just some executive powers, but the executive power — the whole thing.”

These “unitarians” claim that all federal agencies, even those constitutionally created by Congress, are beholden to the Chief Executive, that is, the President. This means that Bush could disband agencies like the Federal Communications Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Reserve Board, etc., if they weren’t to his liking.

Indeed, Bush signed an executive order stating that each federal agency must have a regulatory policy office run by a political appointee. Consumer advocates were concerned that this directive was aimed at weakening the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The unitary executive dogma represents audacious presidential overreaching into the constitutional province of the other two branches of government.

This doctrine took shape within the Bush administration shortly after 9/11. On September 25, 2001, former deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo used the words “unitary executive” in a memo he wrote for the White House: “The centralization of authority in the president alone is particularly crucial in matters of national defense, war, and foreign policy, where a unitary executive can evaluate threats, consider policy choices, and mobilize national resources with a speed and energy that is far superior to any other branch.” Six weeks later, Bush began using that phrase in his signing statements.

As of December 22, 2006, Bush had used the words “unitary executive” 145 times in his signing statements and executive orders. Yoo, one of the chief architects of Bush’s doctrine of unfettered executive power, wrote memoranda advising Bush that because he was commander in chief, he could make war any time he thought there was a threat, and he didn’t have to comply with the Geneva Conventions.

In a 2005 debate with Notre Dame professor Doug Cassel, Yoo argued there is no law that could prevent the President from ordering that a young child of a suspect in custody be tortured, even by crushing the child’s testicles.

The unitary executive theory has already cropped up in Supreme Court opinions. In his lone dissent in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, Justice Clarence Thomas cited “the structural advantages of a unitary Executive.” He disagreed with the Court that due process demands an American citizen held in the United States as an enemy combatant be given a meaningful opportunity to contest the factual basis for that detention before a neutral decision maker. Thomas wrote, “Congress, to be sure, has a substantial and essential role in both foreign affairs and national security. But it is crucial to recognize that judicial interference in these domains destroys the purpose of vesting primary responsibility in a unitary Executive.”

Justice Thomas’s theory fails to recognize why our Constitution provides for three co-equal branches of government.

In 1926, Justice Louis Brandeis explained the constitutional role of the separation of powers. He wrote, “The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted by the convention of 1787 not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was not to avoid friction, but, by means of the inevitable friction incident to the distribution of the governmental powers among three departments, to save the people from autocracy.”

Eighty years later, noted conservative Grover Norquist, describing the unitary executive theory, echoed Brandeis’s sentiment. Norquist said, “you don’t have a constitution; you have a king.”

One wonders what Bush & Co. are setting up with the new Presidential Directive. What if, heaven forbid, some sort of catastrophic event were to occur just before the 2008 election? Bush could use this directive to suspend the election. This administration has gone to great lengths to remain in Iraq. It has built huge permanent military bases and pushed to privatize Iraq’s oil. Bush and Cheney may be unwilling to relinquish power to a successor administration.

MARJORIE COHN is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and president of the National Lawyers Guild. Her new book, Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law, will be published in July. See http://www.marjoriecohn.com/.

 

 

More articles by:

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National Lawyers Guild. She writes, speaks and does media about human rights and U.S. foreign policy. Her most recent book is “Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.” Visit her website at http://marjoriecohn.com/ and follow her on Twitter at @marjoriecohn.

January 22, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
It’s Time to Call Economic Sanctions What They Are: War Crimes
Jim Kavanagh
Behind the Money Curtain: A Left Take on Taxes, Spending and Modern Monetary Theory
Sheldon Richman
Trump Versus the World
Mark Schuller
One Year On, Reflecting and Refining Tactics to Take Our Country Back
Winslow Wheeler
Just What Eamark “Moratorium” are They Talking About?
W. T. Whitney
José Martí, Soul of the Cuban Revolution
Uri Avnery
May Your Home Be Destroyed          
Wim Laven
Year One Report Card: Donald Trump Failing
Jill Richardson
There Are No Shithole Countries
Bob Fitrakis - Harvey Wasserman
Are the Supremes About to Give Trump a Second Term?
Laura Finley
After #MeToo and #TimesUp
stclair
Impressions From the Women’s March
Andy Thayer
HuffPost: “We Really LOVED Your Contributions, Now FUCK OFF!”
Weekend Edition
January 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Dr. King’s Long Assassination
David Roediger
A House is Not a Hole: (Not) Caring about What Trump Says
George Burchett
How the CIA Tried to Bribe Wilfred Burchett
Mike Whitney
Trump’s Plan B for Syria: Occupation and Intimidation
Michael Hudson – Charles Goodhart
Could/Should Jubilee Debt Cancellations be Reintroduced Today?
Marshall Auerback – Franklin C. Spinney
Boss Tweet’s Generals Already Run the Show
Andrew Levine
Remember, Democrats are Awful Too
James Bovard
Why Ruby Ridge Still Matters
Wilfred Burchett
The Bug Offensive
Brian Cloughley
Now Trump Menaces Pakistan
Ron Jacobs
Whiteness and Working Folks
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Keeper of Crazy Beats: Charlie Haden and Music as a Force of Liberation
Robert Fantina
Palestine and Israeli Recognition
Jan Oberg
The New US Syria “Strategy”, a Recipe For Continued Disaster
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
The Return of the Repressed
Mel Gurtov
Dubious Partnership: The US and Saudi Arabia
Robert Fisk
The Next Kurdish War Looms on the Horizon
Lawrence Davidson
Contextualizing Sexual Harassment
Jeff Berg
Approaching Day Zero
Karl Grossman
Disaster Island
Thomas S. Harrington
What Nerve! In Catalonia They are Once Again Trying to Swear in the Coalition that Won the Most Votes
Pepe Escobar
Rome: A Eulogy
Robert Hunziker
Will Aliens Save Humanity?
Jonah Raskin
“Can’t Put the Pot Genie Back in the Bottle”: An Interview with CAL NORML’s Dale Gieringer
Stepan Hobza
Beckett, Ionesco, and Trump
Joseph Natoli
The ‘Worlding’ of the Party-less
Julia Stein
The Myths of Housing Policy
George Ochenski
Zinke’s Purge at Interior
Christopher Brauchli
How Trump Killed the Asterisk
Rosemary Mason - Colin Todhunter
Corporate Monopolies Will Accelerate the Globalisation of Bad Food, Poor Health and Environmental Catastrophe
Michael J. Sainato
U.S Prisons Are Ending In-Person Visits, Cutting Down On Reading Books
Michael Barker
Blame Game: Carillion or Capitalism?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail