Independent Agencies Must Follow the President’s Interpretations of Law


President Trump must soon decide whether to say “You’re fired” to Richard Cordray, the Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Cordray’s policies are clearly at odds with the deregulatory impulse of the administration, whose fate depends  on whether it can substantially increase prosperity beyond the sluggish growth of the Obama years.

The obstacle to getting rid of Cordray is that the statue setting up the CFPB permits the President to fire Cordray only on the basis of “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” One possibility would be to fire him anyway on the theory that the restriction is unconstitutional.   Indeed, in PHH Corp. v. CFPB, a panel of the District of Columbia Circuit held that it was unconstitutional to limit the President’s removal power over the director. It acknowledged that the Supreme Court has upheld insulating other executive agencies, like the FTC, from presidential removal.   But those independent agencies were directed by multi-member commissions composed of members from different parties. The panel concluded that CFPB lacks the important check of collegial, bipartisan control, concentrating power in a single official.  Thus, the Constitution required that the President have the power to remove him at will.

The difficulty with acting on the panel’s analysis is that the full District of Columbia Circuit has vacated the PHH ruling to hear the case en banc.  It is true that the President could still follow the reasoning of the panel ruling and dismiss Cordray. But that action would be portrayed by the press as flouting a judicial order, even though the President is not a party to PHH v. CFPB.   Moreover the President’s substantial latitude to decline to follow statutes that violate his constitutional authority is premised in part on the need to obtain judicial resolution. But here the issue would already be before a court.

The President has a better option, because he has the constitutional duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed. “

Read More

Trump’s High-Stakes Game of Chicken

In games of “chicken”—canonically, two teen boys drive their cars toward one another at breakneck speed, the one who swerves is “chicken” (and if neither swerves, then both lose and it’s small consolation to either that neither is “chicken”)—there are two ways to make the other guy swerve. One is a commitment mechanism: Tie down the steering wheel so it won’t swerve, jam the accelerator full down with a broom stick, and jump into the back seat. The second is to have the reputation of being crazy, as in being crazy enough not to swerve.

Acting crazy gets less respect than it should as a winning strategy in politics and other areas. North Korean dictators are given a wide berth in international affairs because the international community thinks they’re crazy. Overseas, George W. Bush was widely decried as a crazy belligerent. I often wondered whether he invited the reputation intentionally.

Read More

A Musth See


It’s probably a drag being a liberal, always boycotting things. A Progressive friend who was surprised by my politics once asked me how I could like Radiohead so much, considering its front man Thom Yorke is such a leftist. It seemed a logical error (the “moralistic boycotter’s fallacy”?). I don’t judge songs by the artist’s favorite color, either. The fact is, conservatives can’t afford to discriminate merely to maintain moral cleanliness. I wonder whose music my friend might allow me to enjoy. Kid Rock? (Blah.) Rush? (Eye roll.)

And anyway, even if an artist’s politics do affect his art, what a spiritual poverty to entertain, or be entertained by, only what confirms one’s convictions! As a psychological fact, for many the private determines the political; must we also allow the partisan to constrict the personal?

Read More

Has Originalism Been Tried?

Last weekend was the annual Originalism Works in Progress Conference at the University of San Diego.  It was another very enjoyable and productive event.  University of Michigan Law Professor, Richard Primus, who is a nonoriginalist and was in attendance, had some kind words to say about the conference in a recent blog post: I spent the weekend at a terrific conference at the Center for the Study of Originalism at the University of San Diego Law School.  There were good papers, insightful commentaries, sharp questions, and a general seriousness of engagement.  Most of the people in attendance were originalists.  I was…

Read More

Is the Supreme Court a Court?

Columns at the U.S. Supreme Court

Is the U.S. Supreme Court a court? On the one hand, the answer seems obvious. It says so right in there in the name. Plus, the justices wear those funny robes. Strong evidence, I admit. On the other hand, see every Supreme Court decision involving constitutional law over the past century and a half. I could rest my case there, but I haven’t gotten to the point yet. If the Supreme Court is a court, it is a weird one, and that often creates a great deal of confusion about how the Court does or should operate.

Generally speaking, we might think that a key characteristic of a court is that it resolves disputes in accord with some pre-established set of legal rules. It is not clear that the Supreme Court actually does that. The justices have relatively little interest in resolving disputes, and they have little concern for pre-established legal rules.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

Read More

Once and Future Originalism

A sign of originalism’s strength is the annual conference on the subject now held at San Diego Law School under the direction of Mike Rappaport.  It attracts prominent originalists and, as importantly, ever more critics of originalism who now take this enterprise seriously.  One of those critics, Richard Primus, has blogged about the conference in a friendly manner.  Nevertheless, he is not correct in his thesis that many, if not most, originalist theorists  believe that originalism has never been tried before.  I have never heard such a bald assertion from my colleagues.

And that proposition would be obviously wrong about the course of constitutional law. James Madison, widely regarded as the father of the Constitution, supported what is now called originalism:

I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified in the nation. In that sense alone, it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that not be the guide in expounding it, there can be no security for a consistent and stable exercise of its power.

A historian of constitutional law who is not himself originalist concurs that until the Progressive Era, nearly everyone appealed to originalist reasoning even if they at times disagreed to its outcome.

Read More

Of Sanctuaries and Sanctimony

There has been a lot of agitation and, predictably, litigation over the President’s firm intent to whip “sanctuary cities” into line. The general tenor of the online commentary has been “Federalism Lives!” exultation, from Left (Jeffrey Rosen) to Libertarian (my colleague Ilya Somin, whose post links to like-minded writers). Courtesy of the Rehnquist-Roberts Court’s constitutional doctrines on federal funding and “commandeering,” the chorus chimes, the President cannot do what he has proposed to do by executive order—yank federal funds from non-cooperative jurisdictions.

For reasons I’ll explain at somewhat painful length, it’s not at all certain he can. The “let’s hear it for federalism” folks may yet be right—but for somewhat different reasons than they think.

Read More

Against National Injunctions

The Trump executive order temporarily barring travelers from 7 countries has once again raised the issue of a single federal district court issuing a nationwide injunction.  This type of injunction was also used against the Obama Administration’s deferred action program (DAPA).  In my view, these type of injunctions are extremely problematic. Samuel Bray, an expert on equity, has written about the serious problems with these injunctions.  In this short piece, he notes three basic problems.  The first is the problem of forum shopping.  The plaintiff simply chooses an hospitable circuit in which to file the case.  The Ninth Circuit for the…

Read More

Capitalism According to Michael Novak


I met the late Michael Novak as the lone Protestant attending the first Tertio Millennio Seminar. The first year it was a month-long seminar held in Liechtenstein. The basic form continues today, with around ten U.S. students joining around twenty European students. The European students that first year were mainly eastern Europeans; it was just a few years after the wall fell. Joining Novak in organizing the first seminar were George Weigel, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Rocco Buttiglione, and Fr. Maciej Zieba, OP.

The centerpiece of the seminar was focused study of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus and, more broadly, Catholic social doctrine and teaching. Several American works were included at the time as well, including a couple of essays from The Federalist and a few selections from Novak’s book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

Read More

Public Citizen v. Trump: Roadmap for the Resistance

American candidate speaks to the people crowd

Eight days after President Trump signed his “One-In, Two-Out” Executive Order No. 13771, Public Citizen, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Communications Workers of America, and Earthjustice filed suit against the President and a dozen or so agency heads, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. That order, entitled Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs, instructs agencies to identify two old regulations for removal for each new rule they propose, and to limit net incremental regulatory costs to $0 in the remainder of fiscal year 2017. Plaintiffs allege that it would prevent agencies from maximizing the net benefits of regulation, thus depriving the…

Read More