The Most Dangerous Branch Abroad

By Flaherty, Martin S. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

The Most Dangerous Branch Abroad


Flaherty, Martin S., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


INTRODUCTION

Let me start by pledging allegiance, at least for the purposes of this exchange, to several principles of constitutional interpretation that I suspect command widespread support among a group of Federalist Society members such as this. First, I proceed on the premise that the basic interpretive methodology applied to constitutional foreign affairs questions should be the same as to domestic affairs. I therefore decline the invitation to indulge in what has been termed "foreign affairs exceptionalism." (1) Second, and perhaps with greater personal pain, I decline the invitation to indulge in any number of progressive, avant-garde, or unconventional constitutional theories, regardless of what merit they may otherwise have. Thus, I will not defend my positions based upon unconventional views about constitutional higher lawmaking, (2) representation reinforcement or other process-based theories, (3) morally inflected interpretivism, (4) or natural law. (5) Rather, I proceed based upon good old Federalist Society-style text, history (in the sense of original understanding and ongoing custom), and structure. (6) However conventional, this hoary methodology compels only one conclusion: rejection of even the laudably moderate version of the executive foreign affairs authority theory espoused by Professor Ramsey.

In Professor Ramsey's view, the term "executive Power" in Article II includes at least some residual foreign affairs authority. (7) Therefore, according to Professor Ramsey, the default position under the Constitution is that the text does not allocate a foreign affairs power within the government, it falls, without more, to the President. (8) Elsewhere, Professor Curtis Bradley and I have termed this position the "Vesting Clause Thesis," or more broadly, "executive essentialism," (9) because it is premised on the view that a general foreign affairs power is an essential, inherent component of the "executive Power" and that the Executive Vesting Clause allocates this subcategory of executive authority to "a President of the United States of America." (10)

Now, there are stronger and softer versions of this view. Used in the wrong hands--such as those of John Yoo--the Vesting Clause Thesis, in its most potent form, could be applied not just to supplement presidential power in areas in which there is no clear grant of authority to the other branches, but as a way to foil attempts by Congress to exercise even clearly specified authority in "executive foreign affairs" areas. Accordingly, Professor Yoo has argued that the Executive's foreign affairs power is not merely residual but, in broadly defined areas, nothing short of exclusive. (11) It therefore follows that the President's general executive foreign affairs authority provides one basis for the Executive to ignore conflicting federal statutes--even and including, to take one notorious example, acts of Congress prohibiting torture (12)--should the President deem that mistreatment of detainees might yield valuable information in the "Global War on Terrorism." (13) Professor Ramsey does not go that far, and I commend him for that. Indeed, his full theory puts forward a robust vision of what legislative power in the foreign affairs domain is, and further provides that Congress should generally prevail when acting in its domain. (14) Indeed, the irony in all of this is that doctrinally, Professor Ramsey and I actually are not that far apart.

Yet, even in its kinder, gentler form, the Vesting Clause Thesis cannot and should not pass constitutional muster. As argued below, the thesis fails on the grounds that conventional methods of constitutional interpretation do not sustain it. Ordinarily, that would be reason enough to oppose what would prove to be a fairly radical constitutional innovation. Executive power essentialism, however, presents a further set of practical considerations that counsel its rejection. Simply put, it offers a simple rhetorical trope so powerful that it can and does fall into the wrong hands too readily.

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