Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

The Curious Case of the Pompous Postmaster: Myers V. United States

Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

The Curious Case of the Pompous Postmaster: Myers V. United States

Article excerpt

CONTENTS  I.   FRANK MYERS II.  WOODROW WILSON      A. Exigent Circumstances      B. Democratic Factionalism      C. Longstanding Political Philosophy      D. Frustration with Congress III. WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT IV. MYERS AS PRECEDENT AND AS SYMBOL 

Myers v. United States (1) is perhaps the leading Supreme Court case on the law of presidential power. The decision invalidated an 1872 law that required senatorial consent to the removal of local postmasters. Despite the seeming triviality of the office at issue, Myers clearly was a "great case." It was argued twice in the Court, the second time with Senator George Wharton Pepper appearing on behalf of Congress. (2) Chief Justice Taft's expansive opinion was not confined to the postmaster issue but went on to conclude that the Constitution gives the President unfettered power to remove nonjudicial appointees. These officials exercise executive power on behalf of the President, who must have implicit faith in their loyalty and trustworthiness. (3) This reasoning led to the conclusion that the Tenure of Office Act, (4) which precipitated the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and served as the model for the postmaster statute, was also unconstitutional. (5) Taft reached that bigger issue even though the Tenure of Office Act had been repealed almost forty years earlier. (6)

Myers initially was viewed as a sweeping endorsement of executive power, and in recent times its reasoning has been invoked as a vital precedent by adherents of the so-called unitary executive. But Myers has not always been so understood either by the bench or by the academy. The Court soon retreated from Chief Justice Taft's broad language and has not embraced the full implications of the Myers approach despite impassioned urging by judicial and academic advocates of the unitary executive theory. Nearly half a century later, nobody involved in the Watergate tapes case, United States v. Nixon, (7) noticed that the regulation which created the position of special prosecutor was inconsistent with Myers, and even Justice Scalia, the Court's most outspoken proponent of the unitary executive, overlooked the problem in one of his most impassioned dissenting opinions.

So Myers remains an important decision, but there are many perplexing aspects to it. For one thing, it has never been very clear why Frank Myers was removed from his position. Chief Justice Rehnquist has suggested that Myers might have "committed fraud in the course of his official duties" but cited no authority for this suspicion. (8) If Myers had been engaged in illegal or unethical activities, however, the administration almost certainly could have obtained the necessary senatorial consent to his ouster. That raises questions about why President Wilson transformed what appears to have been a minor personnel matter into a constitutional confrontation. In addition, Taft's majority opinion in Myers went well beyond what was necessary to resolve the case and ignored the position advanced by the solicitor general in support of Wilson's action. (9) The traditional jurisprudential preference for narrow decisions makes the breadth of the Myers opinion something of an anomaly that is worthy of explanation. Finally, perceptions of the Myers ruling have fluctuated over the years, suggesting the need to put the case into broader context.

This Article seeks to provide at least tentative answers to some of these questions. Part I outlines the facts leading to the lawsuit. Then Part II considers several possible explanations for why the Wilson administration might have forced the constitutional issue. Next, Part III examines Taft's position both as Chief Justice and as President in order to assess the widespread suggestion that his experience in both offices prompted him to write so expansively. Finally, Part IV explores the changing view of Myers both as a precedent and as a symbol of presidential power.


President Wilson appointed Frank Myers as postmaster of Portland, Oregon, for a four-year term in April 1913. …

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