three branches of government

How America developed its Constitution

Posted on October 14, 2018. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Colonial America, Politics, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Here in part 5 of our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of American political thinking in the transitional decade of the 1760s, we come to the second revolution in political thinking that occurred in a very short period: the idea of a constitution of principles.

English legal tradition had defined the “constitution” as the legislature itself–“a legal constitution, that is, a legislature”, as Richard Bland put it. Bailyn describes how the work of the American lawyer James Otis began to articulate a new definition of a constitution as a moral foundation for the work of a legislature, a set of principles that informed and put boundaries on what a legislature could do. Bailyn sums this up as “a set of fixed principles and rules distinguishable from, antecedent to, more fundamental than, and controlling the operating institutions of government” (176).

In this understanding, a constitution authorized and limited the legislature’s actions. Since all of this thinking was going on in the context of English law, the question of whether a constitution authorized and limited the monarch’s actions did not come into play. And as we know, after the Revolution there was still substantial support in the new United States for a monarch-like president who stood above the law. But the idea that Congress, House and Senate, had to abide by a constitution of principles was firmly established–so much so that the American people famously demanded a Bill of their rights be added to the Constitution that they, the people, ratified, so that Congress would be clearly bound to protect principles of personal liberty, and, even more important to people at the time, restrained, constrained, and prevented from expanding its powers and becoming tyrannical.

But that’s leaping ahead. During the period 1765-1775, Americans were working out the first step, which was how to define the principles a constitution should uphold. Were they simply the recognized legal principles handed down from legislature to legislature over the centuries of English practice? Were they religious principles of Anglican Christianity? Were they the new and radical tenets of natural law? It was easier to use the term “fundamental law” and “formal principles” than to define them, especially in America, where there had been so much steely and deliberate resistance to the idea of men in a legislature serving any other principle than “I will follow the orders my townspeople gave me.”

Otis wrote that Parliament could not be allowed to violate natural laws “which are immutably true,” because that would violate “eternal truth, equity, and justice,” and therefore any act of Parliament that violated natural law would be “void.” But how do we define what is “immutably true”? How do we come to agree on what is eternally true, fair, and just? What we discover is that the foundation of any constitution is a shared agreement on, and belief in, some powerful concepts of truth, fairness, and justice.

We see this shared agreement stated elegantly in the opening words of our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We hold these truths–it took years of debate, ten thousand letters and editorial essays printed in newspapers, tens of thousands of sheets of paper, a million letters between Americans, and countless millions of conversations in taverns, family homes, business offices, and farm fields to define who “We” were and what the “truth” was. That all this intellectual activity was compressed into about 10 years–1765-1776–is remarkable, and shows how important those definitions were to Americans at all levels of society. The same debate went on for another ten years, until our Constitution was drafted in 1787.

Even Otis did not go as far as his fellow Revolutionaries would. He did not believe that a constitution would “furnish judges with grounds for declaring [laws] nonexistent because they conflicted with the ‘constitution,’ but only[provide] judges with principles of interpretation by which to modify gross inequities in ways that would allow traditional [definitions] of justice to prevail.” [180] The idea that inherited laws and legal procedures, inherited concepts of law that were centuries-old, should still stand as the test of whether an act of Parliament was valid would be vehemently discarded by the men who wrote our Declaration and, eventually, our Constitution. Longevity was not truth, tradition was not equity.

We’ll continue next time with the path to concretizing the new American idea(l) of a modern constitution of principle.

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President Trump cannot fire Robert Mueller

Posted on February 6, 2018. Filed under: Politics, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , |

When we decided to write a series on Watergate back in 2014, we did not know how pertinent it would become just three years later.

We re-ran this post in January 2017, in response to the Trump Administration’s sudden firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates. As we said at the time, “President Trump firing an attorney general who stood up to his unconstitutional requests is all too reminiscent of a horrible 24 hours in our nation’s history, when President Nixon tried to fire his attorney general for refusing to help Nixon break the law. Two attorneys general would resign in what was called the Saturday Night Massacre.”

Today, the deja-vu continues. We’re rerunning our January 2017 rerun of the September 2014 Saturday Night Massacre post with heavy hearts but every hope that most Americans will stand unwavering in support of our democratic process in the face of Trump’s threats to fire the Special Prosecutor of the Russian investigation, Robert Mueller.

If you don’t want to read about the terrible parallel to Watergate, here’s the argument in a nutshell: Trump cannot fire Mueller because Mueller is protected from just that sort of intimidation. The special counsel cannot be fired by the president he is investigating because the president doesn’t want to be investigated. FactCheck.org puts it well:

Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation, the decision to appoint a special counsel fell to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. In his order making the appointment, Rosenstein cited federal regulations issued by the attorney general in 1999, 28 C.F.R. § 600.4-600.10. The rules were drafted in the wake of the Kenneth Starr investigation of President Bill Clinton.

According to those regulations, a special counsel “may be disciplined or removed from office only by the personal action of the Attorney General” (or in this case, the acting attorney general). And Rosenstein can’t just do it on a whim, either. According to the regulation, special counsel can only be removed “for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies.”

In a Senate hearing on June 13, Rosenstein said he alone exercises firing authority, and that he had not seen any evidence of good cause for firing Mueller.

“It’s certainly theoretically possible that the attorney general could fire him, but that’s the only person who has authority to fire him,” Rosenstein said. “And in fact, the chain of command for the special counsel is only directly to the attorney general, in this case the acting attorney general.”

Only the deputy attorney general who appointed Mueller can fire him and only for cause. But Trump could fire the DAG, or order the special-counsel regulations repealed and fire Mueller himself.

That said, let’s revisit Watergate and the Saturday Night Massacre, when the president tried to indirectly fire the special prosecutor:

It’s post 5 in our series on the Watergate crisis, and here we come to the most shocking part of the entire event, which is the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973. We left off last time with the forced resignations and false confessions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and the firing of John Dean for deciding he would tell all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee. Bear in mind that Dean knew that the original break-in had been carried out by CREEP and approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell, and he knew that the president had ordered evidence to be destroyed and people to be paid off to keep quiet, but he did not know that Nixon had tried to stop the FBI investigation. No one but Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman knew that. The only way anyone else could find that out was if they listened to the secret tape recordings Nixon made of all of his conversations, including the one we mentioned last time from June 23, 1972—six days after the break-in—in which Nixon told Haldeman to have the CIA director, Richard Helms, call the head of the FBI, Patrick Gray, and tell him to “stay the hell out of this” in the name of national security. Luckily, only a handful of men in Nixon’s administration knew about the tapes. Unluckily for Nixon, one of them told all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee, on live national TV.

On Friday the 13th, July 1973, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield was asked if there was any type of recording system used in the White House. After some prodding, Butterfield said there was, and that it automatically recorded every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Nixon’s private office. Three days later, after the weekend break, Butterfield reiterated this claim. Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon for these tapes. He wanted to listen to them and see if they showed that the president ordered the break-in, had tried to cover it up, or just knew about it. Nixon refused, citing executive privilege and again saying that national security would be damaged if the tapes were made public. Cox said he would only make public information relating to Watergate; if there was none, no part of the tapes would be made public. Nixon still refused and ordered Cox to rescind the subpoena, which Cox refused to do. On Friday, Nixon offered a compromise: he would allow Mississippi Senator John Stennis to listen to the tapes and write a summary of their contents. Cox refused. He did not trust Nixon to give Stennis access to tapes that would incriminate himself. The subpoena stood.

Now the events unfolded that would be called the Saturday Night Massacre, events which threatened the very basis of constitutional law in the U.S. It’s hard to believe that finding out that the president had tried to obstruct a criminal investigation to protect the criminals could be overshadowed by any other of his actions, but what Nixon ordered on Saturday, October 20, 1973 surpasses even that obstruction of justice in its seriousness.

That morning, Nixon told his chief of staff Alexander Haig to call his new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and tell him to fire Cox. Richardson had just been appointed as Attorney General by Nixon in April after the “resignation” of John Dean. A few days earlier, on Thursday, Richardson had met with Nixon and learned that he wanted Cox fired if he wouldn’t accept the Stennis compromise. Richardson told the president he felt sure Cox would accept it, but left the meeting already resolved to resign if Cox didn’t. He knew that Nixon would ask him to fire Cox because only Richardson could: as Attorney General, he had appointed Cox as special prosecutor, and only he could fire him. Richardson did not believe the refusal to accept the Stennis compromise was grounds to fire Cox, but Nixon did. After that Thursday meeting, he told Haig “No more tapes, no more documents, nothing more! I want an order from me to Elliot to Cox to that effect now.”

When Haig called Richardson at 7.00 on Friday night to tell him to fire Cox, Richardson refused, saying he would resign instead. As this was happening, Cox (unaware of this call) issued a statement to the press just in time for the evening deadline saying that the president was refusing to comply with a court order “in violation of the promises which the Attorney General made to the Senate” that the Watergate break-in would be investigated thoroughly. Cox’s statement was front-page on Saturday morning, and he was planning to hold a press conference at 1.00. Richardson phoned Cox to tell him what had happened. At the press conference, Cox reminded reporters that only the Attorney General could fire him. Meanwhile, Haig phoned Richardson again and ordered him to fire Cox; Richardson refused. Knowing what would happen next, Richardson met with his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, and told him that he, Ruckelshaus, would be asked to fire Cox once Richardson’s resignation was made public. Ruckelshaus said he would not do it and that he, too, would resign.

Nixon summoned Richardson to his office and told him that if he didn’t fire Cox, Nixon couldn’t meet with the Soviet Premier to work out a solution to the crisis in the Middle East because Brezhnev wouldn’t respect a man who was being publicly defied by a subordinate. Again Richardson refused, and Nixon said “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.” Richardson resigned. As Richardson left, Haig was on the phone to Ruckelshaus, telling him to fire Cox. When he balked, Haig barked “Your commander in chief has given you an order! You have no alternative.” Undaunted, Ruckelshaus replied, “Except to resign”, which he did. Finally, Nixon sent a limousine to pick up Solicitor General Robert Bork from his home and bring him to the White House. There, Nixon told him to fire Cox. He had a letter of dismissal ready, waiting for Bork’s signature. Intimidated, Bork signed it. Nixon told him, “You’ve got guts.”

At 8.25 that evening, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler held a press conference announcing the resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and the firing of Cox, saying “the office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished as of approximately 8 PM tonight.”

The nation was shocked. The way they experienced it, they woke up to read Cox’s claim that the president was refusing to obey a court order. Then they watched his press conference at 1.00 PM where he outlined his rightful claim for the tapes. Then they heard an 8.25 PM press conference saying that Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus were all fired, and that the president had declared the Watergate investigation over. It was abundantly clear that Nixon had eliminated three men whom he was afraid of—what was he afraid of? What did he think they would discover if they had the tapes? And more importantly, would the president’s illegal, unconstitutional firing of the special prosecutor be allowed to stand? was the president above the law? Could he do whatever he wanted, no matter what? As commander in chief, if he committed a crime, did the American people “have no alternative” but to let him do it, and to quietly accept an imperial presidency?

The name “Saturday Night Massacre” may seem overdone—like the “Boston Massacre”, in which only five people died. But what was being massacred was the Constitution, separation of powers, and the rule of law that said that in the U.S. no one, no matter their position, is above the law. The coverage on the news that night reiterated this perception of danger:

John Chancellor, NBC News: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nixon had thrown down a gauntlet to the nation: you must accept my power to live above the law. I will not be questioned. How would the nation react?

 

And now back to the present, February 2018:

Just as members of our federal government rose up to save the Constitution and the United States in 1973, we must fight for our system of government, which explicitly says the president is not above the law. We, the people, do have “an alternative” if a president breaks the law—we impeach that president. Nixon’s actions posed “a grave and profound crisis”; so do Trump’s. How will the members of our federal government act in 2018?

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