Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Can the President unilaterally refuse to enforce a law?

President Obama's decision last week to suspend the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act may be welcome relief to businesses affected by this provision, but it raises grave concerns about his understanding of the role of the executive in our system of government.

Article II, Section 3, of the Constitution states that the president "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." This is a duty, not a discretionary power. ...

This matter—the limits of executive power—has deep historical roots. During the period of royal absolutism, English monarchs asserted a right to dispense with parliamentary statutes they disliked. King James II's use of the prerogative was a key grievance that lead to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. ...

The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the president on legal and constitutional issues, has repeatedly opined that the president may decline to enforce laws he believes are unconstitutional. But these opinions have always insisted that the president has no authority, as one such memo put it in 1990, to "refuse to enforce a statute he opposes for policy reasons."

Attorneys general under Presidents Carter, Reagan, both Bushes and Clinton all agreed on this point. ...

In 1998, the Supreme Court struck down a congressional grant of line-item veto authority to the president to cancel spending items in appropriations. The reason? The only constitutional power the president has to suspend or repeal statutes is to veto a bill or propose new legislation. ...

This is not the first time Mr. Obama has suspended the operation of statutes by executive decree, but it is the most barefaced. ...

Democrats too may acquiesce in Mr. Obama's action, as they have his other aggressive assertions of executive power. Yet what will they say when a Republican president decides that the tax rate on capital gains is a drag on economic growth and instructs the IRS not to enforce it?

And what of immigration reform? Why bother debating the details of a compromise if future presidents will feel free to disregard those parts of the statute that they don't like?

The courts cannot be counted on to intervene in cases like this. As the Supreme Court recently held in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the same-sex marriage case involving California's Proposition 8, private citizens do not have standing in court to challenge the executive's refusal to enforce laws, unless they have a personal stake in the matter. If a president declines to enforce tax laws, immigration laws, or restrictions on spending—to name a few plausible examples—it is very likely that no one will have standing to sue.
--Former Tenth Circuit judge Michael McConnell, WSJ, on why we should worry about the employee mandate delay