Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances



Section 1. All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.


The Constitution nowhere contains an express injunction to preserve the boundaries of the three broad powers it grants, nor does it expressly enjoin maintenance of a system of checks and balances. Yet, it does grant to three separate branches the powers to legislate, to execute, and to adjudicate, and it provides throughout the document the means by which each of the branches could resist the blandishments and incursions of the others. The Framers drew up our basic charter against a background rich in the theorizing of scholars and statesmen regarding the proper ordering in a system of government of conferring sufficient power to govern while withholding the ability to abridge the liberties of the governed.1

The Theory Elaborated and Implemented

When the colonies separated from Great Britain following the Revolution, the framers of their constitutions were imbued with the profound tradition of separation of powers, and they freely and expressly embodied the principle in their charters.2 But the theory of checks and balances was not favored because it was drawn from Great Britain, and, as a consequence, violations of the separation-of-powers doctrine by the legislatures of the States were common-place events prior to the convening of the Convention.3 Theory as much as experience guided the Framers in the summer of 1787.4

1 Among the best historical treatments are M.Vile, Constitutionalism and the Separation of Powers (1967), and W. Gwyn, The Meaning of the Separation of Powers (1965).

2 Thus the Constitution of Virginia of 1776 provided: “The legislative, executive, and judiciary department shall be separate and distinct, so that neither exercise the powers properly belonging to the other; nor shall any person exercise the powers of more than one of them, at the same time[.]” Reprinted in 10 SOURCES AND DOCUMENTS OF UNITED STATES CONSTITUTIONS 52 (W. S. Windler ed., 1979). See also 5 id. at 96, Art. XXX of Part First, Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: “In the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them; the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them; the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them; to the end it may be a government of laws, and not of men.”

3 “In republican government the legislative authority, necessarily, predominates.” THE FEDERALIST, No. 51 (J. Cooke ed. 1961), 350 (Madison). See also id. at No. 48, 332–334. This theme continues today to influence the Court’s evaluation of congressional initiatives. E.g., Metropolitan Washington Airports Auth. v. Citizens for the Abatement of Aircraft Noise, 501 U.S. 252, 273–74, 277 (1991). But compare id. at 286 n. 3 (Justice White dissenting).

4 The intellectual history through the state period and the Convention proceedings is detailed in G. WOOD, THE CREATION OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC, 1776– 1787 (1969) (see index entries under “separation of powers”).

The doctrine of separation of powers, as implemented in drafting the Constitution, was based on several principles generally held: the separation of government into three branches, legislative, executive, and judicial; the conception that each branch performs unique and identifiable functions that are appropriate to each; and the limitation of the personnel of each branch to that branch, so that no one person or group should be able to serve in more than one branch simultaneously. To a great extent, the Constitution effectuated these principles, but critics objected to what they regarded as a curious intermixture of functions, to, for example, the veto power of the President over legislation and to the role of the Senate in the appointment of executive officers and judges and in the treaty-making process. It was to these objections that Madison turned in a powerful series of essays.5

Madison recurred to “the celebrated” Montesquieu, the “oracle who is always consulted,” to disprove the contentions of the critics. “[T]his essential precaution in favor of liberty,” that is, the separation of the three great functions of government, had been achieved, but the doctrine did not demand rigid separation. Montesquieu and other theorists “did not mean that these departments ought to have no partial agency in, or control over, the acts of each other,” but rather liberty was endangered “where the whole power of one department is exercised by the same hands which possess the whole power of another department.”6 That the doctrine did not demand absolute separation provided the basis for preservation of separation of powers in action. Neither sharply drawn demarcations of institutional boundaries nor appeals to the electorate were sufficient.7 Instead, the security against concentration of powers “consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others.” Thus, “[a]mbition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”8

5 THE FEDERALIST Nos. 47–51 (J. Cooke ed. 1961), 323–353 (Madison).

6 Id. at No. 47, 325–326 (emphasis in original).

7 Id. at Nos. 47–49, 325–343.

8 Id. at No. 51, 349.

Institutional devices to achieve these principles pervade the Constitution. Bicameralism reduces legislative predominance, while the presidential veto gives to the Chief Magistrate a means of defending himself and of preventing congressional overreaching. The Senate’s role in appointments and treaties checks the President. The courts are assured independence through good behavior tenure and security of compensation, and the judges through judicial review will check the other two branches. The impeachment power gives to Congress the authority to root out corruption and abuse of power in the other two branches. And so on.

Judicial Enforcement

Throughout much of our history, the “political branches” have contended between themselves in application of the separation-of-powers doctrine. Many notable political disputes turned on questions involving the doctrine. Inasmuch as the doctrines of separation of powers and of checks and balances require both separation and intermixture,9 the role of the Supreme Court in policing the maintenance of the two doctrines is problematic at best. And, indeed, it is only in the last two decades that cases involving the doctrines have regularly been decided by the Court. Previously, informed understandings of the principles have underlain judicial construction of particular clauses or guided formulation of constitutional common law. That is, the nondelegation doctrine was from the beginning suffused with a separation-of-powers premise,10 and the effective demise of the doctrine as a judicially-enforceable construct reflects the Court’s inability to give any meaningful content to it.11 On the other hand, periodically, the Court has essayed a strong separation position on behalf of the President, sometimes with lack of success,12 sometimes successfully.

9 “While the Constitution diffuses power the better to secure liberty, it also contemplates that practice will integrate the dispersed powers into a workable government. It enjoins upon its branches separateness but interdependence, autonomy but reciprocity.” Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 635 (1952) (Justice Jackson concurring).

10 E.g., Field v. Clark, 143 U.S. 649, 692 (1892); Wayman v. Southard, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 1, 42 (1825).

11 See Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 415–416 (1989) (Justice Scalia dissenting).

12 The principal example is Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52 (1926), written by Chief Justice Taft, himself a former President. The breadth of the holding was modified in considerable degree in Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602 (1935), and the premise of the decision itself was recast and largely softened in Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988).

Following a lengthy period of relative inattention to separation of powers issues, the Court since 197613 has recurred to the doctrine in numerous cases, and the result has been a substantial curtailing of congressional discretion to structure the National Government. Thus, the Court has interposed constitutional barriers to a congressional scheme to provide for a relatively automatic deficit-reduction process because of the critical involvement of an officer with significant legislative ties,14 to the practice set out in more than 200 congressional enactments establishing a veto of executive actions,15 and to the vesting of broad judicial powers to handle bankruptcy cases in officers not possessing security of tenure and salary.16 On the other hand, the highly-debated establishment by Congress of a process by which independent special prosecutors could be established to investigate and prosecute cases of alleged corruption in the Executive Branch was sustained by the Court in a opinion that may presage a judicial approach in separation of powers cases more accepting of some blending of functions at the federal level.17

Important as the results were in this series of cases, the development of two separate and inconsistent doctrinal approaches to separation of powers issues occasioned the greatest amount of commentary. The existence of the two approaches, which could apparently be employed in the discretion of the Justices, made difficult the prediction of the outcomes of differences over proposals and alternatives in governmental policy. Significantly, however, it appeared that the Court most often used a more strict analysis in cases in which infringements of executive powers were alleged and a less strict analysis when the powers of the other two Branches were concerned. The special prosecutor decision, followed by the decision sustaining the Sentencing Commission, may signal the adoption of a single analysis, the less strict analysis, for all separation of power cases or it may turn out to be but an exception to the Court’s dual doctrinal approach.18

13 Beginning with Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 109–43 (1976), a relatively easy case, in which Congress had attempted to reserve to itself the power to appoint certain officers charged with enforcement of a law.

14 Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714 (1986).

15 INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919 (1983).

16 Northern Pipeline Constr. Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line Co., 458 U.S. 50 (1982).

17 Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988). See also Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361 (1989).

18 The tenor of a later case, Metropolitan Washington Airports Auth. v. Citizens for the Abatement of Airport Noise, 501 U.S. 252 (1991), was decidedly formalistic, but it involved a factual situation and a doctrinal predicate easily rationalized by the principles of Morrison and Mistretta, aggrandizement of its powers by Congress. Granfinanciera, S.A. v. Nordberg, 492 U.S. 33 (1989), reasserted the fundamental status of Marathon, again in a bankruptcy courts context, although the issue was the right to a jury trial under the Seventh Amendment rather than strictly speaking a separation-of-powers question. Freytag v. CIR, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), pursued a straightforward appointments-clause analysis, informed by a separation-of-powers analysis but not governed by it. Finally, in Public Citizen v. U. S. Department of Justice, 491 U.S. 440, 467 (1989) (concurring), Justice Kennedy would have followed the formalist approach, but he explicitly grounded it on the distinction between an express constitutional vesting of power as against implicit vestings. Separately, the Court has for some time viewed the standing requirement for access to judicial review as reflecting a separation-of-powers component—confining the courts to their proper sphere— Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 752 (1984), but that view seemed largely superfluous to the conceptualization of standing rules. However, in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 577 (1992), the Court imported the take-care clause, obligating the President to see to the faithful execution of the laws, into standing analysis, creating a substantial barrier to congressional decisions to provide for judicial review of executive actions. It is not at all clear, however, that the effort, by Justice Scalia, enjoys the support of a majority of the Court. Id. at 579-81 (Justices Kennedy and Souter concurring). The cited cases do seem to demonstrate that a strongly formalistic wing of the Court does continue to exist.

While the two doctrines have been variously characterized, the names generally attached to them have been “formalist,” applied to the more strict line, and “functional,” applied to the less strict. The formalist approach emphasizes the necessity to maintain three distinct branches of government through the drawing of bright lines demarcating the three branches from each other determined by the differences among legislating, executing, and adjudicating.19 The functional approach emphasizes the core functions of each branch and asks whether the challenged action threatens the essential attributes of the legislative, executive, or judicial function or functions. Under this approach, there is considerable flexibility in the moving branch, usually Congress acting to make structural or institutional change, if there is little significant risk of impairment of a core function or in the case of such a risk if there is a compelling reason for the action.20

Chadha used the formalist approach to invalidate the legislative veto device by which Congress could set aside a determination by the Attorney General, pursuant to a delegation from Congress, to suspend deportation of an alien. Central to the decision were two conceptual premises. First, the action Congress had taken was legislative, because it had the purpose and effect of altering the legal rights, duties, and relations of persons outside the Legislative Branch, and thus Congress had to comply with the bicameralism and presentment requirements of the Constitution.21 Second, the Attorney General was performing an executive function in implementing the delegation from Congress, and the legislative veto was an impermissible interference in the execution of the laws. Congress could act only by legislating, by changing the terms of its delegation.22 In Bowsher, the Court held that Congress could not vest even part of the execution of the laws in an officer, the Comptroller General, who was subject to removal by Congress because this would enable Congress to play a role in the execution of the laws. Congress could act only by passing other laws.23

19 “The hydraulic pressure inherent within each of the separate Branches to exceed the outer limits of its power . . . must be resisted. Although not ‘hermetically’ sealed from one another, the powers delegated to the three Branches are functionally identifiable.” INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919, 951 (1983). See id. at 944–51; Northern Pipeline Construction Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line Co., 458 U.S. 50, 64–66 (1982) (plurality opinion); Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714, 721–727 (1986).

20 CFTC v. Schor, 478 U.S. 833, 850–51, 856–57 (1986); Thomas v. Union Car-bide Agric. Products Co., 473 U.S. 568, 587, 589–93 (1985). The Court had first formulated this analysis in cases challenging alleged infringments on presidential powers, United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 713 (1974); Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425, 442–43 (1977), but it had subsequently turned to the more strict test. Schor and Thomas both involved provisions challenged as infringing judicial powers.

21 INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919, 952 (1983).

22 Id. at 954–955.

23 Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714, 726–727, 733–734 (1986).

On the same day that Bowsher was decided through a formalist analysis, the Court in Schor utilized the less strict, functional approach in resolving a challenge to the power of a regulatory agency to adjudicate as part of a larger canvas a state common-law issue, the very kind of issue that Northern Pipeline, in a formalist plurality opinion with a more limited concurrence, had denied to a non-Article III bankruptcy court.24 Sustaining the agency’s power, the Court emphasized “the principle that ‘practical attention to substance rather than doctrinaire reliance on formal categories should inform application of Article III.’”25 It held that in evaluating such a separation of powers challenge, the Court had to consider the extent to which the “essential attributes of judicial power” were reserved to Article III courts and conversely the extent to which the non-Article III entity exercised the jurisdiction and powers normally vested only in Article III courts, the origin and importance of the rights to be adjudicated, and the concerns that drove Congress to depart from the requirements of Article III.26

Bowsher, the Court said, was not contrary, because “[u]nlike Bowsher, this case raises no question of the aggrandizement of congressional power at the expense of a coordinate branch.”27 The test was a balancing one, whether Congress had impermissibly undermined the role of another branch without appreciable expansion of its own power.

24 While the agency in Schor was an independent regulatory commission and the bankruptcy court in Northern Pipeline was either an Article I court or an adjunct to an Article III court, the characterization of the entity is irrelevant and, in fact, the Court made nothing of the difference. The issue in either case was whether the judicial power of the United States could be conferred on an entity not an Article III court.

25 CFTC v. Schor, 478 U.S. 833, 848 (1986) (quoting Thomas v. Union Carbide Agric. Products Co., 473 U.S. 568, 587 (1985)).

26 Schor, 478 U.S. at 851.

27 478 U.S. at 856.

While the Court, in applying one or the other analysis in separation of powers cases, had never indicated its standards for choosing one analysis over the other, beyond inferences that the formalist approach was proper when the Constitution fairly clearly committed a function or duty to a particular branch and the functional approach was proper when the constitutional text was indeterminate and a determination must be made on the basis of the likelihood of impairment of the essential powers of a branch, the overall results had been a strenuous protection of executive powers and a concomitant relaxed view of the possible incursions into the powers of the other branches. It was thus a surprise, then, when in the independent counsel case, the Court, again without stating why it chose that analysis, utilized the functional standard to sustain the creation of the independent counsel.28 The independent-counsel statute, the Court emphasized, was not an attempt by Congress to increase its own power at the expense of the executive nor did it constitute a judicial usurpation of executive power. Moreover, the Court stated, the law did not “impermissibly undermine” the powers of the Executive Branch nor did it “disrupt the proper balance between the coordinate branches [by] prevent[ing] the Executive Branch from accomplishing its constitutionally assigned functions.”29 Acknowledging that the statute undeniably reduced executive control over what it had previously identified as a core executive function, the execution of the laws through criminal prosecution , through its appointment provisions and its assurance of independence by limitation of removal to a “good cause” standard, the Court nonetheless noticed the circumscribed nature of the reduction, the discretion of the Attorney General to initiate appointment, the limited jurisdiction of the counsel, and the power of the Attorney General to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed by the counsel. This balancing, the Court thought, left the President with sufficient control to ensure that he is able to perform his constitutionally assigned functions. A notably more pragmatic, functional analysis suffused the opinion of the Court when it upheld the constitutionality of the Sentencing Commission.30 Charged with promulgating guidelines binding on federal judges in sentencing convicted offenders, the seven-member Commission, three members of which had to be Article III judges, was made an independent entity in the judicial branch. The President appointed all seven members, the judges from a list compiled by the Judicial Conference, and he could remove from the Commission any member for cause. According to the Court, its separation-of-powers jurisprudence is always animated by the concerns of encroachment and aggrandizement. “Accordingly, we have not hesitated to strike down provisions of law that either accrete to a single Branch powers more appropriately diffused among separate Branches or that undermine the authority and independence of one or another coordinate Branch.”31 Thus, to each of the discrete questions, the placement of the Commission, the appointment of the members, especially the service of federal judges, and the removal power, the Court carefully analyzed whether one branch had been given power it could not exercise or had enlarged its powers impermissibly and whether any branch would have its institutional integrity threatened by the structural arrangement.

Although it is possible, even likely, that Morrison and Mistretta represent a decision by the Court to adopt for all separation-of-powers cases the functional analysis, the history of adjudication since 1976 and the shift of approach between Myers and Humphrey’s Executor suggest caution. Recurrences of the formalist approach have been noted. Additional decisions must be forthcoming before it can be decided that the Court has finally settled on the functional approach.

28 To be sure, the appointments clause did specifically provide that Congress could vest in the courts the power to appoint inferior officers, Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654, 670–677 (1988), making possible the contention that, unlike Chadha and Bowsher, Morrison is a textual commitment case. But the Court’s separate evaluation of the separation of powers issue does not appear to turn on that distinction. Id. at 685–96. Nevertheless, the existence of this possible distinction should make one wary about lightly reading Morrison as a rejection of formalism when executive powers are litigated.

29 487 U.S. at 695 (quoting, respectively, Schor, 478 U.S. at 856, and Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. at 443).

30 Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361 (1989). Significantly, the Court did acknowledge reservations with respect to the placement of the Commission as an independent entity in the judicial branch. Id. at 384, 397, 407–08. As in Morrison, Justice Scalia was the lone dissenter, arguing for a fairly rigorous application of separation-of-powers principles. Id. at 413, 422–27.

31 488 U.S. at 382.

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Last modified: June 9, 2014