The President as Law Interpreter

The President as Law Interpreter

The power accruing to the President from his function of law interpretation preparatory to law enforcement is daily illustrated in relation to such statutes as the Anti-Trust Acts, the Taft-Hartley Act, the Internal Security Act, and many lesser statutes. Nor is this the whole story. Not only do all presidential regulations and orders based on statutes that vest power in him or on his own constitutional powers have the force of law, provided they do not transgress the Court’s reading of such statutes or of the Constitution,661 but he sometimes makes law in a more special sense. In the famous Neagle case,662 an order of the Attorney General to a United States marshal to protect a Justice of the Supreme Court whose life has been threatened by a suitor was attributed to the President and held to be “a law of the United States” in the sense of section 753 of the Revised Statutes, and as such to afford basis for a writ of habeas corpus transferring the marshal, who had killed the attacker, from state to national custody. Speaking for the Court, Justice Miller inquired: “Is this duty [the duty of the President to take care that the laws be faithfully executed] limited to the enforcement of acts of Congress or of treaties of the United States according to their express terms, or does it include the rights, duties and obligations growing out of the Constitution itself, our international relations, and all the protection implied by the nature of the government under the Constitution?”663 Obviously, an affirmative answer is assumed to the second branch of this inquiry, an assumption which is borne out by numerous precedents. And in United States v. Midwest Oil Company,664 it was ruled that the President had, by dint of repeated assertion of it from an early date, acquired the right to withdraw, via the Land Department, public lands, both mineral and non-mineral, from private acquisition, Congress having never repudiated the practice.

661 United States v. Eliason, 41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 291, 301-02 (1842); Kurtz v. Moffitt, 115 U.S. 487, 503 (1885); Smith v. Whitney, 116 U.S. 167, 180-181 (1886). For a recent analysis of the approach to determining the validity of presidential, or other executive, regulations and orders under purported congressional delegations or implied executive power, see Chrysler Corp. v. Brown, 441 U.S. 281, 301-16 (1979).

662 In re Neagle, 135 U.S. 1 (1890).

663 135 U.S. at 64. The phrase, “a law of the United States,” came from the Act of March 2, 1833 (4 Stat. 632). However, in the Act of June 25, 1948, 62 Stat. 965, 28 U.S.C. § 2241(c)(2), the phrase is replaced by the term, “an act of Congress,” thereby eliminating the basis of the holding in Neagle.

664 236 U.S. 459 (1915). See also Mason v. United States, 260 U.S. 545 (1923).

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Last modified: June 9, 2014