Sunday, February 1, 2009

Getting a Constitutional Education – Presidential Power (Part 1)

It’s important that we educate our children on the topics of politics, government, and the Constitution which governs our nation. This nine-part series attempts to remind us of some basic principles, lest they be forgotten by the next generation.

As a nation, we pay an incredible amount of attention to the election of our presidents. If you’re not sufficiently tired of the election cycle that ended only a couple of months ago, fear not – it will all start again in about two-and-a-half years. It seems to be the ultimate reality show, made for television.

Already, the newspapers and other media outlets are looking to our new President to single-handedly solve the perceived problems in our nation. If you were an alien just landing on earth and you happened to drop in front of a television, you would think that the President has the power to do anything, fix anything, and change anything. He seems to be larger-than-life and is credited with far more wisdom than any other person in our land.

Similarly, whenever there is a question of right and wrong that is not adequately resolved between men or institutions, we are content to run to the Supreme Court as the final arbiter for any issue. Again, to an outsider it would seem that the nine justices of the Court possess such vast wisdom that no problem is too hard to tackle. And we let them get away with wielding this power. But between the President and the Supreme Court, are we correct in assigning them this amount of authority?

Article II of the Constitution contains four distinct sections which describe the duties and limits of the President. The specific authority given to the President includes: Commander in Chief of the military, authority over other members of the Executive branch, the power to grant reprieves and pardons, the ability to make treaties (with congressional approval), the power to nominate ambassadors and Supreme Court justices, and the authority to appoint Senate vacancies during recess periods. His duties include: making a State of the Union address, he may convene or adjourn both Houses as necessary, receive ambassadors, commission officers, and “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”. That’s all – there is nothing more in the Constitution to define the power or duties of the office of President.

The power and duties of Supreme Court justices are vague indeed – see Article III. They have authority to hear cases deemed to be of a federal nature, and they have the ability to exercise “appellate jurisdiction”, meaning they can review state-level cases that are deemed necessary to review. Beyond that, little is said about their role.

To properly interpret the relationship between the three different branches of government, one should look to the words of the founding fathers, who clearly meant for checks and balances to exist. Their greatest fear was the rebirth of a monarchy like the one they had fled in England. They did not want their President to be a king, nor did they intend for nine judges (originally six), appointed for life, to singlehandedly interpret the Constitution and wield it over the people. Rather, the founders issued countless letters ensuring that power stayed with the people, in their respective states.

To give an example, consider the presidency of Andrew Jackson. During his term, he was committed to the dissolution of the United States Bank, and argued vehemently for its demise. He sparred with Justice John Marshall during this time, and their argument included the topic of constitutional authority. Marshall declared that the Supreme Court was the ultimate decider on what is constitutional and what is not. Jackson found this outrageous, and said,

“To this conclusion I cannot assent…Congress and the President as well as the Court must each for itself be guided by its own opinion of the Constitution. It is as much the duty of the House of Representatives, of the Senate, and of the President to decide upon the constitutionality of any bill or resolution which may be presented…The opinion of the [Supreme Court] judges has no more authority over Congress than the opinion of Congress has over the judges, and on that point the President is independent of both” (see for further details).
These are tremendously important words, and very different from the behavior we witness today. Jackson understood that no single branch of government had overarching constitutional authority. There are many examples in early America of states ignoring the laws handed down by federal officials (including the President) because, simply put, it was understood that state’s rights were sovereign. That little fact was the original construct of our government….and it’s been forgotten.

Next article: States’ rights versus central government rights, and the curse of the Seventeenth Amendment. Back to the main index article.

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