This Article explores the appropriate role of the executive branch in enforcing and defending federal statutes that the president, or executive-branch officials, believe may well be unconstitutional, but for whose constitutional validity reasonable arguments can be advanced. The Article first locates the question of the scope of the executive branch’s responsibility to enforce and defend federal statutes in the larger debate about the extent to which political branches of government are authorized—or even obligated—to make determinations of constitutionality independently of the views of the judiciary. It then reviews the historical practice of the executive branch in defending federal statutes—both the very strong presumption that statutes will be enforced and in turn defended if challenged in court and the departures from that general practice. The Article then considers a range of institutional practices and norms that are significant in considering the question. A number of considerations—including the distinctive capacities of the executive branch, the relationship between career lawyers and political appointees in the executive branch, the virtues of institutional continuity within the executive branch, and the relationship between the executive branch and Congress—reinforce the wisdom of the conventional practice of defending even those statutes that an incumbent administration views as offensive and possibly invalid. Moreover, a regime in which each administration views itself as having significant latitude to refuse to enforce and defend acts of Congress would be considerably less attractive than particular decisions or theories, given that different administrations are likely to have sharply different views about the appropriate occasions for, and the appropriate theories underlying, a refusal to enforce or defend federal statutes. In a world featuring an extremely broad range of views about proper constitutional interpretation, partisan correlates to those views, a powerful temptation to equate what is misguided or immoral with what is unconstitutional, increased polarization of the political parties, and a lack of commitment to the idea of judicial restraint, decisions not to defend or enforce have the capacity to contribute significantly to the unraveling of the executive branch’s practice of defending federal statutes. This Article also examines the responsibility of the judiciary to provide the executive branch with the operating room that it needs to be able to defend, candidly and with integrity, statutes with whose premises the president and his administration strongly disagree. In the end, the question of the executive branch’s responsibility to enforce and defend statutes is not governed by a legal rule derivable from the Constitution itself, but is a matter of judgment, informed by a welter of historical and institutional concerns.
Daniel J. Meltzer,
Executive Defense of Congressional Acts ,
61 Duke Law Journal
Available at: https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/dlj/vol61/iss6/2