Humphrey's Executor v. United States

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295 U.S. 602 (1935), argued 1 May 1935, decided 27 May 1935 by vote of 9 to o; Sutherland for the Court. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt removed a conservative member of the Federal Trade Commission, William E. Humphrey. Humphrey contested his removal in the U.S. Court of Claims, a suit carried on by the executor of his estate after his death.

In Myers v. U.S., Chief Justice William Howard Taft had affirmed presidential removal of a postmaster and in obiter dictum stated that the president's removal power extended even to members of independent regulatory commissions. But in Humphrey's Executor Justice George Sutherland, speaking for a unanimous Court, held that a president may remove a commissioner only for cause and that an unqualified removal power violated the separation of powers. Sutherland distinguished Myers by asserting that a commissioner, unlike a postmaster, was not an executive officer but an official who acts quasi-legislatively and quasi-judicially.

Sutherland's opinion has been praised for liberating commissioners from fear of political reprisal but denounced for denying that a commissioner is a member of the executive branch, for hampering a president seeking to develop a coherent economic program, and for failing to acknowledge that Roosevelt had reason to believe he was acting in compliance with existing precedent. More angered by Humphrey because of its implication that he had willfully violated the Constitution than by the more important ruling in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. U.S. handed down that same day, Roosevelt was determined to seek ways to curb the Court, a course that led to his illfated court-packing plan of 1937. Unlike other decisions hostile to the New Deal, Humphrey's Executor has not been reversed, and its principle was expanded in Wiener v. U.S. (1958).

William E. Leuchtenburg

Subjects: Law.

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