Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha

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462 U.S. 919 (1983), argued 22 Feb. 1982, reargued 7 Dec. 1982, decided 23 June 1983 by vote of 7 to 2; Burger for the Court, Powell concurring, White in dissent, Rehnquist in dissent. Born in Kenya of Indian parents and holding a British passport, Jagdish Chadha had come to the United States to study in the mid-1960s. When his student visa expired, neither Great Britain nor Kenya would let him return so Chadha applied for permanent residency in the United States. After a lengthy hearing process his application to stay was approved by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Then, two years later the U.S. House of Representatives voted to “veto” the INS decision and Chadha faced deportation.

The legislative veto was a simple concept, originally “invented” by Congress in the 1930s as a way to retain some control over power delegated to the president to reorganize executive branch agencies. In the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, the legislative veto became especially attractive as a tool for controlling presidential excesses.

At the same time it became apparent that the legislative veto might be a means for exercising congressional control over administrative regulations. By the mid-1970s a tidal flood of regulations to implement all the environmental, consumer, and other social legislation that had passed over the previous decade was pouring out of Washington bureaucracies. Legislative vetoes offered members of Congress a way to respond to the complaints of powerful business and industrial interests subject to these regulations. Public interest groups that had fought long and hard to get legislation passed to accomplish their goals were faced with the prospect of losing regulation by regulation. Alan Morrison, chief litigator for consumer activist Ralph Nader, seized the opportunity to strike out at the legislative veto by taking over Chadha's case.

Department of Justice attorneys in both the Carter and Reagan administrations joined the case on behalf of the immigration service arguing with Morrison against the constitutionality of the legislative veto. Congress was forced to intervene to defend the constitutionality of its legislative veto. Chadha's small case had turned into a battle of Titans: Congress versus the president.

Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote the Court's opinion. The Constitution provides, Burger pointed out, “a single, finely wrought and exhaustively considered procedure” (p. 951) for exercise of the legislative power of the federal government. “Explicit and unambiguous provisions of the Constitution prescribe and define the respective functions of the Congress and of the Executive in the legislative process” (p. 945). Any actions taken by either house of Congress if “they contain matter which is properly to be regarded as legislative in character and effect” must conform with the constitutionally designed legislative process that includes bicameral passage and presentment to the president (p. 952). He then went on to spell out what the Court meant. “Legislative in character and effect” includes any action that has the “purpose and effect of altering the legal rights, duties, and relations of persons outside the legislative branch” (p. 952). Legislative vetoes represent efforts by one or both houses of Congress to subvert the “step-by-step, deliberate and deliberative process” (p. 959) for legislation set out in the Constitution and are thus unconstitutional.


Subjects: Law.

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