Myers v. United States

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272 U.S. 52 (1926), argued 5 Dec. 1924, reargued 13–14 Apr. 1925, decided 25 Oct. 1926 by vote of 6 to 3; Taft for the Court, Holmes, McReynolds, and Brandeis in dissent. When he was President, William Howard Taft believed that the Constitution strictly limited the chief executive's power. Yet, as chief justice, he penned one of the broadest readings of presidential power in Supreme Court history. Spawning one of the longest decisions in the Court reports, the Myers case involved a suit for back pay instituted by a postmaster summarily removed from office by President Woodrow Wilson. The enabling statute provided for removal during the four-year term only with the advice and consent of the Senate. Whether the unpaid salary could be recovered hinged on the Court's interpretation of the power of Congress to limit the president's authority to remove lesser officials appointed by him.

Despite clear congressional authority to establish post offices and provide for the appointment and pay of postal employees, Taft, for the Court, concluded that the statute was an invasion of executive power. Taft found, in the 1789 congressional debates over the office of secretary of state, a legislative understanding that the president inherently possessed an unqualified power to remove government officials he had appointed. Taft accepted this legislative determination because he agreed with the rationale behind the conclusion. Since the president was ultimately responsible for seeing that the laws were faithfully executed, he must have the full discretion to remove all subordinates. To this Taft added that the executive article should be interpreted to promote the separation of powers; the constitutional requirement for Senate advice and consent upon appointment should not be widened by implication. Except for judges, who are appointed during good behavior, the president should have full removal discretion. That was so, Taft said, because political differences between the executive and legislative branches could well prevent the president from performing his constitutional duty of executing the laws.

The dissenters easily exposed the weakness of Taft's opinion. Justice James McReynolds, in an uncharacteristically long and thorough dissent, ridiculed the notion of an inherent executive power to remove governmental employees. Since Congress has the constitutional authority to place the appointment of lesser governmental officials in other hands than the president's and to provide for their removal, McReynolds rejected the view that vesting the president with the authority to appoint inferior officials deprived Congress of the power to limit removal.

In his dissent, Justice Louis D. Brandeis concluded that in dealing with lesser governmental officials the president must act under the authority of Congress and that the president possessed only the power the enabling act provided. Held in check by the entrenched spoils system, Congress began to address the question of the removal of governmental employees only after the Civil War. But Brandeis saw nothing in the earlier period that would contradict the consistent practice since that time. While Taft pushed the concept of separation of powers to its logical extreme, Brandeis emphasized the importance of checks and balances. Congress, Brandeis continued, was not only permitted but was obliged to protect not only government employees but also free government from arbitrary executive action.


Subjects: Law.

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