Saturday, January 06, 2007

Where is Richard Nixon When You Need Him?

The Daily News reported this week that when President Bush signed a postal reform bill in December requiring government officials to obtain a warrant before opening first-class mail, he issued a statement reserving the right to forego a warrant in emergency situations. The President’s “signing statements” are well known by now. Whenever a bill contains a provision he dislikes or thinks might restrict his power, he accompanies his signing of the bill with a statement intended to nullify the provision. So far, he has challenged more than 750 provisions, far more than the number challenged by all other presidents combined. Perhaps the most famous Bush signing statement is the one accompanying the McCain Amendment, which banned torture of detainees by U.S. troops. That statement asserted that Bush would construe the law “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief.” Although written in coded language, the message was clear: Bush did not view the law as binding.

Bush’s latest signing statement is more explicit. In signing the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, he wrote that he would construe the warrant requirement “in a manner consistent, to the maximum extent permissible, with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances, such as to protect human life and safety against hazardous materials, and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection.” The reference to “exigent circumstances” comes from Supreme Court cases interpreting the 4th Amendment, which generally requires police to obtain a warrant before conducting a search. Under an exception the Court has carved out, police can search without a warrant in “exigent circumstances” – meaning that immediate action is required and it would be impracticable to obtain a warrant. Bush appears to be claiming that officials can rely on the same exception when it comes to first-class mail. But it’s not clear they can. The exigent circumstances exception is an inference from the 4th Amendment warrant requirement. The postal bill imposes its own warrant requirement, and I have seen no evidence that Congress intended to permit exceptions to that requirement for exigent circumstances. It may seem odd that a search permissible under the 4th Amendment could violate a federal statute, but in truth it’s not. The Constitution establishes the floor for individual rights, not the ceiling. Congress is free to provide greater rights if it chooses.

Still, one might argue that Congress assumed the exigent circumstances exception would apply and that the view of the president signing the bill is evidence of that assumption. But that leads to a bigger problem with Bush’s signing statement. The warrant requirement imposed by the postal reform bill is not new. It has been part of the law since 1970 when Congress passed the Postal Reorganization Act. The bill signed by Bush merely moved the requirement from one part of the United States Code to another. Indeed, it was only mentioned in the bill under a section entitled “Technical and Conforming Amendments.” So even if one thinks the view of the president who signs a bill should be relevant to its interpretation, Bush’s view of the warrant requirement is worthless. Instead, we should be asking Richard Nixon what he thought. And unfortunately, tricky Dick isn’t around to tell us.

8 comments:

Charles Thomas said...

The truly troubling aspect of this signing statement is that when read closely, the President has two completely independent rationales to open your mail- exigent circumstances and for foreign intelligence. I hate to quote myself, but I wrote about this on my blog yesterday.

The real meat of the signing statement seems to disregard the need for exigent circumstances altogether. This is a close reading akin to statutory construction. The statement is written like bad legislation, with too many commas. The language about exigent circumstances is immediately followed by a non-restrictive clause explaining exigent circumstances themselves ("such as to protect human life and safety against hazardous materials..."). The next clause is an entirely separate justification for opening the mail that has nothing to do with exigent circumstances- take the non-restrictive clause and other legally inoperative language out, and the statement becomes:

The executive branch shall construe... subsection 1010(e) of the Act... in a manner consistent... with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances... and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection.


The statute specifies the necessity of warrants as its only exception. The authority to open mail for intelligence collection is completely illegal in my estimation.

Thomas Healy said...

I thought the reference to "foreign intelligence collection" was troubling, too. And it's not clear exactly what Bush means by that exception. Notice that the sentence refers to "physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection." What does he mean by "specifically authorized by law"? I can think of two possibilities.

First, the postal bill only requires a warrant for opening first-class mail of "domestic origin." So Bush might be reaffirming the right of executive officials to rely on the 4th Amendment "exigent circumstances" exception when opening foreign mail.

Second, ever since news of the NSA's wiretapping program was leaked, Bush has maintained that Congress' authorization to invade Afghanistan also gave him the power to wiretap phones without getting a warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance court. If Bush thinks Congress authorized him to wiretap phones without a warrant, he might also think it authorized him to open mail without a warrant. The odd thing about this possibility, however, is that Bush's signing statement refers to searches "specifically authorized by law." Even if one agrees with his dubious assertion that Congress authorized warrantless searches, that authorization is at most implicit. I doubt even Bush could claim with a straight face that Congress "specifically" authorized warrantless searches.

By the way, when I speculate about what Bush might have meant by the signing statement, I am speaking hypothetically. I doubt Bush has any clue what the statement means. It is clearly the work of some overeager young lawyer who has been assigned the job of scouring bills for provisions that might threaten the "unitary executive."

Andy said...

"Whenever a bill contains a provision he dislikes or thinks might restrict his power, he accompanies his signing of the bill with a statement intended to nullify the provision."

Funny, I find that legislators and staffers do the same thing with committee reports. Many seem to accept those reports as authoritative, regardless.

I think judges should ignore both the signing statements and the committee reports, but if courts use one, they are obliged to use the other; if the goal is to discover subjective intent, then all available materials that reflect on the intent of those involved in the lawmaking process should be examined.

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