According to Chief Justice Roberts, the Constitution makes it easy for presidents to violate the law, but reversing such violations difficult -- especially for their successors.
Suppose President Donald Trump decided to create a nationwide right to carry guns openly. He could declare that he would not enforce federal firearms laws, and that a new “Trump permit” would free any holder of state and local gun-control restrictions.
Even if Trump knew that his scheme lacked legal authority, he could get away with it for the length of his presidency. And, moreover, even if courts declared the permit illegal, his successor would have to keep enforcing the program for another year or two.
That incredible outcome is essentially what happened with the Supreme Court decision last week in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California (the latter being my employer, I might add). Regents blocked President Trump’s repeal of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which halted the deportation of aliens brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and a parallel 2014 program that suspended the removal of their parents (DAPA). Until the Trump administration goes through the laborious result of enacting a new regulation to undo DACA and DAPA, approximately 6 million aliens can remain in the U.S. in defiance of federal immigration statutes.
While supporters of broader, more humane immigration policies (among whom I count myself) may have welcomed the result, they may well regret the Court’s disruption of executive power. President Barack Obama could issue his extralegal visa programs for children and their parents aliens by simple executive fiat, according to Chief Justice John Roberts and four liberal Justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan), but President Trump had to pretend the order was legal and use the slow Administrative Procedure Act to reverse them. “Even if it is illegal for DHS to extend work authorization and other benefits to DACA recipients,” Roberts found, DACA “could not be rescinded in full without any consideration whatsoever of a” non-deportation policy other than on the ground of its illegality.
According to Chief Justice Roberts, the Constitution makes it easy for presidents to violate the law, but reversing such violations difficult — especially for their successors.
Such a rule upends the text, structure, and history of the Constitution, which generally prevents the occupants of a branch of government (who are temporary, after all) from binding their successors. The Constitution, for example, contains no system for undoing a statute. When Congress wants to repeal a law, it must pass a new law through the same process of bicameralism (House and Senate approval) and presentment (presidential signature). The Supreme Court effectively repeals past opinions simply by overruling the earlier case, though the Constitution does not expressly provide for such reversals. Brown v. Board of Education famously overruled Plessy v. Ferguson’s rule of separate-but-equal. When a president wants to repeal an executive order, all he need do is issue a new executive order. When agencies want to reverse a regulation, they must resort to the same sluggish method of notice-and-comment rulemaking.
If anything, constitutional law grants presidents the power to reverse the acts of their predecessors even faster. Although Article II of the Constitution requires cabinet officers to undergo both presidential nomination and Senate advice and consent, practices from the earliest years of the Republic as well as Supreme Court precedents recognize the executive right to fire them unilaterally. A president similarly can terminate treaties, as Trump recently did with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement with Russia, even though treaties must also receive Senate approval.
Recognizing a plenary power to reverse previous presidential acts, contrary to the Supreme Court’s DACA rule, comports best with the purposes behind the creation of the executive branch. The Framers created an independent executive branch that could act unilaterally and with dispatch because the president’s swift action was desirable in the execution of his constitutional and statutory responsibilities. They wanted each president to be fully accountable to the electorate for his actions without any diffusion of responsibility. The same reasons that support unitary executive action in the first instance support its potential unilateral reversal. A president may need to reverse his predecessor’s decisions quickly to protect national security or take advantage of a great opportunity.
The Framers’ careful protection against arbitrary government would be turned on its head if one president could insulate his unilateral policies against reversal by a subsequent president — for then the constitutional difficulty of enacting a statutory override would further entrench a tyrannical executive policy against electoral or statutory change.
It is important to understand that this principle applies even more strongly in the case of illegal presidential action. The Constitution vests in the president the responsibility to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully Executed.” The highest form of the law of the land is the Constitution. Under this duty, the president cannot enforce an executive order that violates the Constitution — here, the vesting of the power over immigration in Congress. Upon taking office, for example, President Thomas Jefferson immediately ended all prosecutions under the 1798 Sedition Act, which had made criticism of the government a crime, and pardoned those convicted under it.
This allocation of the power to execute the Constitution to the president reveals the perversity of Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion in Regents. It forces President Trump to enforce an executive program that he believes violates the Constitution and federal immigration law, and hence it forces President Trump to violate the Constitution. This is doubly perverse because Trump supports a legislative solution that would allow DACA and DAPA beneficiaries to remain in the country. Nevertheless, Trump reversed DACA and DAPA because President Obama had no constitutional authority to impose the two policies.
The Obama administration claimed that it could still establish DACA and DAPA as a matter of prosecutorial discretion. The constitutional obligation that presidents enforce the law also includes their right, due to limited resources and time, to set enforcement priorities. Prosecutors cannot bring cases for every violation of every federal law at all times. But Obama’s claim flew in the face of the Constitution by claiming that he could bring the enforcement of a federal law — here the removal provision of the immigration laws — completely down to zero.31
If that were true, President Trump could simply restore the preexisting enforcement levels as a matter of his own exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Each new president’s right to reverse the exercises of executive power by his predecessors means that no level of enforcement can bind any future administrations. If Obama were indeed free to set immigration removal levels to 50 percent of past cases, or even zero, Trump had the constitutional right to restore removals to those that prevailed under the Bush administration.
Trump’s rationale was correct: President Obama had no constitutional authority to refuse to enforce the immigration laws against whole classes of aliens, amounting to 50 percent of the possible removal cases. As the Court in Regents concedes, he had intruded on Congress’s constitutional prerogative to set immigration levels and to establish visa categories. As the lower courts had found, President Obama failed to live up to his constitutional responsibility to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. In such a situation, the Constitution compelled Trump to restore immigration enforcement to pre-DACA and pre-DAPA levels. By ignoring these aspects of the Constitution and presidential power, the Regents Court may have inflicted a harm on the nation that goes far beyond immigration law.