Five Ways to Restore the Separation of Powers

The worst legacy of the Obama administration may be disdain for the Constitution’s separation of powers. President Obama’s actions have created dangerous stress fractures in our constitutional architecture, making it imperative that the Trump administration and Republican Congress commence immediate repairs.

The Constitution separates power in two ways: among the three branches of the federal government and between the federal government and states. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, separation creates “a double security” for liberty because “different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”

The Obama administration has spurned this core constitutional principle, aggrandizing executive power at the expense of Congress and states. It has rewritten laws, disregarding its constitutional duty to faithfully execute them.

ObamaCare’s implementation provides multiple examples: delaying statutory deadlines, extending tax credits to groups Congress never included, exempting unions from fees, expanding hardship waivers beyond recognition and granting “transition relief” for preferred employers.

Mr. Obama even usurped Congress’s power of the purse, spending billions for “cost-sharing subsidies” that pay ObamaCare insurers for subsidizing deductibles and copays. Congress never appropriated money for these subsidies, so the administration shifted money appropriated for other purposes. The House sued to defend its constitutional prerogative, and in May a federal court ruled against the administration, which has appealed.

Mr. Obama also exempted five million illegal immigrants from deportation, though Congress had unambiguously declared them deportable. He waived the mandatory work requirement of the 1996 welfare reform. He redefined sexual discrimination under Title IX, forcing schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms of their non-biological gender, and threatening to withdraw funds if colleges refuse to reduce due process protections for individuals accused of sexual assault.

The president has exhibited particular antipathy toward the Senate’s advice-and-consent duty. In Noel Canning v. NLRB (2014), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the administration violated separation of powers by making unilateral appointments to the National Labor Relations Board while the Senate was in session. And the president unilaterally committed the nation to an unpopular nuclear deal with Iran, bypassing the Senate’s treaty ratification power.

Mr. Obama’s actions have also shattered federalism. The administration rewrote the 1970 Clean Air Act, commanding states to revamp their electricity generation and distribution infrastructure. It rewrote the 1972 Clean Water Act, claiming vast new power to regulate ditches and streams under the risible notion that they are “navigable waters.” It has refused to enforce existing federal drug laws, emboldening states to legalize marijuana.

The media and academy enabled the administration’s unconstitutional behavior because they support its policy agenda. But the Framers expected members of Congress to jealously defend congressional power against executive encroachment—even from a president of the same political party. As Madison observed, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”

This principle disappeared during the past eight years. In his 2014 State of the Union address, the president vowed to implement his agenda “wherever and whenever I can” without congressional involvement—to thunderous applause by Democrats. In November 2014, Democratic Senators urged the president to vastly expand his unilateral amnesty for illegal immigrants.

The Trump administration and GOP Congress should resist the temptation to follow this Constitution-be-damned playbook. The greatest gift Republicans could give Americans is a restored separation of powers. But this cannot be accomplished by merely rescinding the Obama administration’s unconstitutional executive orders. While this is a necessary step, Congress should enact additional reforms.

First, Congress can amend the 1996 Congressional Review Act to require affirmative approval of major executive-branch regulations. The law now allows regulations to go into effect automatically if Congress does not disapprove them. The act has been used only once to overturn a regulation because it requires passage of a joint resolution of disapproval—which must be signed by the president. This requirement should be inverted: If Congress does not affirmatively approve a regulation, it never goes into effect.

Second, Congress could prohibit “Chevron deference,” in which federal courts defer to executive branch interpretations of ambiguous statutes. Chevron deference is a judge-made doctrine that has aggrandized executive power, ostensibly to implement Congress’s intent. If Congress denounces such deference, it can simultaneously reduce executive power and encourage itself to legislate with greater specificity.

Third, Congress can augment its institutional authority by expanding its contempt power. The criminal contempt statute should require the U.S. attorney to convene a grand jury upon referral by the House or Senate without exercising prosecutorial discretion. Congress should also extend the civil contempt statute to the House, not merely the Senate, and enact a new law specifying a process for using Congress’s longstanding (but rarely invoked) inherent contempt authority.

Fourth, Congress can require that all major international commitments be ratified by treaty. A statute defining the proper dividing line between treaties and executive agreements would reassert the Senate’s constitutional role, provide clarification to the judiciary, and encourage communication and negotiation between Congress and the president.

Fifth, Congress can enact a law further restricting its ability to coerce states into adopting federal policies or commanding state officials to carry them out. While the courts have ultimate say on the contours of these federalism doctrines, a law could force greater consensus and debate, provide guidelines on Congress’s use of its powers, and signal to the judiciary a reinvigorated commitment to federalism.

Restoring separation of powers is necessary and possible. It should be the highest priority of the Trump administration and Congress.

Mr. Rivkin and Ms. Foley practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington, D.C. Ms. Foley is also a professor of constitutional law at Florida International University College of Law.

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/five-ways-to-restore-the-separation-of-powers-1482192048

Can Trump cut off funds for sanctuary cities? The Constitution says yes.

By David Rivkin and Elizabeth Price Foley

December 7, 2016, in the Los Angeles Times

But whatever one thinks about Trump’s strategy, it almost certainly would pass muster at the Supreme Court.Several cities and public universities have vowed to resist President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to deport undocumented criminals by doubling down on sanctuary policies. In response, Trump has pledged to curtail federal funding for sanctuary providers. Activists, predictably, are crying foul, and some legal scholars, such as Harvard’s Noah Feldman, have even claimed that such a response would be unconstitutional.  

Feldman and others point to New York v. United States (1992) and Printz v. United States (1997), in which the Supreme Court concluded that the federal government cannot conscript state or local officials to carry out federal law. The federal government must enforce its own laws, using federal personnel. So when state or local police arrest immigrants who are present in the country illegally, they are under no obligation to deport them, as deportation is the responsibility of the federal government alone. 

This “anti-commandeering” doctrine, however, doesn’t protect sanctuary cities or public universities — because it doesn’t apply when Congress merely requests information. For example, in Reno v. Condon (2000), the Court unanimously rejected an anti-commandeering challenge to the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which required states under certain circumstances to disclose some personal details about license holders. The court concluded that, because the DPPA requested information and “did not require state officials to assist in the enforcement of federal statutes,” it was consistent with the New York and Printz cases.

It follows that, consistent with the anti-commandeering doctrine, Congress can require state, local or university police to tell federal agents when they arrest an immigrant present in the country illegally.

It’s true that cities such as Los Angeles instruct city employees not to ask about immigration status, but they may still have access to that information. Under California law, for example, driver’s licenses issued to immigrants in the country illegally contain prominent distinguishing language stating, “federal limits apply.” Indeed, Congress could specify that licenses issued to immigrants in the country illegally must include a distinguishing feature, or they won’t be accepted for federal purposes, such as TSA airport security. Congress already has enacted the Real ID Act, which mandates that driver’s licenses display certain details.

A separate constitutional doctrine, the anti-coercion doctrine, likewise won’t shield sanctuaries. This doctrine holds that while Congress may impose conditions on receipt of federal funds, it cannot coerce states into accepting those conditions.

In the 1980s, Congress passed a law withholding 5% of highway funds from any state that refused to adopt a minimum drinking age of 21. The Supreme Court, in South Dakota v. Dole (1987), upheld it. Because highway funds are expended — in part — to ensure safe travel, the court reasoned that raising the drinking age was “relevant to the federal interest in the project and the overall objectives thereof.” More significantly, withholding 5% of federal funds wasn’t coercive because while it represented a loss of $615 million dollars, it was only 0.19% of states’ total budgets.

By contrast, in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), the Supreme Court found that Congress violated the anti-coercion doctrine. Specifically, in the Affordable Care Act, Congress withheld 100% of states’ Medicaid funding if they didn’t expand those programs. A court plurality characterized this as a coercive “gun to the head” because it involved a loss of over $233 billion dollars — more than 20% of states’ budgets.

The South Dakota and NFIB cases teach that Congress can cut off funds if the conditions imposed are relevant “to the federal interest in the project” and the threatened loss of money doesn’t amount to a “gun to the head,” defined by a substantial percentage — approaching approximately 20% — of states’ budgets.

Congress certainly could meet these standards. Many federal programs provide billions to universities and state and local law enforcement. Provided the percentage withheld didn’t approach the 20% threshold, it should be constitutional. As with the highway funds in South Dakota, these programs are designed in part to improve safety of campuses and communities. This goal would be furthered by withholding funds from cities and universities that provide sanctuary for criminals present in the country illegally. Such individuals, by definition, not only are unvetted by the federal government, but have committed crimes while here.

Whatever one’s view of the best immigration policy, it should be uniform. Some, including the Washington Post’s editorial board, have suggested that Congress should give sanctuary cities flexibility to report only those who’ve committed the most serious violent offenses. But precisely which criminals should be subject to deportation requires resolution by Congress, not each city or university.

Sanctuary policies create Balkanization on an issue with important foreign policy implications and corresponding potential for diplomatic embarrassment. As the Supreme Court affirmed in Arizona v. United States (2012), “the removal process is entrusted to the discretion of the Federal Government” because it “touch[es] on foreign relations and must be made with one voice.”

The Constitution is clear that power to determine deportation policies belongs to Congress, not states, municipalities or universities.

David Rivkin and Elizabeth Price Foley practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington, D.C. Rivkin served at the Department of Justice and the White House Counsel’s office during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Foley is also a professor of constitutional law at Florida International University College of Law.

Source: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-rivkin-foley-sanctuary-city-20161207-story.html

Hold On Jasta Minute!

Legal tradition says that hard cases make bad law. Few cases are harder than those having to do with the plight of the families of 9/11 victims.

This led Congress to adopt the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Jasta, as it is known, gives federal courts the power to determine whether a foreign state has intentionally sponsored terror against American citizens. This power, however, belongs to the president and cannot be constitutionally wielded by the judiciary.

Jasta was enacted in September over President Obama’s veto. Although the law mentions no particular state, its target is clearly Saudi Arabia. The families of 9/11 victims have long sought money damages from the kingdom, based on the Saudi citizenship of most of the 9/11 attackers and planners.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 gives countries immunity from being sued in federal courts. Jasta strips that immunity from any country the court finds acted with a culpable level of intent in sponsoring a terrorist attack on American soil. Mere negligence is insufficient under the law. In making this determination, the courts will also inevitably be branding the relevant state as a sponsor of terrorism.

A federal judge’s determination that Saudi Arabia intended to sponsor the 9/11 attacks would greatly strain U.S.-Saudi relations. More generally, whether the U.S. should identify any particular state as a terrorism sponsor is a supremely sensitive foreign-policy decision, involving myriad factors and rendering impossible U.S. cooperation with such a state.

For this reason, the Constitution reserves such determinations to the political branches of government, and more particularly to the president, who is principally responsible for the formulation and implementation of American foreign policy.

If a president decides to classify a nation as a sponsor of terrorism, Congress can define the consequences, including depriving such states of the sovereign immunity from lawsuit that they ordinarily enjoy in U.S. courts. It cannot, however, force a president to make such a determination. Nor can Congress vest such decision-making authority in the courts.

The Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Zivotofsky v. Kerry is instructive here. The court struck down Congress’s effort to require the executive branch to recognize Jerusalem as part of Israel by permitting American citizens born there to have their passports indicate “Israel” as their birthplace. It said, “these matters are committed to the Legislature and the Executive, not the Judiciary.”

The judiciary doesn’t have access to the sort of information that would enable it to determine the motives of a foreign state. And even if it did, deciding whether to classify a country as a sponsor of terrorism is a task inherently ill-suited for judicial discernment. Recognizing and acting upon such information lies at the very core of the president’s foreign-affairs powers.

Jasta’s enactment has already damaged U.S.-Saudi relations and has alarmed many traditional U.S. allies, who understandably do not like the outsourcing of sensitive foreign-policy issues to the American judiciary and private litigants. Jasta is unconstitutional and should be struck down as such.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington, D.C.

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/hold-on-jasta-minute-1480551317

It’s unrealistic and unfair to make Trump use a blind trust

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

November 22, 2016, in the Washington Post

Suggestions that President-elect Donald Trump put his business holdings in a “blind trust” to avoid potential conflicts of interest are unrealistic and unfair. Such a trust would not eliminate the virtual certainty that actions Trump takes as president will affect his personal wealth, for good or ill. The step is not required by law. And presidents who have chosen to use this device held very different assets than Trump’s. He can keep his holdings and adopt a reasonable system to avoid conflicts and reassure the American people that the Trump administration is acting ethically.

To establish a blind trust of the sort used by his predecessors, Trump would not merely have to liquidate a securities portfolio and permit an independent trustee to manage those assets. He would have to sell off business holdings that he has built and managed most of his life, and with which he is personally identified in a way that few other business magnates are.

These businesses also provide employment for many thousands of people, including his children. All of it would have to go. This liquidation would by definition take place in the context of a “buyer’s market,” and so Trump would also be required to accept a vast personal loss in financial worth. Those suggesting the blind trust model must understand that their proposal is a poison pill Trump will not swallow.

Moreover, requiring Trump to liquidate his holdings would discourage other entrepreneurs from seeking the presidency, leaving the field clear for professional politicians and investors. Given that the American people have made clear their disgust with Washington’s elite, creating a disincentive for businesspeople to seek the presidency is not in the public interest.

Trump has suggested that he will let his adult children run the family businesses during his presidency, and there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents this arrangement. The emoluments clause, often invoked as the reason Trump must sell his businesses, is no bar. This constitutional provision prevents the president (and any other federal officer) from accepting gifts or compensation from foreign states. It does not limit Trump’s ability to benefit from dealings with non-state foreign entities. Whether a “state-controlled” entity falls within the emoluments clause prohibitions has traditionally been addressed on a case-by-case basis, depending principally on how independently such an entity operates from an actual government.

Likewise, neither federal law nor regulations limit the president in this area. Presidential candidates and presidents must disclose their finances, but the president is not covered by the principal financial conflict-of-interest law, and the relevant regulations specifically exclude the president. Indeed, it is doubtful that Congress could constitutionally limit the president’s personal investments or business activities consistent with separation of powers principles.

Of course, Trump’s wide holdings will likely raise real or perceived conflicts of interest during his presidency. Establishing a blind trust would have helped him address those concerns. There are, however, other measures that the president-elect can take to avoid conflicts. He can establish a firewall between himself and his adult children with respect to family business affairs. They would agree to give him no information about their business dealings, and he would pledge not to discuss those dealings with them.

In addition, his children could promise to refer any potential transactions involving foreign corporations or other entities to the White House counsel’s office or the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to analyze whether it would raise concerns under the emoluments clause. If the answer is yes, then they will avoid that transaction. The president himself would not be informed of the request or determination.

Finally, to the extent he wishes to seek advice about public policy from his children — which he appears to have done frequently before his election — the president can consult the White House counsel’s office about whether discussing a particular issue with them would create potential conflicts of interest. Most government issues do not have a direct impact on the hospitality industry and simply taking action that is good for the economy as a whole would not give rise to a conflict.

It is clear that Trump cannot satisfy all of his critics, but these measures are both reasonable and workable. They would — or should — reassure most Americans that his administration is acting with probity.

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey, who practice appellate and constitutional law in the District, served in the Justice Department under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Rivkin also served in the White House counsel’s office in the George H.W. Bush administration.

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-unrealistic-and-unfair-to-make-trump-use-a-blind-trust/2016/11/22/a71aa1d4-b0c0-11e6-8616-52b15787add0_story.html

Trump Can Ax the Clean Power Plan by Executive Order

President Obama pledged to wield a pen and phone during his second term rather than engage with Congress. The slew of executive orders, enforcement memorandums, regulations and “Dear Colleague” letters comprised an unprecedented assertion of executive authority. Equally unparalleled is the ease with which the Obama agenda can be dismantled. Among the first actions on President Trump’s chopping block should be the Clean Power Plan.

In 2009 Congress rejected a cap-and-trade scheme to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency then devised a nearly identical scheme to mandate shifting electricity generation from disfavored facilities, like those powered by coal, to those the EPA prefers, like natural gas and renewables. No statute authorized the EPA to seize regulatory control of the nation’s energy sector. The agency instead discovered, in an all-but-forgotten 1970s-era provision of the Clean Air Act, that it had that power all along.

To support its preferred policy, the agency was compelled to “interpret” the statute in a way that contradicts what it acknowledges is the “literal” reading of the text and clashes with decades of its own regulations. It also nullifies language blocking regulation for power plants because they are already regulated under an alternative program. By mangling the Clean Air Act to intrude on areas it was never meant to, the regulation violates the constitutional bar on commandeering the states to carry out federal policy.

These defects are why the Supreme Court put the EPA’s plan on hold while an appeals court in Washington, D.C., considers challenges brought by the energy industry and 27 states. These legal challenges now appear to have been overtaken by events. President Trump can immediately issue an executive order to adopt a new energy policy that respects the states’ role in regulating energy markets and that prioritizes making electricity affordable and reliable. Such an order should direct the EPA to cease all efforts to enforce and implement the Clean Power Plan. The agency would then extend all of the regulation’s deadlines, enter an administrative stay and commence regulatory proceedings to rescind the previous order.

That would leave the D.C. appeals court—which some supporters of the plan are still counting on for a Hail Mary save—or the Supreme Court with little choice but to send the legal challenges back to the agency. While the Clean Power Plan could technically linger in the Code of Federal Regulations for a year or so, it would have no legal force.

When an agency changes course, it must provide a reasoned explanation to address factual findings supporting its prior policy. In certain instances that requirement may impose a real burden. For example, a rule rescinding the EPA’s “Endangerment Finding” regarding the effects of greenhouse gases would have to address the evidence underlying it. A failure to provide a satisfactory explanation of a change in policy may render a rule “arbitrary and capricious” and vulnerable to legal challenge.

Environmentalist groups have already vowed to bring suit to defend the Clean Power Plan, but a challenge would be toothless. The aggressive legal positions underlying the Obama administration’s most controversial rules—including the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, and the FCC’s Open Internet order—will make it easier to rescind them. That’s because rejecting the assertion of legal authority underlying such a rule is enough to justify a policy change. If the agency’s view is that it simply lacks the power to carry out a rule, then it follows that the rule must be withdrawn.

Even if a court were to find that the EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act underlying the plan is permissible, that would still not compel the Trump EPA to accept that interpretation as the only permissible one. And even if a court were to rule—erroneously, in our view—that the Clean Power Plan does not violate the Constitution’s vertical separation of powers, that would still not absolve the executive branch of the responsibility to consider that constitutional issue for itself and then act accordingly.

President Obama may soon come to understand that the presidential pen and phone is a double-edged sword.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman, who practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington, D.C., represent the state of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality in their challenge to the Clean Power Plan.

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-can-ax-the-clean-power-plan-by-executive-order-1479679923

‘Clean Power’ Plays and the Last Stand for Federalism

By DAVID B. RIVKIN, JR. and ANDREW M. GROSSMAN

Sept. 25, 2016, in the Wall Street Journal

After Congress turned down President Obama ’s request to enact a law regulating power plants’ greenhouse-gas emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency turned to the states—not with a request, but with instructions to carry out the president’s energy policy. The EPA’s “Clean Power Plan” now faces the scrutiny of the nation’s chief regulatory review court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

If the Constitution’s federalism is to endure, the Clean Power Plan must be struck down.

The Constitution establishes a federal government of limited and enumerated powers while the states retain a plenary “police power,” subject only to the specific limitations of federal law. This is what Justice Anthony Kennedy called the Constitution’s “genius”: It “split the atom of sovereignty” to ensure accountability when meeting both local and national concerns, while fostering rivalry between the two levels to curb excessive political ambition that might threaten liberty.

Only in recent decades did politicians learn how to realize their ambitions through collusion. The federal government now entices states with transfer payments to establish and administer social-welfare programs. And, in schemes that the courts describe as “cooperative federalism,” it offers states the choice to regulate their citizens according to federal dictates, as an alternative to the feds regulating directly and having states get out of the way.

Even these approaches were not enough for the Obama administration to cajole the states to carry out its energy agenda. So it resolved to obliterate one of the last vestiges of the Constitution’s vertical separation of powers: the bar on federal commandeering of the states and their officials to carry out federal policy.

The Clean Power Plan is enormously complicated, but its overall approach is straightforward. Previous emissions regulations have focused on reducing emissions from particular facilities, but this one relies on shifting electricity generation from disfavored facilities (coal-fired power plants) to those the EPA prefers (natural gas and renewables). The EPA then determined what, in its view, is the maximum amount of such shifting that each of the nation’s regional electric grids could possibly accommodate and calculated the emissions reductions.

Parcel those figures out by state, factor in additional reductions due to estimated efficiency improvements at older plants, and the result is state-specific reduction targets. The states can elect to achieve those targets themselves—or, if they decline, the EPA will do it for them. “Textbook cooperative federalism,” says the EPA.

Not quite. Whether or not the states choose to implement the plan directly, it leaves them no choice but to carry out the EPA’s federal climate policy. That’s because the EPA can destroy but not create. It can regulate emissions of existing facilities, but it lacks the legal authority to facilitate the construction and integration of new power sources, which is ultimately the only way to achieve the plan’s aggressive targets.

That duty falls to the states, which the plan depends upon to carry out what the EPA calls their “responsibility to maintain a reliable electric system.” Doing nothing, as in the cooperative federalism scenario, is not an option.

So this is how the plan works: The EPA pushes coal-fired plants off the grid, and then counts on the states to ensure that the resulting reductions in capacity are matched by increases in EPA-preferred forms of power generation. State agencies will have to be involved in decommissioning coal-fired plants, addressing replacement capacity—like wind turbines and solar arrays—addressing transmission and integration issues, and undertaking all manner of related regulatory proceedings. All this to carry out federal policy.

The Clean Power Plan implicates every evil associated with unconstitutional commandeering. It dragoons states into administering federal law, irrespective of their citizens’ views. It destroys accountability, by directing the brunt of public disapproval for increased electricity costs and lost jobs onto state officials, when the federal government deserves the blame. And it subverts the horizontal separation of powers, by allowing the executive branch to act where Congress has refused to legislate.

One can only wonder what will be left of our constitutional order if the plan passes judicial muster.

The federal government would no longer be a government of limited powers, but instead be able to compel the states to do its bidding in any area. The states, in turn, would be reduced to puppets of a federal ventriloquist, carrying out the dirty work for which federal actors wish to avoid accountability. And the federal executive, in many instances, could effectively create new law by working through the states, free of the need to win over Congress.

So it is difficult to imagine a U.S. where the Clean Power Plan is the law of the land. It would not be the same country, or the same Constitution, that Americans have enjoyed all these years.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington, D.C., and represent the State of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality in their challenge to the Clean Power Plan.

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/clean-power-plays-and-the-last-stand-for-federalism-1474841482

Legislators go back to court for contempt ruling against McAuliffe

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

September 11, 2016, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

This past July, the cronyist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro threw out more than half of the signatures on a petition for a recall to remove him from office, citing “unclear handwriting.”

That is not a problem shared by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, whose autopen machine traces a perfectly legible facsimile of his signature every time. Following the autocratic example of Venezuela and other rule-of-law pariahs, McAuliffe has his autopen working overtime to transform Virginia into a banana republic, one signature at a time.

The signatures — a mere 206,000 or so of them — are the centerpiece of McAuliffe’s scheme to circumvent the Virginia Supreme Court’s July ruling striking down his executive order that suspended the Virginia Constitution’s general rule stripping felons’ voting rights. The court agreed with legislative leaders who had challenged the order that it was not a legitimate exercise of the governor’s power to grant clemency in particular cases. It was, instead, an unlawful attempt to suspend the operation of a law simply because the governor disagrees with it.

Does he ever. The same day that the decision issued, McAuliffe told the press that he “cannot accept” it. A few days later, citing the venerable maxim that “you’ve got to do what you got to do,” he vowed that “all 206,000 (felons) will have their rights back” in a matter of weeks.

Thus, the autopen. Rather than a single bulk order suspending an entire felon-voting bar, McAuliffe would achieve the same result by issuing an individual order for each felon in Virginia who has completed his or her incarceration and supervised release. On Aug. 22, the governor announced that he had issued 13,000 orders restoring voting rights for the felons who had registered to vote under the order struck down by the Supreme Court and promised (many) more to come.

In response, the same legislators who defeated McAuliffe’s first order have asked the Virginia Supreme Court to hold the governor in contempt and act to enforce its prior judgment.

As their motion exhaustively describes, McAuliffe’s new orders amount to outright defiance of the court’s earlier decision. That decision did not turn on the fact that McAuliffe had issued a blanket order, but instead focused on the “practical effect” of that order as nullifying the law. The new orders have the same effect as the old one, unilaterally suspending the operation of the constitution’s felon-voting bar in precisely the same way, with respect to precisely the same persons. As the legislators’ contempt motion observes, the “Court did not reduce the suspension clause of the Constitution to a printing requirement.”

Indeed, seeking to foreclose further legalistic scheming, the court took pains to state that a Virginia governor cannot “suspend unilaterally the enforcement of any criminal law in the Code of Virginia, based solely on his personal disagreement with it, simply by issuing categorical, absolute pardons to everyone” subject to it. And it made clear that proper exercise of the pardon power requires a “specific request by individuals seeking such relief” and consideration of their “individual circumstances.”

So, whether the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision got the law right or wrong, there is no disputing that McAuliffe’s current actions clash with what it ruled. And that is reason enough for the court to hold the governor in contempt and invalidate his flurry of orders.

But the stakes are far higher than in the last round. McAuliffe’s disrespect for the law and for a co-equal branch of government threatens the freedom and political rights of all Virginians. It is worth recalling President John Kennedy’s admonition, offered in response to defiance of the court-ordered desegregation of the University of Mississippi, that “observance of the law is the eternal safeguard of liberty and defiance of the law is the surest road to tyranny.” As Americans, we are free “to disagree with the law but not to disobey it.”

That principle applies with special force to those whom we entrust with the power and responsibility to carry out the law. Nicolas Maduro may be above the law, but Terry McAuliffe and his autopen are not.

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington, D.C. 

Source: http://www.richmond.com/opinion/their-opinion/guest-columnists/article_758b5af8-7db4-5c23-b45b-91f8fa015a9c.html