Tag Archives: Wall Street Journal

The Ninth Circuit Ignores Precedent and Threatens National Security

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals violated both judicial precedent and the Constitution’s separation of powers in its ruling against President Trump’s executive order on immigration. If the ruling stands, it will pose a danger to national security.

Under normal rules of standing, the states of Washington and Minnesota should never have been allowed to bring this suit. All litigants, including states, must meet fundamental standing requirements: an injury to a legally protected interest, caused by the challenged action, that can be remedied by a federal court acting within its constitutional power. This suit fails on every count.

The plaintiff states assert that their public universities are injured because the order affects travel by certain foreign students and faculty. But that claim involved no legally protected interest. The granting of visas and the decision to admit aliens into the country are discretionary powers of the federal government. Unadmitted aliens have no constitutional right to enter the U.S. In hiring or admitting foreigners, universities were essentially gambling that these noncitizens could make it to America and be admitted. Under the theory of standing applied in this case, universities would be able to sponsor any alien, anywhere in the world, then go to court to challenge a decision to exclude him.

It is also settled law that a state can seek to vindicate only its own rights, not those of third parties, against the national government. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Massachusetts v. Mellon (1923) that it is not within a state’s duty or power to protect its citizens’ “rights in respect of their relations with the Federal Government.” Thus the plaintiffs’ claims that the executive order violates various constitutional rights, such as equal protection, due process and religious freedom, are insufficient because these are individual and not states’ rights.

Even if states could articulate a concrete injury, this is not a case in which the courts ultimately can offer redress. The Constitution grants Congress plenary power over immigration, and Congress has vested the president by statute with broad, nonreviewable discretionary authority to “suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens . . . he may deem to be appropriate” to protect “the interest of the United States.” Numerous presidents have used this authority to suspend entry of aliens from specific countries.

Further, as the Supreme Court explained in Knauff v. Shaughnessy (1950), the authority to exclude aliens “stems not alone from the legislative power but is inherent in the executive power to control the foreign affairs of the nation.” In issuing the order, the president was acting at the apex of his authority. As Justice Robert Jackson noted in Youngstown v. Sawyer (1952): “When the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum, for it includes all that he possesses in his own right plus all that Congress can delegate.” That point the Ninth Circuit ignored entirely.

The order, frequently mischaracterized as a “Muslim ban,” is actually directed at seven countries that the president believes present a particular threat to U.S. security—a view with which Congress agreed in 2015. All are beset by terrorists and so uncertain and chaotic that proper vetting of potential refugees and immigrants is virtually impossible.

President Obama chose to toughen vetting standards for these countries’ nationals rather than bar their entry completely. But if Mr. Trump has a different view of the threat, it is not up to the courts to decide who is right. This is a classic example of a nonjusticiable “political question,” involving matters constitutionally vested in the president and Congress.

Judges—were they adjudicating a suit brought by a party with standing—could overturn the president’s order if it entailed clear violations of due process or equal protection. But attempting to discern Mr. Trump’s motivation in selecting these countries exceeds the judiciary’s proper constitutional role. Judges scrutinize government motives in the domestic context, if presented with allegations that facially neutral governmental action is motivated by invidious discrimination. That inquiry is inappropriate in the foreign-policy sphere.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision represents an unprecedented judicial intrusion into the foreign-affairs authority of Congress and the president. The stakes transcend this particular executive order and even immigration issues generally. By removing restrictions on standing and other limitations on the exercise of judicial power, the Ninth Circuit would make the courts the ultimate arbiters of American foreign policy. The ruling risks creating both a constitutional and a security crisis. It must be reversed.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice constitutional and appellate law in Washington and served in the White House Counsel’s Office and U.S. Justice Department during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-ninth-circuit-ignores-precedent-and-threatens-national-security-1486748840

When Is a Judge Not Really a Judge?

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

Jan. 23, 2017 in the Wall Street Journal

An “alphabet soup” of federal agencies established since the 1930s have gradually supplanted the rule of Congress and the courts with the rule of supposed expertise. This accumulation of power is what James Madison identified in Federalist No. 47 as “the very definition of tyranny.” An example of this trend is the Securities and Exchange Commission’s increased use of in-house administrative law judges under the Obama administration.

Following high-profile losses in federal court—remember the insider trading charges against Mark Cuban?—the SEC decided to file fewer enforcement cases in courts presided over by independent judges. Instead, the agency began to take advantage of its in-house administrative law judges. Conveniently, a change in the Dodd-Frank Act authorized the agency’s judges to hear more kinds of cases and dispense more penalties.

Administrative law judges are agency employees. The proceedings they oversee provide fewer protections than court cases. They also tend to set stern deadlines and limit the right to factual investigation, often leaving defendants to rely on the SEC’s evidence. According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal analysis, the agency’s shift paid off: Through the beginning of that year, it won 90% of cases in its in-house court, compared with 69% of regular court cases. Administrative decisions can be appealed to court but are rarely reversed. That’s because the judges apply a deferential “clear error” standard to the agency’s factual findings.

The due-process problems inherent in this arrangement are apparent. Less obvious, at least to the SEC, is that it also violates the Constitution’s Appointments Clause, which requires Senate hearings and confirmation votes for department heads and other senior officials. To promote political accountability, the Constitution also requires that “inferior officers” with significant responsibility be appointed by the president or senior officials who are confirmed by the Senate.

This month, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the SEC’s administrative law judges aren’t mere employees but inferior officers. They take testimony, rule on motions, issue subpoenas, preside over triallike hearings, make factual determinations and can even enter judgments and impose penalties in certain circumstances. The court’s analysis was guided by a 1991 Supreme Court decision holding the same about “special trial judges” who had similar powers under the U.S. Tax Court. The SEC will surely appeal, and there is a high likelihood that the Supreme Court will affirm the lower court’s ruling.

The immediate problem for the SEC is that Congress hasn’t authorized the appointment of administrative law judges through the constitutional process. So the agency faces the risk, in cases it tries in-house, that its decisions will be voided. The SEC and its allies will push for a legislative fix so that in-house judges can be properly appointed. Congressional Republicans should use the demand for legislation as a bargaining chip for other reforms, such as restricting cases that can be heard in administrative courts.

But a legislative fix only heightens the contradictions of trying these cases outside of real courts. Due process requires that judges be neutral. A fix would make them political appointees.

Moreover, in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Accounting Oversight Board (2010), the Supreme Court struck down an arrangement whereby appointed officers were double-insulated from removal. They could lose their jobs only for good cause, and the agency head with the power to remove them could himself only be fired for good cause. That kind of double protection, the court explained, impermissibly “subverts the President’s ability to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed” and “the public’s ability to pass judgment on his efforts.”

Administrative law judges are nearly identically insulated from political control. They can be dismissed only for good cause by their agencies, and even then only if the Merit Systems Protection Board agrees. If the 10th Circuit’s decision is upheld, this will almost certainly be the next shoe to drop, and it will leave administrative law judges subject to political control.

That means the in-house judges will be political appointees subject to the supervision of other political appointees—and at risk of dismissal for failure to follow instructions. Will agencies be able to maintain the pretense that they are “judges” in any meaningful sense? It’s difficult to see how.

The SEC’s overreaching may spell the end of the administrative state’s growth—marking the point when Congress and the courts started to regain lost ground. Thanks, Mr. Obama.

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

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/when-is-a-judge-not-really-a-judge-1485215998

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

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

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

Let the Electoral College Do Its Duty

By DAVID B. RIVKIN, JR. and ANDREW M. GROSSMAN
September 7, 2016, in the Wall Street Journal

To those counting the days until Nov. 8 when the presidential election campaign will finally end, some bad news: The contest won’t truly be decided until the Electoral College’s vote on Dec. 19. Then again, this could be good news for Americans who still hope to escape the dilemma presented by the major parties’ nomination of two unpopular candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—but only if the electors’ constitutionally guaranteed independence is observed in the face of state laws seeking to control their votes.

America’s method of presidential selection is as peculiar and clever as the federalism and separation-of-powers principles that fostered it. To guard against the passions of populism, the Framers interposed a college of state-based electors between voters and the actual presidential selection. To discourage political obligation and intrigue, they provided that the electors would meet just once, in their respective states, for the sole purpose of casting ballots for the next president and vice president.

And to prevent the presidency from being captured by regional interests, they required the winner to obtain a majority of the Electoral College votes. Failing that, the election is thrown to the House of Representatives, to choose among the top three vote-getters.

Today, the Electoral College vote is regarded as a nearly mechanical process: The parties nominate their slates, elector seats are awarded (in most states) to the popular vote winner’s party slate, and a few weeks later the electors certify what the people have already chosen.

In an unusual campaign year like this one, however, that may be too much to take for granted. Electors are typically party stalwarts, but many ideologically committed Democrats and Republicans lack enthusiasm for this year’s top-of-ticket candidates. Several would-be Republican electors are already publicly flirting with the idea of casting their votes for someone other than Mr. Trump, believing that his erratic outbursts have “disqualified” him from being president.

Right or wrong, that is exactly the kind of discernment that the Constitution demands electors exercise. It was their duty, Alexander Hamilton explained, to ensure that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

Instead, representing the interests of their states and constituents, the electors would vote only for those possessing “the esteem and confidence of the whole Union” sufficient to win the requisite majority vote, thereby providing “a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” If the parties have failed in that task, then it falls to the electors to provide a final check.

Elector independence is also a practical necessity. Federal law provides no other means to respond to the death or incapacitation of the popular vote-winner after Election Day but before the Electoral College votes. Likewise, death or disability shortly before Election Day may present the same quandary, given state-law delays in altering ballots. And should electors blind themselves to revelations of corruption or foreign control that might emerge in the weeks before they meet? To deal with all of these contingencies, the Framers’ intention was that electors would exercise their discretion and judgment.

As a matter of original constitutional meaning, elector independence is not a controversial proposition. Both Article II of the Constitution and the 12th Amendment, which clarified the selection of the vice president, provide that electors shall “vote by ballot,” a term of art referring to secret ballots rather than publicly cast votes.

By contrast, other constitutional provisions use words like “choose” or “election” that do not indicate secrecy. Voting in secret is the means by which electors may exercise their discretion, free from any attempt to control their vote.

Nonetheless, 29 states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books purporting to bind electors to vote for their party’s candidate or in accord with the state’s popular vote. Some enforce those mandates with fines or even criminal penalties—typically a misdemeanor charge. Others regard the casting of a “faithless” elector vote as resignation from the post and cancellation of the ballot. Despite dozens of electors choosing over the years to cast ballots for someone other than their party’s candidate or to abstain, these laws have never been enforced. Nonetheless, their very existence misleads the public and, even worse, chills electors from discharging their duty to exercise judgment.

The time is ripe to put an end to this legal charade and establish, as federal-court precedent, that the Constitution forbids enforcement of elector-binding mandates. The Supreme Court ruled in a 1952 decision, Ray v. Blair , that delegate pledges are unobjectionable, as nothing prevents an elector from announcing his intended vote beforehand. But the court recognized that enforcement of pledges raises constitutional concerns.

State courts that have considered the matter have held that elector pledges can impose, in the words of the Supreme Court of Ohio in 1948, only “a moral obligation, not a legal one.” As that court concluded, when a state attempts to “dictate to the electors the choice which they must make for president and vice president, it has invaded the field set apart to the electors by the Constitution of the United States, and such action cannot stand.”

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington, D.C. They represented Beau Correll, a delegate to the Republican National Convention, in his successful legal challenge to Virginia’s delegate-binding statute.

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/let-the-electoral-college-do-its-duty-1473290734