Friday, January 13, 2006

Unitary Executive and Legislative History

This week's hearings on Judge Alito's confirmation has provided an interesting confluence between an issue in the news (the unitary executive theory) and legislative history research.

Several of the Democratic senators pressed Judge Alito on his view of this unitary executive philosophy, held by President Bush. Their concern arises from the fact that President Bush has, possibly over 100 times, expressed his intention to interpret Congressional legislation in light of this unitary executive viewpoint. How does all of this relate to legislative history research?

These expressions from President Bush are found in the Presidential signing statements (found in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents). When presidents sign bills passed by Congress into law, they frequently issue a statement. President Bush has adopted the practice of stating his interpretation of the law in those statements (a practice believed to have started with President Reagan.) This has become particularly controversial very recently in light of the passage of the "McCain amendment" regarding treatment of detainees. In his signing statement for that law , President Bush invokes the unitary executive notion and discusses, in some detail, how the executive branch will interpret the law. (See the discussion of Title X on p. 1919 for the President's statement regarding treatment of detainees.) There is considerable debate as to whether any President can affect the interpretation of laws in this fashion.

So, the next time you cringe when you have a legislative history project, remember it can have some very real, and fascinating "hot topic" implications.

Ernster, the Virtual Library Cat

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