Sunday, February 9, 2014

Why not even Congress can sue the administration over unconstitutional executive actions

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about technology in the classroom during a visit to Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Maryland February 4, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque  

What happens if a president refuses to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” as required by Article II of the Constitution? The Framers assumed that neither Congress nor the courts would tolerate such usurpation. In Federalist No. 48, James Madison said power was “so divided and balanced among several bodies … that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.” Madison’s confidence assumes a wayward president could be reversed by the courts, reigned in by Congress or — as a last resort — impeached. But what if none of these checks and balances works? Americans may soon find out.
First, courts have limited ability to check a president’s failure to execute. The primary obstacle is “standing,” a doctrine that requires a plaintiff to have a concrete, personal injury in order to sue. Citizens can’t file generic lawsuits to enforce the Constitution; they must prove that the government has harmed them in a personal, palpable way.
When a president delays or exempts people from a law — so-called benevolent suspensions — who has standing to sue him? Generally, no one. Benevolent suspensions of law don’t, by definition, create a sufficiently concrete injury for standing. That’s why, when President Obama delayed various provisions of Obamacare — the employer mandate, the annual out-of-pocket caps, the prohibition on the sale of “substandard” policies — his actions cannot be challenged in court.
Similarly, when the president decided not to deport certain young people, not to prosecute most marijuana users, and rewrote the work requirement of welfare reform, courts cannot rule on these acts’ constitutionality because no individual has suffered the personal harm required for standing. Sure, the Constitution and its separation of powers are tremendously harmed. But the Supreme Court has made clear such generalized societal harms won’t suffice.
Congress probably can’t sue the president, either. The Supreme Court has severely restricted so-called “congressional standing,” creating a presumption against allowing members of Congress to sue the president merely because he fails to faithfully execute its laws.

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