Plucking the chicken one feather at a time

Plucking the chicken one feather at a time

by digby

I posted an interview with Madeline Albright earlier in which she quotes Mussolini saying "if you pluck a chicken one feather at a time nobody notices." Here's a feather:

The Supreme Court is set to hear a seemingly minor case later this month on the status of administrative judges at the Securities and Exchange Commission, an issue that normally might only draw the interest of those accused of stock fraud.

But the dispute turns on the president's power to hire and fire officials throughout the government. And it comes just as the White House is saying President Trump believes he has the power to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Trump's Solicitor Gen. Noel Francisco intervened in the SEC case to urge the high court to clarify the president's constitutional power to fire all "officers of the United States" who "exercise significant authority" under the law.

"The Constitution gives the president what the framers saw as the traditional means of ensuring accountability: the power to oversee executive officers through removal," he wrote in Lucia vs. SEC. "The president is accordingly authorized under our constitutional system to remove all principal officers, as well as all 'inferior officers' he has appointed."

In addition to representing the administration before the Supreme Court, Francisco, a former law clerk for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, could be in line to oversee the Mueller inquiry if Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein is fired. Atty. Gen Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the investigation.

Peter Shane, a law professor at the Ohio State University, called Francisco's argument a "radical proposition," and one that goes beyond what is at issue in the case. The justices said they would focus only on how the SEC in-house judges are appointed. But Francisco is asking them to go further and rule on the "removal" issue.

"The solicitor general is obviously trying to goad the court into a broad statement about the removability of all officers of the United States," Shane said. "Were the court to make any such statement, it would surely be cited by Trump as backing any move by him to fire Mueller directly."

For decades, constitutional experts have fundamentally disagreed about the balance of power between Congress and the president.

Many of them, especially liberals, argue that because Congress has "all legislative powers," it can structure the government as it sees fit, including by creating independent agencies that are not under the president's direct control.

But others, mostly conservatives, adhere to what is sometimes called the "unitary executive" theory. They argue that because the Constitution puts executive power in the hands of one president, he is thereby entitled to hire and fire all those who wield significant executive authority.

Francisco points to two provisions of the Constitution as giving the president very broad authority. One says the president shall appoint ambassadors, judges and "all other officers of United States." The other says the president "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed."

"The president's constitutional responsibility to faithfully execute the laws requires adequate authority to remove subordinate officers," Francisco told the court in February. "The framers understood the close connection between the president's ability to discharge his responsibilities as head of the executive branch and his control over its personnel…. The president's ability to execute the law is thus inextricably linked to his authority to hold his subordinates accountable for their conduct."

Francisco's defense of broad presidential power is likely to win favor with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the court's other conservatives. In 2010, Roberts spoke for a 5-4 majority that struck down a provision in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which created an independent public accounting board at the SEC whose members could be fired only for "good cause."

Roberts said shielding these "officers of the United States" from presidential control was unconstitutional. "Since 1789, the Constitution has been understood to empower the president to keep these officers accountable — by removing them from office, if necessary," he wrote in Free Enterprise Fund vs. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.

It's possible that the conservatives on the court will finally see the folly of the unitary executive now that we have a cretinous demagogue as president. But I wouldn't count on it. This has been fundamental to modern conservative legal thinking. You'd think Donald Trump would force them all to re-evaluate the idea that it's good to put so much power into the hands of one man but Trump doesn't seem to have changed the conservative movement's ideas much in other ways so I'm not sanguine that they've evolved in this way either.

The fact that the man making the argument to the Court is the one in the succession if Trump fires Mueller is just icing on the cake.