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Context of 'March 2, 2009: Bush Became ‘Close to Unconstitutional Dictator,’ Says Former White House Counsel'

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President Bush has abused his prerogative to issue “signing statements” that state the White House’s interpretion of Congressionally passed laws (see Early 2005), according to former White House counsel John Dean and constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe.
History - Signing statements have no weight in law, but presidents have traditionally used them to state their belief that a particular legislative provision is unconstitutional, and on rare occasion (before the current president) to state their refusal to enforce that provision. Since Jimmy Carter’s administration, various Justice Department officials have said presidents can refuse to enforce a particular provision of signed, legally binding legislation. [Dean, 2007, pp. 112-116] A group of young conservative lawyers in the Reagan administration decided that signing statements were a powerful, and stealthy, way to expand presidential power.
Dean: Bush's Use of Signing Statements 'Extraordinary' - However, Dean says that Bush has used signing statements far more extensively than any president before him. Dean notes that, while presidential signing statements themselves are not illegal or inherently wrong, “[i]t is Bush’s abuse of them that is extraordinary.” Dean writes there has been no concerted effort to find out if Bush is just saying he will not comply with the inordinate number of legislative provisions he has objected to, or if he is refusing to comply with them in practice. If the latter is the case, Dean writes, “he should be impeached immediately… because it would be an extraordinary breach of his oath” of office.
Tribe: Bush's Signing Statements 'Bizarre,' 'Reckless' - Dean cites Tribe, who said in 2006, “[W]hat is new and distressing [about Bush’s use of signing statements] is the bizarre, frighteningly self-serving, and constitutionally reckless character of those views—and the suspicion that the president either intends actually to act on them with some regularity, often in a manner that won’t be publicly visible at the time, or intends them as declarations of hegemony and contempt for the coordinate branches—declarations that he hopes will gradually come to be accepted in the constitutional culture as descriptions of the legal and political landscape properly conceived and as precedents for later action either by his own or by future administrations.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 112-116; Joyce Green, 2007] Political science professor Christopher Kelley agrees. Kelley, who studied the Bush administration’s use of signing statements, says: “What we haven’t seen until this administration is the sheer number of objections that are being raised on every bill passed through the White House. That is what is staggering. The numbers are well out of the norm from any previous administration.”
Signing Statements Supplanting Vetoes - In another disturbing trend, according to author and reporter Charlie Savage, Bush is using signing statements to supplant the traditional presidential veto. By mid-2007, Bush had vetoed just two bills. In contrast, Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, vetoed 37 bills. George H. W. Bush vetoed 44, and Ronald Reagan vetoed 78. Legal experts studying Bush’s signing statements conclude that Bush and his legal team are using signing statements to function almost as line-item vetoes, a power the president does not have. The Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the Founding Fathers wanted the president to either accept a Congressional bill or reject it entirely, and if Congress overrode the veto, then the president had no other recourse than to follow the new law. But now, Savage writes, “the Bush-Cheney administration had figured out that if a president signed a bill and then instructed the government to consider selected provisions null (see December 30, 2005), he could accomplish much the same thing. Moreover, it was an absolute power because, unlike when there is a regular veto, Congress had no opportunity to override his legal judgments.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 230-231]

Entity Tags: Laurence Tribe, John Dean, US Department of Justice, George W. Bush, Charlie Savage, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., Christopher Kelley

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean says that after reading the nine newly released Bush-era Justice Department memos that asserted sweeping powers for the president not granted by the Constitution (see March 2, 2009), “you’ve gotta almost conclude we had an unconstitutional dictator. It’s pretty deadly and pretty serious, what’s in these materials.” Anyone deemed a terrorist by President Bush could be kidnapped, incarcerated, and tortured, all without any legal recourse. “Who in this formula was supposed to decide that these were terrorists?” asks MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. Dean replies: “Well, according to these memos, that was rather limited to the president of the United States and there are no guidelines as to how he might describe who was or was not a terrorist. The president can unilaterally or, theoretically, even somebody he delegates can decide who indeed can be incarcerated, who can not. That is why I say, this is pretty close to being an unconstitutional dictator, in any definition under the law of this country.” [MSNBC, 3/2/2009; Raw Story, 3/3/2009]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), John Dean, US Department of Justice, George W. Bush, Keith Olbermann

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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