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Context of '1936: Supreme Court Rules that President Has Wide Powers to Conduct Foreign Affairs'

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President Theodore Roosevelt, wielding what will become known as the theory of inherent power, declares that the presidency has a “residuum of powers” to do anything not specifically forbidden by the Constitution. Without asking Congress for its approval, Roosevelt launches the project to build the Panama Canal, sends the US Navy around the world, and sends US troops to the Dominican Republic. In 2009, reporter and author Charlie Savage will write, “Roosevelt’s views… contained the seeds of the imperial presidency that would arise during the first decades of the Cold War.” Roosevelt’s successor, future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft, will disagree, and Taft’s presidency will restore some of the limits on presidential power removed by Roosevelt. [Savage, 2007, pp. 17-18]

Entity Tags: William Howard Taft, Charlie Savage, Theodore Roosevelt

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Supreme Court rules in United States v. Curtiss-Wright, a case revolving around Curtiss-Wright’s illicit sale of machine guns to Bolivia in violation of a joint resolution passed by Congress. The Court finds that Congress did not cede undue powers to the president in the resolution, and that the president has a wide array of powers in the area of foreign policy making that he does not have in the domestic arena. Justice George Sutherland, who writes the majority opinion, notes the distinctions between foreign and internal affairs, arguing that because “the president alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation,” Congress may provide the president with a special degree of discretion in external matters which would not be afforded domestically. In an aside to the decision, Sutherland notes what he calls the “plenary and exclusive power of the president as the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations,” a power which, if correctly cited, gives the executive branch sole authority to conduct foreign relations in everything from treaties and trade agreements to launching and conducting wars. However, Sutherland’s statement is written as an adjunct to the majority opinion, or dicta, and therefore has no legal stature. In later examinations of Sutherland’s work, many legal scholars will determine that Sutherland is misquoting his original source, the Supreme Court’s first Chief Justice, John Marshall, who as a House member argued that the president has the duty to carry out the nation’s treaty obligations and is the exclusive channel for diplomatic communications. Marshall did not argue that the legislative or judicial branches had no authority over foreign policy, and never espoused that argument once ascending to the high court. Many advocates of the so-called “unitary executive theory” of presidential power will cite Sutherland’s erroneous dicta in making their own arguments for untrammeled presidential power. [Savage, 2007, pp. 141; Oyez (.org), 6/2007]

Entity Tags: George Sutherland, Curtiss-Wright, John Marshall, Roosevelt administration, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Roosevelt, using what he calls his inherent power as commander in chief, creates a military commission to try eight Nazi saboteurs captured inside the US in the case of Ex parte Quirin. The eight are quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court later backs Roosevelt’s authority to have them tried by a commission. The Court’s decision is unusually hasty, and several of the justices who voted in Roosevelt’s favor later express regret for their approval. Roosevelt himself is unsure of the procedure’s legality, the Court’s decision and his own powers as president notwithstanding. When more Nazi saboteurs are captured later in the war, they are tried in criminal courts. [Savage, 2007, pp. 136]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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