The coming legal fight over the wall

  • 19 February 2019
  • NormanL

The president's declaration of a "national emergency" to spur construction of roughly 200 miles of physical wall along the U.S.-Maeico border has generated a lot of commentary, and plenty of threats of legal action. How might the courts look upon this emergency declaration? Prof. Jonathan Turley writes it's very possible the president wins his fight over wall funding:

Congress later gave presidents sweeping authority under the National Emergencies Act of 1976. While this law allows for a legislative override by Congress, the authority to declare national emergencies is basically unfettered. It is one of many such laws where Congress created the thin veneer of a process for presidential power that, in reality, was a virtual blank slate. At the same time, Congress has continued to give the executive branch billions of dollars with few conditions or limitations.

This is why President Obama was able to go to war in Libya without a declaration and fund the entire war with billions of undedicated funds. Neither House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nor most of the current Democratic leadership made a peep of objection at this. But when it comes to the wall, Democrats have indicated they will rely on the ruling in House of Representatives versus Sylvia Burwell, in which the court declared the House of Representatives had standing to sue over executive overreach and that Obama violated the Constitution in ordering the payment of billions to insurance companies without authorization from Congress.

Turley says that case doesn't really apply to current circumstances:

I was lead counsel for the House of Representatives in that case. Ironically, Pelosi vehemently opposed the litigation as a frivolous and unfounded challenge to presidential authority. We won the case. Superficially, it may look like the wall controversy. Obama sought funds from Congress and, when unsuccessful, acted unilaterally. But Obama ordered the money directly from the Treasury as a permanent appropriation, like the money used to pay tax refunds. Congress had never approved such payments.

Conversely, Trump is using appropriated funds. Like the authority under the National Emergencies Act, Congress gave this money to the executive branch without meaningful limitations. Trump now has almost $1.4 billion in newly approved funds to use for border protection. He has identified about $8 billion in loosely dedicated funds for military construction, drug interdiction, and forfeitures. Even if a court disagreed with the use of this money, Trump has the power and funds to start construction of the wall.

The real problem, Turley says, is Congress has surrendered too much of its power to the executive branch:

In many areas, it has reduced the legislative branch to a mere pedestrian in government, leaving real governing decisions to a kind of “fourth branch” of federal agencies. For their part, presidents have thus become more and more bold in circumventing Congress. When Obama gave a State of the Union proclaiming his intention to bypass Congress after it failed to pass immigration reform, Democrats applauded loudly.

Many of them, like Pelosi, denounce this unilateral action by Trump yet ecstatically supported the unilateral actions by Obama, including his funding of some critical parts of the Affordable Care Act after Congress denied any funds. Democrats insist Trump can be challenged on his use of emergency authority since they do not believe an emergency exists on the southern border. They will fail spectacularly if the case gets to the Supreme Court. While the source of funding can be challenged, there is no compelling basis to challenge the national emergency declaration.

The reason? Congress has never been particularly concerned over past declared emergencies, which have continued with perfunctory annual renewals. Most such emergencies are entirely unknown to the vast majority of Americans. Indeed, the first proclamation of a national emergency occurred under President Wilson in 1917, “arising from the insufficiency of maritime tonnage to carry the products of the farms, forests, mines, and manufacturing industries of the United States.”

Remember that national emergency over the “anchorage and movement of vessels” with respect to Cuba? How about the national emergency over uncut diamonds from Sierra Leone? Then there were the declarations over property owned by certain figures in Zimbabwe, the presidential election in Congo, and issues concerning Yemen, Burundi, Myanmar, Lebanon, Somalia, and South Sudan. All of these were “national emergencies.”

We will have to wait and see what comes of any litigation against the president's national emergency declaration. But we do firmly agree with the argument that Congress has given far too much power to the presidency, allowing for an almost unlimited amount of extra-constitutional mischief.

 

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