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Posts Tagged ‘Oliver Ellsworth’

Over at The  Volokh Conspiracy, Nick Rosenkranz has a post titled “James Madison Anticipates the Possibility of Government Shutdown–and Predicts that the House of Representatives Can and Should Prevail.” The post consists of an extended quotation from Federalist No. 58 that Rosenkranz interprets as predicting that the House of Representatives “can and should prevail” in a battle of wills over their exercise of the power of the purse.

Rosenkranz’s post brings to mind an early episode in our nation’s history in which the House sought to use its appropriations authority to block “the law of the land” from taking effect: the fight over appropriations to implement the vastly unpopular Jay Treaty. The short of it is that Madison, in the House, lost. But the short version leaves much out (and the circumstances of that showdown are different from present circumstances in some obvious ways, of course). For some primary sources on the debate over the Jay Treaty, see the relevant portion of the collection edited by Lance Banning, available at The Online Library of Liberty: Liberty and Order the First American Party Struggle.

Of potential interest to students of federal judicial power, in The Supreme Court in the Early Republic, William Casto describes a nine-page opinion letter about the legal issues raised by the House’s opposition that was authored by Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth as a type of advisory opinion:

Almost as soon as Ellsworth took his oath as Chief Justice, he–like Chief Justices Jay and Rutledge before him–became entangled in a political facet of Jay’s treaty. The Senate had consented to the Treaty, but it could not be implemented without an appropriate of funds, and this technicality gave its opponents one last chance to defeat it. The Republican leaders in the House maintained that they had the right to judge the wisdom of the Treaty and to refuse to appropriate the necessary funds if they deemed it unacceptable. To assist the House in its consideration, Congressman Edward Livingston of New York called for the President to provide copies of all papers relevant to the Treaty’s negotiation.

Five days after Ellsworth became Chief Justice, he wrote an extensive advisory opinion on these developments. Although the opinion is in the form of a nine-page letter to Senator Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, it wound up in George Washington’s files docketed under the subject “treaty making power.” Whether Ellsworth wrote the letter in response to an indirect request from the President is not known, but the Chief Justice clearly intended his letter to be a formal legal opinion. His basic analysis was that, under the Constitution, the treaty-making power is vested solely in the President and the Senate. Once a treaty was approved by the Senate and ratified by the President, it became a “law of the land” binding upon the House. The fact that the Treaty coincidentally required an appropriation to carry it into effect was “an accidental circumstance [that did] not give the house any more right to examine the expediency of the Treaty, or control its operation, than they would have without this circumstance.” The House was therefore bound to appropriate the funds “as it is to appropriate for the President’s salary, or that of the Judges.” The President subsequently refused to provide the requested papers, and the Federalists in Congress mustered barely enough votes to appropriate the funds necessary to implement the Treaty.

[Casto at 97-98]

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