From The Boston Globe:
The board of governors of the American Bar Association voted unanimously yesterday to investigate whether President Bush has exceeded his constitutional authority in reserving the right to ignore more than 750 laws that have been enacted since he took office.
Meeting in New Orleans, the board of governors for the world's largest association of legal professionals approved the creation of an all-star legal panel with a number of members from both political parties.
They include a former federal appeals court chief judge, a former FBI director, and several prominent scholars — to evaluate Bush's assertions that he has the power to ignore laws that conflict with his interpretation of the Constitution.
Bush has appended statements to new laws when he signs them, noting which provisions he believes interfere with his powers.
Among the laws Bush has challenged are the ban on torturing detainees, oversight provisions in the USA Patriot Act, and “whistle-blower" protections for federal employees.
The challenges also have included safeguards against political interference in taxpayer-funded research.
Bush has challenged more laws than all previous presidents combined.
The ABA's president, Michael Greco, said in an interview that he proposed the task force because he believes the scope and aggressiveness of Bush's signing statements may raise serious constitutional concerns. He said the ABA, which has more than 400,000 members, has a duty to speak out about such legal issues to the public, the courts, and Congress.
“The American Bar Association feels a very serious obligation to ensure that when there are legal issues that affect the American people, the ABA adopts a policy regarding such issues and then speaks out about it," Greco said. “In this instance, the president's practice of attaching signing statements to laws squarely presents a constitutional issue about the separation of powers among the three branches."
The signing statements task force, which was recruited by Greco, a longtime Boston lawyer who served on former Governor William F. Weld's Judicial Nominating Council, includes several Republicans. Among them are Mickey Edwards , a former Oklahoma representative from 1977 to 1993, and Bruce Fein , a Justice Department official under President Reagan.
In interviews, several of the panel members said they were going into the project with an open mind, but they expressed concerns about Bush's actions.
“I think one of the most critical issues in the country right now is the extent to which the White House has tried to expand its powers and basically tried to cut the legislative branch out of its own constitutionally equal role, and the signing statements are a particularly egregious example of that," Edwards said. “I've been doing a lot of speaking and writing about this, and when the ABA said they were looking to take a position on signing statements, I said that's serious because those people carry a lot of weight."
William Sessions , a retired federal judge who was the director of the FBI under both Reagan and President George H.W. Bush , said he agreed to participate because he believed that the signing statements raise a “serious problem" for the American constitutional system.
“I think it's very important for the people of the United States to have trust and reliance that the president is not going around the law," Sessions said. “The importance of it speaks for itself."
Another member, Patricia Wald, is a retired chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, appointed by President Carter.
She said she had monitored the use of signing statements by previous administrations, but “the accelerated use in recent years presents a real question about separation of powers and checks and balances."
Wald also said she was especially interested in studying how signing statements affect the federal bureaucracy. As a judge, Wald said, she dealt with many cases involving challenges to decisions made by administrative agencies. She said that courts are deferential to such decisions because they are supposed to be made by objective specialists in the agencies. But a heavy use of signing statements could call that assumption into question.
“If Congress passes a law telling the people in the bureaucracy that `this is what you should do,' and the president signs it but attaches a statement saying `I don't want you to do it,' how is that going to affect the motivation of the bureaucracy?" she said.
The task force also includes several prominent legal scholars, such as Harold Koh , dean of Yale Law School and a former official in the Reagan and Clinton administrations; Kathleen Sullivan , former dean of Stanford Law School; Charles Ogletree , a Harvard law professor; and Stephen Saltzburg , a professor at George Washington University Law School.
Saltzburg — who was a Justice Department official under Reagan and the first president Bush, as well as a prosecutor in the Iran-Contra scandal — said he did not believe that signing statements were unconstitutional.
But, he said, frequent use of them could create bad perceptions about whether the US government obeys the rule of law.
“The president can say anything he wants when he signs a bill," Saltzburg said. “[But] what does it say about respect for the Constitution and for the notion of checks and balances to have the president repeatedly claim the authority not to obey statutes, which he is signing into law?"
Rounding out the panel are Mark Agrast , a former legislative counsel for Representative William D. Delahunt , Democrat of Quincy, and Thomas Susman, who worked in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel under both Presidents Johnson and Nixon , and was later counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Susman said he agreed to serve out of intellectual curiosity: “I think it's a fascinating subject," he said. The task force is chaired by Neal Sonnett , a former federal prosecutor. Earlier this year, Sonnett chaired a similar ABA panel of bipartisan specialists who studied the legality of Bush's warrantless spying program.
The earlier panel unanimously concluded that Bush should obey a law requiring warrants for such surveillance, or he should ask Congress to change the law, rather than simply ignoring it.
In February, the ABA House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly to endorse the surveillance task force's recommendations, enabling Greco to testify about the program before Congress.
Sonnett said he planned to run the task force in a similar fashion. The group will discuss the issues in telephone conference calls. They will also divide up issues to research for the report that will accompany any of their recommendations, circulating drafts until they reach a consensus.
The task force will make its recommendation this summer, Greco said, and the 550-member ABA House of Delegates will vote on whether to adopt its findings at a meeting in August.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, promised to hold a hearing on Bush's use of signing statements.
Specter pledged the action after an article in The Boston Globe described the scope and details of Bush's assertions concerning the laws in them.
Greco and Sonnett also said the Globe's coverage of signing statements had persuaded them to launch the task force