Article II, Section 2, Clause 2:
He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
Save for the provision which it makes for a power of impeachment of
civil officers of the United States, the Constitution contains no reference to a power to remove from office, and until its decision in Myers v. United States, 1 on October 25, 1926, the Supreme Court had contrived to sidestep every occasion for a decisive pronouncement regarding the removal power, its extent, and location. The point immediately at issue in the Myers case was the effectiveness of an order of the Postmaster General, acting by direction of the President, to remove from office a first-class postmaster, in the face of the following provision of an act of Congress passed in 1876:
Postmasters of the first, second, and third classes shall be appointed and may be removed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, and shall hold their offices for four years unless sooner removed or suspended according to law. 2
A divided Court, speaking through Chief Justice Taft, held the order of removal valid and the statutory provision just quoted void. The Chief Justice’s relied mainly on the so-called
decision of 1789, which referred to Congress’s that year inserting in the act establishing the Department of State a proviso that was meant to imply recognition that the Secretary would be removable by the President at will. The proviso was especially urged by Madison, who invoked in support of it the opening words of Article II and the President’s duty to
take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.
Succeeding passages of the Chief Justice’s opinion erected on this basis a highly selective account of doctrine and practice regarding the removal power down to the Civil War, which was held to yield the following results:
Article II grants to the President the executive power of the Government, i.e., the general administrative control of those executing the laws, including the power of appointment and removal of executive officers – a conclusion confirmed by his obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed; that Article II excludes the exercise of legislative power by Congress to provide for appointments and removals, except only as granted therein to Congress in the matter of inferior offices; that Congress is only given power to provide for appointments and removals of inferior officers after it has vested, and on condition that it does vest, their appointment in other authority than the President with the Senate’s consent; that the provisions of the second section of Article II, which blend action by the legislative branch, or by part of it, in the work of the executive, are limitations to be strictly construed and not to be extended by implication; that the President’s power of removal is further established as an incident to his specifically enumerated function of appointment by and with the advice of the Senate, but that such incident does not by implication extend to removals the Senate’s power of checking appointments; and finally that to hold otherwise would make it impossible for the President, in case of political or other differences with the Senate or Congress, to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. 3
The holding in Myers boils down to the proposition that the Constitution endows the President with an illimitable power to remove all officers in whose appointment he has participated, with the exception of federal judges. The motivation of the holding was not, it may be assumed, any ambition on the Chief Justice’s part to set history aright – or awry. 4 Rather, it was the concern that he voiced in the following passage in his opinion:
There is nothing in the Constitution which permits a distinction between the removal of the head of a department or a bureau, when he discharges a political duty of the President or exercises his discretion, and the removal of executive officers engaged in the discharge of their other normal duties. The imperative reasons requiring an unrestricted power to remove the most important of his subordinates in their most important duties must, therefore, control the interpretation of the Constitution as to all appointed by him. 5
Thus spoke the former President Taft, and the result of his prepossession was a rule that, as was immediately pointed out, exposed the so-called
independent agencies – the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the like – to presidential domination. Unfortunately, the Chief Justice, while professing to follow Madison’s leadership, had omitted to weigh properly the very important observation that the latter had made at the time regarding the office of Comptroller of the Treasury.
The Committee, said Madison,
has gone through the bill without making any provision respecting the tenure by which the comptroller is to hold his office. I think it is a point worthy of consideration, and shall, therefore, submit a few observations upon it. It will be necessary to consider the nature of this office, to enable us to come to a right decision on the subject; in analyzing its properties, we shall easily discover they are of a judiciary quality as well as the executive; perhaps the latter obtains in the greatest degree. The principal duty seems to be deciding upon the lawfulness and justice of the claims and accounts subsisting between the United States and particular citizens: this partakes strongly of the judicial character, and there may be strong reasons why an officer of this kind should not hold his office at the pleasure of the executive branch of the government. 6 In Humphrey's Executor v. United States, 7 the Court seized upon
the nature of the office concept and applied it as a corrective to the overbroad Myers holding.