Panel Considers Presidential Signing Statements

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On August 21, the Program in Public Law will host a lunchtime panel discussion on the legal significance of presidential signing statements. The event will begin at 12:15 p.m. in room 3041 at the Law School. It is free and open to the public.

The long-established practice of presidents issuing statements when they sign legislation has drawn controversy recently, in part because of statements issued by President Bush in the context of the war on terrorism. Most prominent among these was a statement regarding the Detainee Treatment Act, explained Richard and Marcy Horvitz Professor of Law Curtis Bradley, who is organizing the panel.

“That statute, among other things, prohibits the United States from subjecting detainees to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” said Bradley, the associate director of the Program in Public Law. “In signing the legislation, President Bush indicated that that provision, at least in some circumstances, might not be binding on the executive because it might intrude on his constitutional authority as commander in chief. He also indicated [in his statement] that he construed a provision restricting habeas corpus review in the courts as applying to pending cases.” The Supreme Court rejected that view in its June 29 decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.

“Critics have argued that President Bush has in effect claimed the ability to ignore duly enacted laws, and that this will undermine the separation of powers and the rule of law. There have been assertions that his practice on signing statements has been much more aggressive than under prior administrations and prior presidents,” said Bradley. In late July the American Bar Association issued a task force report critical of signing statements and Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill that would allow federal court challenges to the constitutionality of the positions taken by the president in his statements.

Duke Law Professor Walter Dellinger will take part in the August 21 discussion. As head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Clinton administration, certain of Dellinger’s memoranda have entered into the current debate, including one opinion as to whether the president, under some circumstances, can disregard statutes that he believes to be unconstitutional.

For more information contact Frances Presma (919) 613-7248 or