The Role of the Courts: Important Cases


My name is Lakisha Fani. Would you
please give an example of an important case decided by the Supreme Court that
speaks to the issue of separation of powers? Of course the Supreme Court over
the years has had many, many cases involving the separation of powers, and
we often think of the more recent cases involving the Guantanamo detainees as
separation of powers, but I’d like instead to go back in time in history to
more than fifty years ago to what is known as the steel seizure case also
known as the Youngstown Sheet and Tube case. To set it in time it’s 1952, it’s
the height of the Korean War of course steel is critical to the war effort. The
steel mills threatened at that time to go on strike. President Truman was very
concerned that if the mills went on strike that the country would not have
the resources necessary to have an effective and complete military effort,
so under his emergency powers he stepped in, and in effect seized the steel mills
under federal authority. It didn’t take long, however for the Supreme Court to
then step in and the Supreme Court was quite clear that the President had
overstepped his bounds. They said basically, the president’s role is to
enforce the law, he’s not a lawmaker, and that the in seizing the mills he had
basically exceeded his presidential powers. Now that case is seen as a
somewhat very rare example of where the court stepped in and said to the
president, even though it’s a time of war you don’t have the power to step in, you
have a certain role the courts have a certain role and the legislature has a
certain role. The case that comes to mind concerning separation of powers is the
case of United States versus Nixon that rose out of the Watergate scandal in
1974. The special prosecutor who had been appointed sought through a subpoena to
get certain tapes that were the result of conversations that had occurred
within the Oval Office. The President United States, Richard Nixon resisted
that subpoena. He cited broadly executive power, not specific to diplomatic or
military or national security, but just that any conversation should be kept
confidential. The Supreme Court of the United States refused to quash the
subpoena. The Supreme Court said that to do that would interfere with separation
of powers, and in particular the administration of the criminal justice
system by the federal courts. It utilized the oft-stated phrase that no man not
even the President of the United States is above the law and the upshot of that decision
was that the President did not have the veto power over the Supreme Court and
President Nixon turned over the tapes. 2006 in Hamdan versus Rumsfeld. That case
involved one of the many Guantanamo detainees who was apprehended during the
beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was charged with a conspiracy
offense, to be tried by a military commission established by President Bush,
and he filed a habeas corpus action in federal district court, claiming that
conspiracy offense was not try-able by a military commission for a lot of various
reasons. While that case was pending, the district court granted habeas relief but
then Congress passed the Military Detainee Act, which purported to
streamline all legal attacks by Guantanamo detainees on their detention.
And it also purported to provide in part that no court or judge or justice was to
hear any further attacks by Guantanamo detainees through habeas jurisdiction.
And the whole question at least one of the big questions in front of the
Supreme Court was whether not that act had stripped the federal
courts of jurisdiction of an ongoing case and the Supreme Court ultimately
ruled that it did not by a 5-3 vote, but I think that case raised separation of
powers issues, because it involved the President and Congress trying to limit
the authority and jurisdiction of federal courts in habeas cases that were
already pending, which is obviously usually a separation of powers issue, and
then it also raised the ability of a federal court like the Supreme Court to
limit the meaning of a federal law so as to not allow for the stripping of
jurisdiction.

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