Removal of Context: Blackstone, Limited Monarchy, and the Limits of Unitary Originalism

I have posted a new paper on SSRN here: “Removal of Context: Blackstone, Limited Monarchy, and the Limits of Unitary Originalism,” forthcoming in the Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, 2022.

In the course of writing this paper, I have found a series of misinterpretations of historical sources by unitary executive scholars, including a misquotation of Blackstone in a 2020 amicus brief in the Supreme Court case Seila Law v. CFPB. Over the next few posts, I will detail some of those misquotations and misinterpretations. These are more than small interpretative errors. They often get the big points backwards, such as Blackstone as fundamental contrary evidence to the unitary theorists’ assumptions, or the lack of support for indefeasible removal power, or how the First Congress actually rejected the unitary theory. In our current moment when originalism claims to be the most reliable and objective method of interpretation, these errors and misinterpretations should give us pause about such certainties.

Here is the abstract of this paper below. More to come in a series of historically detailed and dense posts.

Abstract: This article is part of a series on Article II, questioning the unitary theory’s three pillars: the Executive Vesting Clause, the Take Care Clause (or the “Faithful Execution” clauses), and the Decision of 1789 (or more accurately, the Indecisions of 1789). “Removal of Context” focuses on the “executive power” part of the Vesting Clause: Did “executive power” imply supervision and removal in the eighteenth century? What do the unitary theorists cite to support their claim that “executive power” includes removal, and “indefeasibly” so?

Unitary executive theorists’ reliance on the English Crown in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but they overlook or obscure the problems of relying on England’s limited monarchy, the era’s rise of Parliamentary supremacy over the Crown and its power to eliminate or regulate (i.e., make defeasible) royal prerogatives. There appears to be no evidence that executive removal was ever conceived as a “royal prerogative” at all, and the historical record indicates that the king did not have a general removal power at pleasure. The structure of the historical comparison has a major flaw: They concede that the Constitution explicitly limits many core royal powers, such war, peace (treaties), and the veto, so that the president is weaker than the king, but somehow Article II implies unnamed “executive powers” (like removal) that make a president stronger than a king? Moreover, there were eighteenth-century royal prerogatives related to law execution (prorogue and dissolution), but no one claims Article II “executive power” implies them.

When one investigates the unitary evidence more closely and follows their sources, one finds a pattern of misinterpreting historical sources, especially Blackstone in amicus briefs and law review articles in the unitary executive scholarship. In particular, the recent brief by unitary scholars in Seila Law misinterprets Blackstone’s use of the word “disposing” of offices as removing, instead of dispensing or appointing (which are indicated by context and general usage) and then misquotes a passage from Blackstone, reversing his meaning from his uncertainty about the relevant law of offices to a certain positive claim about removal. These misreadings are more than just small or narrow errors. They obscure more significant points: Blackstone was fundamentally in favor of parliamentary supremacy, against “indefeasible” executive powers; and Blackstone never mentions removal as a royal prerogative or a general executive power, which is powerful counter-evidence to the unitary theorists’ assumptions. These errors are also a cautionary moment about originalist methods and the notion that originalism is more reliable or objective than other methods of interpretation.

Author: Jed Shugerman

Jed Handelsman Shugerman is a Professor at Fordham Law School. He received his B.A., J.D., and Ph.D. (History) from Yale. His book, The People’s Courts (Harvard 2012), traces the rise of judicial elections, judicial review, and the influence of money and parties in American courts. It is based on his dissertation that won the 2009 ASLH’s Cromwell Prize. He is co-author of amicus briefs on the history of presidential power, the Emoluments Clauses, the Appointments Clause, the First Amendment rights of elected judges, and the due process problems of elected judges in death penalty cases. He is currently working on two books on the history of executive power and prosecution in America. The first is tentatively titled “A Faithful President: The Founders v. the Unitary Executive,” questioning the textual and historical evidence for the theory of unchecked and unbalanced presidential power. This book draws on his articles “Vesting” (Stanford Law Review forthcoming 2022), “Removal of Context” (Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 2022), a co-authored “Faithful Execution and Article II” (Harvard Law Review 2019 with Andrew Kent and Ethan Leib), “The Indecisions of 1789” (forthcoming Penn. Law Review), and “The Creation of the Department of Justice,” (Stanford Law Review 2014). The second book project is “The Rise of the Prosecutor Politicians: Race, War, and Mass Incarceration,” focusing on California Governor Earl Warren, his presidential running mate Thomas Dewey, the Kennedys, World War II and the Cold War, the war on crime, the growth of prosecutorial power, and its emergence as a stepping stone to electoral power for ambitious politicians in the mid-twentieth century.

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