Politics & Policy

Breaking The Rules

The Framers intended no more than a Senate majority to approve judges.

The sharpening debate in the U.S. Senate over whether Democrats can block President Bush’s judicial nominations by filibuster raises the basic question of the scope of the Senate’s constitutional role to give “Advice and Consent.” What does it mean for the Senate to give “Advice and Consent” for federal judges?

#ad#Many people question whether changing the rules to allow only a majority vote for confirmations is proper, or even constitutional. However, the text of the Constitution, the record of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and Supreme Court decisions all concur to show that the Constitution intended no more than a majority “vote” for the Senate’s “Advice and Consent” for judicial appointments.

The key provision is Article II, Section 2, called the Appointments Clause: “[The president] 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 . . .”

There are three striking aspects of the Appointments Clause, all of which are intentional and not accidental.

First, it is instructive if not definitive that the Appointments Clause is contained as an explicit power in Article II, involving executive powers, not in Article I, involving legislative powers.

Second, only a simple majority is required. The clause on the treaty power, after mentioning “Advice and Consent,” requires concurrence by “two thirds of the Senators present.” The clause on the appointment of ambassadors and others, including Supreme Court justices–by contrast–does not.

This is reinforced by the contrast found in several other provisions in the Constitution where a “supermajority” vote is required. In Article I, section 3, two-thirds (of members present) are required for Senate conviction for impeachment. In Article I, section 5, two-thirds are required to expel a member of either House. Article I, section 7 requires two-thirds for overriding a presidential veto. The fact that the Constitution explicitly requires two-thirds in some contexts indicates that the Senate’s consent in Article II, section 2 is by majority vote when no supermajority vote is required.

The general rule is that majorities govern in a legislative body, unless another rule is expressly provided. Article I, section 5, for example, provides that “a Majority of each [House] shall constitute a Quorum to do Business.”

More than a century ago, the Supreme Court stated in United States v. Ballin, a unanimous decision, that “the general rule of all parliamentary bodies is that, when a quorum is present, the act of a majority of the quorum is the act of the body. This has been the rule for all time, except so far as in any given case the terms of the organic act under which the body is assembled have prescribed specific limitations . . . No such limitation is found in the federal constitution, and therefore the general law of such bodies obtains.”

Third, the particular process in the Appointments Clause–of presidential nomination and Senate “consent” by a majority–was carefully considered by the Constitutional Convention. A number of alternative processes for appointments were thoroughly considered–and rejected–by the Constitutional Convention. And this consideration took place over several months.

The Constitutional Convention considered at least three alternative options to the final Appointments Clause: (1) placing the power in the president alone, (2) in the legislature alone, (3) in the legislature with the president’s advice and consent.

On June 13, 1787, it was originally proposed that judges be “appointed by the national Legislature,” and that was rejected; Madison objected and made the alternative motion that appointments be made by the Senate, and that was at first approved. Madison specifically proposed that a “supermajority” be required for judicial appointments but this was rejected. On July 18, Nathaniel Ghorum made the alternative motion “that the Judges be appointed by the Executive with the advice & consent of the 2d branch,” (following on the practice in Massachusetts at that time). Finally, on Friday, September 7, 1787, the Convention approved the final Appointments Clause, making the president primary and the Senate (alone) secondary, with a role of “advice and consent.”

Obviously, this question is something that the Framers carefully considered. The Constitution and Supreme Court decisions are quite clear that only a majority is necessary for confirmation. Neither the filibuster, nor a supermajority vote, is part of the Advice and Consent role in the U.S. Constitution. Until the past four years, the Senate never did otherwise. Changing the Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster and only require a majority vote is not only constitutional but fits with more than 200 years of American tradition.

Clarke D. Forsythe is attorney and director of the Project in Law & Bioethics at Americans United for Life, Chicago.

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