Bowsher v. Syner

Following is the case brief for Bowsher v. Synar, Supreme Court of the United States, (1986).

Case summary for Bowsher v. Synar:

  • Congress passed the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control act (the/an act).
  • The act assigned congress the power to remove the officer holding the position as Comptroller General for showing malfeasance, inefficiency and neglect of duty.
  • Congressman Synar filed suit claiming the retained power to remove the Comptroller General was unconstitutional.
  • The Court held that the act was unconstitutional because Congress –the legislative branch–  retained the removal authority, so the Comptroller General could not be entrusted with executive responsibilities without violating the doctrine of separation of powers.

Case Brief for Bowsher v. Synar

Statement of the facts:

With the intent to reduce the federal budget, Congress passed an act. In the event the deficit exceeded the calculated amount, Congress provided the Comptroller General with the authorization to recommend mandatory budget cuts. These recommendations would then be reviewed and executed by the President. Throughout this process, Congress possessed the power to remove the Comptroller General for malfeasance, inefficiency and neglect of duty. Congressman Synar brought suit in federal district court, claiming the act was unconstitutional because it violated the doctrine of separation of powers. Bowsher, then Comptroller General, appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Procedural History:

The federal district court held the act was unconstitutional. In response, Bowsher appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, who granted certiorari.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Congress cannot possess removal power over officials charged with executing the laws under separation of powers, except through impeachment.

Issue and Holding:

Is the doctrine of separation of powers violated when Congress assigns executive functions to the Comptroller General when Congress retained the power to remove the official? Yes.

Judgment:

The Court affirmed the federal district court’s judgment.

Reasoning:

The Court held that the Constitution does not allow Congress  to retain an active role in supervising officers who are assigned the responsibility of carrying out laws. The Constitution does allow the President to appoint officers with the advice and consent of the Senate in Article 2 section 2. It also states that Congress shall only be part of removing these officials through the process of impeachment.

The Court held that if Congress was granted additional removal powers over executive officers, the legislative branch would basically usurp control over carrying out laws and essentially violate the separation of powers doctrine. This is because Congress could implement a veto over executive actions.

When examining the act, the Court stated the provision permitting Congress to remove the Comptroller General for either: 1)malfeasance, 2)neglect of duty, or 3)inefficiency, provides Congress with broad removal discretion.

Here, the Comptroller General may not be delegated executive functions under the doctrine of separation of powers, because Congress retains removal authority over him. Since the act gave Bowsher the ultimate authority to determine mandatory budget cuts and direct the President to implement such, Bowsher had been assigned purely executive responsibilities.  As a result, Congress has unconstitutionally retained control over executive procedures since the position of Comptroller General was essentially an executive position that was only subject to removal by itself.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Dissenting (White):

The majority is correct in stating that the doctrine of separation of powers prohibits Congress from reserving an executive role for itself, however, that is not what has occurred here. Since the Comptroller General is appointed by the President, the position should not be characterized as one of Congress’s agents. The established precedent of “bicameralism and presentment” is satisfied because removal of the position requires a resolution by both houses of Congress and the President’s approval. The removal provision at issue poses no real threat to the principle of separation of powers.

Significance:

This case helped outline the importance of the separation of powers doctrine. The congressional act’s provision usurped the concept of “checks and balances” amongst the three branches of government.

Student Resources:

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/478/714/case.html
https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/478/714
http://law.jrank.org/pages/13518/Bowsher-v-Synar.html

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