Clinton v. New York

Following is the case brief for Clinton v. New York, 524 U.S. 417 (1998)

Case Summary of Clinton v. New York:

  • President Clinton exercised his new powers under the Line Item Veto Act.
  • Those impacted by the exercise of the line-item veto sued in federal court.
  • The federal district court held that the Line Item Veto Act violated the Presentment Clause of the Constitution.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the district court.  It found that the Presentment Clause only gives the president the power to sign or veto an entire bill, not portions thereof.
  • If the line-item veto was permitted, reasoned the Court, then the president would be able to create law with text that neither the House nor the Senate voted on.  That is not the process contemplated by the Constitution.

Clinton v. New York Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Congress passed the Line Item Veto Act (the “Act”) in 1996.  The Act gave the president the ability to selectively cancel certain provisions within a law passed by Congress.  Immediately following passage of the Act, several members of Congress who voted against the Act sued in federal court in order to declare the Act unconstitutional.  The Court, in Raines v. Byrd, 521 U.S. 811, declined to decide the constitutionality of the Act because the Congress members suffered no injury, and therefore, there was no case or controversy before the Court.

Two months later, President Clinton exercised his presidential powers under the Act.  Specifically, he cancelled one provision from the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, and one provision from the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997.  Appellees claimed actual injury based on the President’s use of the line-item veto and challenged the Act’s constitutionality in federal district court.

Procedural History:

  • The federal district court agreed with Appellees, finding that the Act’s line-item veto power violated the Presentment Clause of the Constitution.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court, on expedited review, agreed to hear the appeal from the district court.

Issue and Holding:

Is the Line Item Veto Act, giving the president the ability to cancel select portions from a law passed by Congress, constitutional?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The Line Item Veto Act’s cancellation procedures violate the Presentment Clause of the Constitution, Art. I, § 7, cl. 2.

Reasoning:

As a threshold matter, the Appellees in this case have standing to challenge the Act’s constitutionality because they suffered actual injury rather than the “institutional injury” alleged in Raines v. Byrd.  With regard to the constitutionality of the Line Item Veto Act, it is unconstitutional because it violates the Presentment Clause of the Constitution.

The president’s ability to cancel certain provisions of a law means, in reality, that he or she can amend an act of Congress.  That is something the president cannot do under the Constitution.  The fact that the Constitution is silent on the question of whether the president has a line-item veto power indicates that the power does not exist.  Further, there is abundant support for the conclusion that the “finely wrought” legislative process provides that the president either signs or vetoes an entire bill, not parts of it.

Three important points must be emphasized:  (1) the Court has no opinion on the wisdom of the line-item veto, and understands the gravity of this decision; (2) having decided constitutionality, the Court need not discuss any balance of powers issue; and (3) finding the Act to be valid would allow the president to make law, the text of which no member of the House or Senate actually voted on.  If the line-item veto is a desirable change, it must be done by amending the Constitution.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Kennedy):

Justice Breyer’s dissent is incorrect to state that the Act does not threaten the liberties of individual citizens.  Liberty is always at stake when one or more of the branches seek to transgress the separation of powers.

Concurring in part, Dissenting in part (Scalia):

Some Appellees do not have standing in this case, but some do.  The Court “majestically” ignores the statute that distinguishes between individuals and persons.  As to the constitutionality of the Act, there is no difference between Congress authorizing the president to cancel a spending item, and Congress authorizing money to be spent on a particular item at the president’s discretion.  It now seems the former is unconstitutional, and the latter is constitutional.

Dissenting Opinion (Breyer):

The Act does not violate the Constitution.  The Act is a legislative effort to give the president the power to give effect to some, but not all, of the expenditure provisions contained in a massive appropriations bill.  Also, there is no bright line between legislative and executive functions, the Constitution allows for necessary institutional innovation.  Finally, the Court should not referee a dispute between the other two branches of government.

Significance:

Clinton v. New York is a major case because it ruled the line-item veto unconstitutional.  President Clinton, and many presidents before him, wanted to have the power of the line-item veto.  But once passed, the Court quickly rendered it moot.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

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