In an early-morning tweet last week, President Trump took aim once again at Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but with a brand new argument: “The appointment of the Special Councel,” the president typed, “is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!”
The president swiftly fixed the spelling of Mueller’s title, but he stuck with his constitutional claim, in a reissued tweet:
He didn’t explain what his argument was, or where he got it, but a good guess is that it came from some recent writings by a well-respected conservative legal scholar and co-founder of the Federalist Society, professor Steven Calabresi. Unfortunately for the president, these writings are no more correct than the spelling in his original tweet. And in light of the president’s apparent embrace of Calabresi’s conclusions, it is well worth taking a close look at Calabresi’s argument in support of those conclusions.
Calabresi has made his argument in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, on a Federalist Society teleconference and in a more detailed paper he styles as a “Legal Opinion.” He contends that all of Special Counsel Mueller’s work is unconstitutionally “null and void” because, in Calabresi’s view, Mueller’s appointment violates the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2.
The Appointments Clause distinguishes between two classes of executive-branch “officers”—principal officers and inferior officers—and specifies how each may be appointed. As a general rule, the clause says that “Officers of the United States”—principal officers—must be nominated by the president and appointed “with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” At the same time, however, the Appointments Clause allows for a more convenient selection method for “inferior officers”: It goes on to add, “but the Congress may by law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of law, or in the Heads of Departments.”
Calabresi argues that Special Counsel Mueller is acting as a principal officer and that, accordingly, Mueller’s appointment violates the Constitution because Mueller was appointed by the acting attorney general, and not by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. In support of this broad point, Calabresi makes first a specific claim and then a more general one.
His specific claim, made at the outset of his “Legal Opinion,” is that “Robert Mueller has behaved like the 96 [sic] U.S. Attorneys who are principal officers of the United States and who must be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.” His more general, and overarching, claim is that under Supreme Court case law applying the Appointments Clause, Special Counsel Mueller is a principal officer because “because Mueller does not have a boss who is supervising and directing what he is doing.”
Calabresi’s first point—the illustrative comparison between Mueller and the U.S. attorneys—begins with a badly mistaken premise. Without citing anything at all, he repeatedly assumes, in both his op-ed and his “Legal Opinion” paper, that “Congress has specified that the 96 [sic] U.S. Attorneys are all principal officers who must be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.” (Emphasis mine.)
This assumption is just wrong—uncomplicatedly, flatly wrong. It is true that, typically, the 93 (not 96) U.S. attorneys are presidentially nominated and Senate-confirmed. But Congress has established an alternative method of appointment. Title 28 U.S.C. § 546 provides that, until the Senate confirms a presidential nominee, U.S. attorney vacancies can be filled for up to 120 days by an appointment made by the attorney general and then indefinitely by local district courts. Such non-presidential, non-Senate-confirmed appointees are, as one court of appeals has put it, “fully-empowered United States Attorneys, … not subordinates assuming the role of ‘Acting’ United States Attorney.” And such fully-empowered, non-presidentially-appointed U.S. attorneys are not all that uncommon. Today, the sitting United States attorneys in two of the most important judicial districts in the country—the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York—were appointed by the judges of those districts under Section 546(d).