Constitutional Law Article 121 Harv. L. Rev. 689

The Commander in Chief at the Lowest Ebb – Framing the Problem, Doctrine, and Original Understanding


Over the past half-century, discussions of constitutional war powers have focused on the scope of the President’s “inherent” power as Commander in Chief to act in the absence of congressional authorization. In this Article, Professors Barron and Lederman argue that attention should now shift to the fundamental question of whether and when the President may exercise Article II war powers in contravention of congressional limitations, when the President’s authority as Commander in Chief is at its “lowest ebb.” Contrary to the traditional assumption that Congress has ceded the field to the President when it comes to war, the Commander in Chief often operates in a legal environment instinct with legislatively imposed limitations. In the present context, the Bush Administration has been faced with a number of statutes that clearly conflict with its preferred means of prosecuting military conflicts. The Administration’s response, based on an assertion of preclusive executive war powers, has been to claim the constitutional authority to disregard many of these congressional commands.

This Article is the first of a two-part effort to determine how the constitutional argument concerning such preclusive executive war powers is best conceived. Professors Barron and Lederman demonstrate that, notwithstanding recent attempts to yoke the defense of executive defiance in wartime to original understandings, there is surprisingly little historical evidence supporting the notion that the conduct of military campaigns is beyond legislative control. Thus stripped of its assumed roots in a supposedly longstanding tradition, and considered in light of the long pattern of executive acceptance of constraining statutes, the Administration’s recent assertion of preclusive war powers is revealed as a radical attempt to remake the constitutional law of war powers.

This Article begins by explaining why the debate about the “lowest ebb”is now emerging as the primary constitutional war powers question, and by addressing the methodological missteps that have typically infected this debate. It then explores recent attempts to identify the preclusive prerogatives of the Commander in Chief and explains why the tests often deployed to cabin the scope of the presumed preclusive power are flawed. Finally, it reviews the relevant Supreme Court precedent, along with the constitutional text, the historical context in which the text was written, and the original understandings, and sets the stage for the post-Founding historical review contained in the next Article.