Myers v. United States

Year Decided: 
272 U.S. 52 (1926)

Myers v. United States is a United States Supreme Court case (decided in 1926) that concerns the constitutionality of a law that required Congressional approval for dismissal of Post Office postmasters. Myers was a postmaster in Oregon who was dismissed from his position without such approval. He therefore sued to be reinstated.

This is quite a mysterious case... almost everything about it is strange.

First, nobody seems to know why this postmaster was dismissed in the first place. One would think that a case that had made it all the way to the Untied States Supreme Court that there would be some indication of why this Myers lost his job. You would think somewhere in the legal record or in a newspaper there would be a clue. Yet for some reason nobody seems to felt a need to cite a reason.

But that is hardly where the strangeness ends. It is also quite difficult to figure out why President Woodrow Wilson decided to make such a big case out of this. Wilson had sacked many postmasters before Myers and each time dutifully complied with the law. The law was not particularly difficult to comply with either. All the President had to get rid of a postmaster was to submit a replacement for the position to the Senate for confirmation. When the Senate confirmed the appointment, this was seen as implicit consent by Congress to sack the current occupant of the office.

Why did Wilson decide to refuse to comply with a law that he had complied with so many times before? One might argue that perhaps Wilson wanted to strengthen the Executive branch. But if this was his motivation, why did he wait until the seventh year of his eight year presidency to make an issue of this. Also, why pick such a small issue as postmaster dismissals to make a larger point about Executive prerogative? Why pick a fight with Congress over this when there were much more bigger fights to pick?

Things get more weird.

The Supreme Court almost always prefers narrow rulings: rulings that do not go very far beyond the circumstances of the case being decided. But in this case the Supreme Court decided to go well far beyond the dismissal of postmasters to cover nearly all Executive branch personnel. Furthermore, the President's dismissal powers are practically unfettered by Congress: the President could fire whomever he wanted, whenever he wanted in the Executive branch (with a few exceptions) regardless of what the law says.

It is notable that the author of the opinion was the only former President to serve on the Court: William Howard Taft. One could try to explain the expansiveness of the decision by stating that since Taft used to be President he wanted a strong Executive. But we do not see this based upon Taft's other decisions, or even how he behaved when he was President.

The decision is especially remarkable though because it went well beyond what even the Government argued. The Government affirmed that Congress had the right to make rules regarding Executive branch dismissals. It was only when Congress demanded to be involved in the dismissal process (by accepting/rejecting a dismissal) that Congress overstepped its authority.

Indeed, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes mused in his dissenting opinion that Congress not only created the agency (the post office) in the first place and could just as easily eliminate the whole agency. It was Congress who had the authority to empower the President to appoint officials to the agency (and Congress could easily remove that power). So why shouldn't Congress have any say in termination of officials.

It seems that posterity agrees with Holmes: indeed, the Court immediately backed down in subsequent decisions.

But this is where the jurisprudence gets weird.

Instead of simply overturning the decision outright, judges like to maintain a bit of mystique about the law, as if it were divinely inspired system of thought, rather than an ugly conglomeration of often contradictory opinions of people who happen to called "judges." It seems this mystique is important to maintain the prestige (and therefore the legitimacy) that the law has in society.

The Court clearly wants to do away with Myers v. United States, but to formally overturn it would somehow diminish the mystique of the law. So it is in this strange state of still being technically "on the books," but not really meaning anything at the same time. How confusing.

Indeed when Richard Nixon's lawyers went the Court to defend the dismissal of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox (United States v. Nixon), the lawyers were careful to mention Myers v. United States, they are just as careful not to make any arguments based upon it. It is like they knew they had to mention it to "prove they did their homework," but they effectively ignore the case (like everyone else), even though this decision would strongly confirm the right of the President to dismiss the special prosecutor.

In the end this may come down to something that two Chief Executives (Wilson and Taft) knew that the rest of us (jurists, journalists, and laypeople) do not realize. It is possible that this case was important (paradoxically) because of its triviality. The case perhaps reflect frustration with Congress meddling with very low-level details (micromanagement) that are best left to the Executive.

Taft and Wilson presided over the slow transformation of a mostly political executive into a professionalized civil service. The micromanagement of Congress only interfered with this development.

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