Drawing on claims about the supposed powers wielded by the King of Great Britain at the time of the Framing, proponents of the “unitary executive” theory of the presidency have long contended that the powers to remove and direct all executive-branch officials are inherent components of the “executive Power” vested in the President by Article II of the Constitution. These claims have had a powerful impact on judges and scholars attempting to discern the limits of Congress’s ability to shield special prosecutors and the heads of independent agencies from removal and other forms of presidential control.
As this Article shows, however, the unitarians’ claims about the original meaning of the executive power are largely unfounded. The ability to remove executive officials was not one of the prerogative powers of the British Crown. Moreover, the King neither appointed nor was able to remove all of his principal officers, many of whom held their offices for life or pursuant to other forms of tenure and who operated independent of the King’s direction or control. While the King possessed plenary authority to choose his high-level advisors and the officers who carried out his prerogatives over the military and foreign affairs, Parliament frequently regulated the appointment, qualifications, and tenure of other executive officials in Great Britain, including by protecting them from removal by the King or his ministers when there was good reason to do so.
The evidence surveyed in this Article has important implications for debates over the unitary executive theory in general and for debates over the constitutionality of independent agencies and officers in the United States in particular. It suggests that the Constitution does not proscribe efforts by Congress to insulate regulatory and law enforcement officials from political interference in appropriate instances.
* Visiting Assistant Professor, Chicago-Kent College of Law. I thank Harold Krent, Gillian Metzger, James Pfander, Robert Reinstein, Peter Shane, and my colleagues at Chicago-Kent’s Faculty Workshop for helpful comments and questions on an earlier draft of this Article.