Self-Help and the Separation of Powers

89 Pages Posted: 24 May 2014 Last revised: 15 Oct 2014

See all articles by David Pozen

David Pozen

Columbia University - Law School


Self-help doctrines pervade the law. They regulate a legal subject's attempts to cure or prevent a perceived wrong by her own action, rather than through a mediated process. In their most acute form, these doctrines allow subjects to take what international lawyers call countermeasures -- measures that would be forbidden if not pursued for redressive ends. Countermeasures are inescapable and invaluable. They are also deeply concerning, prone to error and abuse and to escalating cycles of vengeance. Disciplining countermeasures becomes a central challenge for any legal regime that recognizes them. How does American constitutional law meet this challenge? This Article contends that a robust set of unwritten, quasi-legal norms shapes and constrains retaliation as well as cooperation across the U.S. government, and it explores how these conventions of self-help correspond to regulatory principles that have emerged in public international law. Re-envisioning intragovernmental conflict through the lens of self-help gives us new descriptive and critical purchase on the separation of powers. By attending to the theory and practice of constitutional countermeasures, the Article tries to show, we can advance familiar debates over legislative obstruction and presidential adventurism, and we can develop richer models of constitutional contestation within and beyond the branches.

Keywords: self-help, separation of powers, countermeasures, conventions, unwritten norms, custom, small-c theory, enforcement, remedies, responsibility, executive power, unilateralism, Congress, gridlock, retaliation, partisanship, proportionality, hardball, showdowns, ILC, President Obama, We Can't Wait

Suggested Citation

Pozen, David E., Self-Help and the Separation of Powers. Yale Law Journal, Vol. 124, pp. 2-90, 2014, Available at SSRN:

David E. Pozen (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States


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