Beyond the Bully Pulpit: Presidential Speech in the Courts
70 Pages Posted: 8 Jun 2017 Last revised: 1 May 2019
Date Written: June 5, 2017
The president’s words play a unique role in American public life. No other figure speaks with the reach, range, or authority of the president. The president speaks to the entire population; about the full range of domestic and international issues we collectively confront; and on behalf of the country to the rest of the world. Speech is also a key tool of presidential governance: for at least a century, presidents have used the bully pulpit to augment their existing constitutional and statutory authorities.
But what sort of impact, if any, should presidential speech have in court, if that speech is plausibly related to the subject matter of a pending case? Curiously, neither judges nor scholars have grappled with that question in any sustained way, though citations to presidential speech appear with some frequency in judicial opinions. Some of the time, these citations are no more than passing references. Other times, presidential statements play a significant role in judicial assessments of the meaning, lawfulness, or constitutionality of either legislation or executive action.
This Article is the first systematic examination of presidential speech in the courts. Drawing on a number of cases in both the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts, I first identify the primary modes of judicial reliance on presidential speech. I next ask what light the law of evidence, principles of deference, and internal executive-branch dynamics can shed on judicial treatment of presidential speech. I then turn to the normative, arguing that for a number of institutional reasons, it is for the most part inappropriate for a court to give legal effect to presidential statements whose goals are political storytelling, civic interpretation, persuasion, and mobilization—not the articulation of considered legal positions. That general principle, however, is not absolute. Rather, in a subset of cases, a degree of judicial reliance on presidential speech is entirely appropriate. That subset includes: cases in which presidential speech reflects a clear manifestation of intent to enter the legal arena; cases touching on foreign relations or national security; and cases in which government purpose constitutes an element of a legal test. In light of the rhetorical strategies of President Donald Trump, the question of the impact of presidential statements in the courts is quickly becoming a critical one.
Keywords: president, presidential rhetoric, presidential power
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