1 minute read

Wiener v. United States

Shifting Precedents

Justice Frankfurter's written opinion cited the Wienercase's close similarity to the Humphrey's Executor v. United States (1935) decision. Prior to 1935, the president enjoyed unrestricted power to remove any executive branch official at will. The constitutionality of this unlimited power was upheld by the Court in Myers v. United States (1926). In 1935, however, a later court reversed this position when President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to replace William Humphrey, a Federal Trade Commission member opposed to Roosevelt's "New Deal" economic policies. Just as Eisenhower would do later, Roosevelt cited the "national interest" as his main reason for wanting commissioners of his own choice. The Court ruled against Roosevelt on the ground that a commissioner could only be removed for "good cause."

Frankfurter pointed out that Congress had specified regulations for removing any Federal Trade Commission official. Reasons for expulsion from the FTC included inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance while in office. No such charges were leveled by President Roosevelt in his attempt to remove Humphrey from office. In the Wiener case, no such rules even existed.

Just because Congress had not defined any terms of dismissal for the war claims commissioners, however, did not mean that such power automatically fell to the president. The lack of a clause delegating removal power to the president, Frankfurter wrote, indicated that Congress wanted commissioners to be immune from presidential pressure. "Congress did not wish to have hang over the commission the Damocles sword of removal by the President for no reason other than that he preferred to have on that commission men of his own choosing."

Frankfurter recalled the distinction the 1935 Court had drawn between executive branch officials and "quasi-judicial" officers, who were not to be subject to any outside hindrances in the performance of their duties. It was true that Wiener was appointed by a head of the executive branch; however, as soon as he took office and began to adjudicate legal matters, he was no longer subject to any executive control while fulfilling his commission.

The Court reversed the court of claims dismissal of Wiener's suit, entitling him to his back pay and establishing that he had been improperly removed from office. While the case reflected the subtleties of the doctrine of the separation of powers between judicial and executive government bodies, it demonstrated a limit to absolute presidential control over the executive branch.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Wiener v. United States - A "quasi-judicial" Body, Shifting Precedents, Justice Felix Frankfurter