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Bowsher v. Synar


Bowsher v. Synar, with its fine distinctions between the functions of different branches of the government, helped redefine the doctrine of separation of powers for the modern age.

In 1985, Congress passed the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Reduction Act, also known as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, which set a cap on the amount of deficit spending Congress could undertake between the years 1986 and 1991. Any resulting cuts were to be implemented by the comptroller general, a legislative branch employee who can be removed from the job only by joint resolution of both houses of Congress.

Immediately after the act was signed into law, Representative Mike Synar and 11 other members of Congress filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asking the court to declare the new law unconstitutional. A three-judge panel of the district court struck down the reporting provisions of the law, citing the role of the comptroller general in implementing the cuts as a violation of the constitutionally imposed separation of powers. The comptroller general then appealed this decision directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

By a vote of 7 - 2, a majority of the justices agreed with the district court's decision. The act assigned responsibilities to the comptroller general that were executive in nature. But because the comptroller general was subject to removal by Congress, Congress had essentially retained these responsibilities for itself, thus assuming a duty that properly belonged to the executive branch of government.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Bowsher v. Synar - Significance, The Court Refines The Meaning Of Separation Of Powers, The Balanced Budget And Emergency Deficit Control Act