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Schlesinger v. Holtzman


The ruling established that the president can commit U.S. forces to combat when not decisively challenged by Congress. The Court has consistently avoided foreign policy disputes between the president and Congress and also resisted making adverse decisions against presidential action during times of war. By invoking the "political decision doctrine," the Court has held that legal challenges by members of Congress against the president are more political questions than legal and should not be left to the courts to resolve.

Consistent with the separation of powers in the federal government, the Constitution splits the power of waging war between the legislative and executive branches. Congress in Article I has power to declare war and raise and maintain armies. The president, acting as commander in chief, conducts war as allowed by Article II. The Supreme Court's role in the process has historically been minor. The "political question doctrine" evolved through Court history in which the Court established that certain issues, often involving foreign policy, can only be resolved by the "political" branches of government and are not subject to judicial resolution.

A key Court decision regarding presidential powers was delivered in the opinion associated with United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. in 1936. The Court found that the power to wage war did not primarily derive from the Constitution, but was a natural part of being a sovereign nation. Others, though, still insisted the Constitution played a greater role in the decision to wage war than the Court acknowledged and therefore the act of declaring war was subject to judicial review. Rarely has the Court actually issued a decision on a challenge during the actual course of a war. Often, decisions followed the conclusion of war activities, thus avoiding the disruption of ongoing efforts.

Following united efforts between Congress and the White House in World War II, the role of the president in conducting wars gradually become more expansive. The president's ability to act with greater swiftness, secrecy, and decisiveness posed a distinct advantage in a world of nuclear deterrence and Cold War. Congress' inaction in setting foreign policy essentially gave the president much greater leeway in committing U.S. forces to places such as Korea in 1950. During the Korean conflict, Congress did not issue formal declarations of war.

Recognizing the difficult task of passing bills on controversial foreign policy issues, Congress began to allow resolutions, called "legislative vetoes," into various forms of legislation when opposing certain presidential actions. By the 1970s with the increasing rift between the executive branch and Congress over the Vietnam War, the practice of issuing legislative vetoes became a popular means of expressing congressional foreign policy preferences.

The Court ruled on several occasions that Congress' appropriation of funds to support an undeclared war constituted congressional approval. The Vietnam War was such a case. In addition to approving funds, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 which gave President Lyndon Johnson essentially unlimited war powers to commit U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. The undeclared nature of the Vietnam War was challenged on several occasions in the lower courts, but the Supreme Court consistently refused to hear appeals of lower court decisions. By late April of 1970 President Richard Nixon publicly acknowledged U.S. military involvement in Cambodia where the United States was launching a series of major attacks. Following withdrawal of ground troops from Cambodia later that June, Congress prohibited further use of funds for military operations in Cambodia. But the bombing in Cambodia continued, focusing on supposed Communist troop sanctuaries. Congress revised its position by stating funds could be spent, but only for purposes of ensuring the safety of U.S. troop withdrawal or to aid in the release of American prisoners of war.

In January of 1973 the Paris cease-fire agreement with North Vietnam was signed. By early April the last American troops left Vietnam and all known prisoners of war were released. However, the bombing of Cambodia continued. Responding to outrage in the United States and other countries, Congress intensified its efforts through early 1973 to end American air combat over Cambodia by refusing to authorize increased funding requested by the executive branch. Finally, by late June Congress took actions to discontinue funding of all combat activities in North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as of mid-August. The use of a congressional defense appropriations bill to ban ongoing military combat operations and limit presidential options was unprecedented.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Schlesinger v. Holtzman - Significance, A Unique Series Of Events, The Court Defers Action Again, Impact