Separation of Powers Supreme Court Cases

The separation of powers is the concept that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches must operate in distinct, clearly defined spheres. The structure of the Constitution reflects the separation of powers. Article I provides power to the legislative branch (Congress), Article II to the executive branch (the President), and Article III to the judicial branch (the Supreme Court).

Closely tied to the separation of powers is the system of checks and balances. To prevent any branch from gaining too much power, the Constitution gives certain powers to each branch that help constrain the powers of the other branches. For example, the President nominates Supreme Court Justices, while the Senate must confirm them. Bills passed by Congress must be presented to the President, who holds the power to veto them. While the President is the commander in chief of the armed forces, Congress holds the power to declare war.

Some of the issues that have implicated separation of powers concerns include the conduct of foreign relations, the appointment and removal of officials, and the delegation of congressional power to administrative agencies. These cases largely focus on conflicts between the legislative and executive branches, although some decisions involving the role of courts also may have separation of powers aspects.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving the separation of powers, arranged from newest to oldest.

Collins v. Yellen (2021)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

The Constitution prohibits even modest restrictions on the President's power to remove the head of an agency with a single top officer.

Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP (2020)

Author: John Roberts

In assessing whether a subpoena directed at the President's personal information is related to and in furtherance of a legitimate task of Congress, courts must take adequate account of the separation of powers principles at stake, including both the significant legislative interests of Congress and the unique position of the President. (The Court continued to list four non-exclusive considerations in this analysis.)

Seila Law, LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (2020)

Author: John Roberts

The precedents of Humphrey's Executor and Morrison should not be extended to an independent agency that wields significant executive power and is run by a single individual who cannot be removed by the President unless certain statutory criteria are met. Such an agency lacks a foundation in historical practice and clashes with constitutional structure by concentrating power in a unilateral actor insulated from presidential control.

Zivotofsky v. Kerry (2015)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The President has the exclusive power to grant formal recognition to a foreign sovereign. Congress may not force the President to contradict their prior recognition determination in an official document issued by the Secretary of State.

NLRB v. Canning (2014)

Author: Stephen Breyer

The Recess Appointments Clause empowers the President to fill any existing vacancy during any Senate recess of sufficient length. The Senate is in session when it says that it is, provided that, under its own rules, it retains the capacity to transact Senate business.

Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (2010)

Author: John Roberts

The President may not be restricted in their ability to remove a principal officer, who is in turn restricted in their ability to remove an inferior officer, when that inferior officer determines the policy and enforces the laws of the United States. Multilevel protection from removal is contrary to Article II's vesting of the executive power in the President.

Medellín v. Texas (2008)

Author: John Roberts

The President has an array of political and diplomatic means available to enforce international obligations, but unilaterally converting a non-self-executing treaty into a self-executing treaty is not among them. The responsibility for transforming an international obligation arising from a non-self-executing treaty into domestic law falls to Congress.

Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, Inc. (2001)

Author: Antonin Scalia

Section 109(b) of the Clean Air Act does not permit the EPA Administrator to consider implementation costs in setting NAAQS (national ambient air quality standards). Also, when conferring decision-making authority upon agencies, Congress must lay down an intelligible principle to which the person or body authorized to act is directed to conform.

Clinton v. City of New York (1998)

Author: John Paul Stevens

There is no constitutional authorization for the President to amend or repeal an Act of Congress.

Mistretta v. U.S. (1989)

Author: Harry Blackmun

Congress did not violate the separation of powers principle by placing the U.S. Sentencing Commission in the judicial branch, requiring federal judges to serve on the Commission and to share their authority with non-judges, or empowering the President to appoint Commission members and to remove them for cause.

Morrison v. Olson (1988)

Author: William Rehnquist

Congress may place the power to appoint inferior executive officers outside the executive branch. Also, Congress may impose a good cause-type restriction on the President's power to remove an official if this does not interfere with the President's exercise of the executive power and their constitutionally appointed duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.

Bowsher v. Synar (1986)

Author: Warren Burger

Under the constitutional principle of separation of powers, Congress cannot reserve for itself the power of removal of an officer charged with the execution of the laws except by impeachment.

INS v. Chadha (1983)

Author: Warren Burger

When it was clear that an action by the House of Representatives was not within any of the express constitutional exceptions authorizing one House to act alone, and equally clear that it was an exercise of legislative power, that action was subject to the bicameralism and presentment requirements of Article I of the Constitution.

Dames & Moore v. Regan (1981)

Author: William Rehnquist

Long continued executive practice, of which Congress knows and in which it acquiesces, raises a presumption that presidential action has been taken pursuant to Congress' consent.

Buckley v. Valeo (1976)

Author: Per Curiam

Restrictions on individual contributions to political campaigns and candidates did not violate the First Amendment. However, restrictions on independent expenditures in campaigns, limits on expenditures by candidates from their personal or family resources, and limits on total campaign expenditures violated the First Amendment. Also, any appointee exercising significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States is an “Officer of the United States” and must be appointed in the manner prescribed by the Appointments Clause.

U.S. v. Nixon (1974)

Author: Warren Burger

Neither the doctrine of separation of powers nor the generalized need for confidentiality of high-level communications, without more, can sustain an absolute, unqualified presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances.

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (Jackson concurrence) (1952)

Author: Robert H. Jackson

When the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum, for it includes all that he possesses in his own right plus all that Congress can delegate. When the President acts in absence of either a congressional grant or denial of authority, he can only rely upon his independent powers, but there is a zone of twilight in which the President and Congress may have concurrent authority, or in which its distribution is uncertain. When the President takes measures incompatible with the express or implied will of Congress, his power is at its lowest ebb, for then he can rely only upon his own constitutional powers minus any constitutional powers of Congress over the matter.

Yakus v. U.S. (1944)

Author: Harlan Fiske Stone

The essentials of the legislative function are preserved when Congress has specified the basic conditions of fact upon whose existence or occurrence, ascertained from relevant data by a designated administrative agency, it directs that its statutory command shall be effective. It is no objection that the determination of facts and the inferences to be drawn from them in the light of the statutory standards and declaration of policy call for the exercise of judgment, and for the formulation of subsidiary administrative policy within the prescribed statutory framework.

U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. (1936)

Author: George Sutherland

Congressional legislation that is to be made effective through negotiation and inquiry within the international field must often accord to the President a degree of discretion and freedom from statutory restriction that would not be admissible were domestic affairs alone involved.

Humphrey's Executor v. U.S. (1935)

Author: George Sutherland

The authority of Congress in creating quasi-legislative or quasi-judicial agencies to require their officers to act independently of executive control includes the power to fix the period during which they shall continue in office, and to forbid their removal except for cause in the meantime. (However, purely executive officers are inherently subject to the exclusive and illimitable power of removal by the President.)

A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. U.S. (1935)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

Congress is not permitted by the Constitution to abdicate, or to transfer to others, the essential legislative functions with which it is vested. Congress may leave to selected instrumentalities the making of subordinate rules within prescribed limits, and the determination of facts to which the policy declared by Congress applies, but it must lay down the policies and establish standards. A law was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power when it did not undertake to prescribe rules of conduct to be applied to particular states of fact determined by appropriate administrative procedure but instead authorized the making of codes to prescribe them and set up no standards for that legislative undertaking.

Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan (1935)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

Congress may leave to selected instrumentalities the making of subordinate rules within prescribed limits and the determination of facts to which the policy as declared by the legislature is to apply. However, this should not obscure the limitations of the authority to delegate if the constitutional system is to be maintained. An attempted delegation is plainly void when the power sought to be delegated is legislative power, yet nowhere in the statute has Congress declared or indicated any policy or standard to guide or limit the President when acting under such delegation.

Myers v. U.S. (1926)

Author: William Howard Taft

The President has the exclusive power of removing executive officers of the United States whom he has appointed by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Ex Parte Grossman (1925)

Author: William Howard Taft

Complete independence and separation between the three branches are not attained or intended.

U.S. v. Klein (1871)

Author: Salmon Portland Chase

By providing that an acceptance of a pardon without a disclaimer shall be conclusive evidence of the acts pardoned, but shall be null and void as evidence of rights conferred by it, Congress invaded the powers both of the judicial and of the executive departments of the government.