← Back to portfolio

Clinton v. City of New York

Published on

Clinton v. City of New York 524 U.S. 417 (1998)

Facts: In 1996, Congress passed the Line-Item Veto Act, which allowed the president to cancel various elements of discretionary spending, direct spending, or tax benefit-related bills duly passed by both houses of Congress. The stated goal was to cut down on wasteful spending placed in the text of bills simply to appease certain sects of the constituency. There were limits on the authority, as Congress could categorically cancel the veto’s purview and its results were liable to lawsuit. As a result, 6 Congressmen promptly sued but they were determined to possess insufficient standing as an adversely injured party. After President Clinton vetoed elements of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and the Taxpayer Relief Act of the same year, affected parties in New York City and Idaho sued. A district court established that both sides had sufficient standing and lumped their claims into one suit, ultimately ruling that the Line Item Veto Act violated the Presentments Clause of the Constitution as well as the constitutional principle of delegation of powers. As a result of a provision of the act, the case was then appealed directly past the Circuit Court level to the Supreme Court. 

Question: Does the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 violate Article I, section 7, clause 2 of the Constitution? 

Holding: Yes. The Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the respondents and in rejection of the line-item veto provision. Justice Scalia, joined by Justices O’Conner and Breyer (in part) concurred in part and dissented in part, while Breyer, joined by those same justices in part, offered his own dissent.

Rationale: Justice Stevens argues for the majority, establishing that the parties do indeed have standing in this case. After making that establishment, he proceeds to argue against the constitutionality of the act in question. That act is fundamentally a procedural pathway for the president to enact, amend, and repeal statutes when no provision in the Constitution grants the president that right, so the act violates a constitutional principle of power delegation. On the front of presentments, Stevens posits that there is an important difference between a presidential return/veto and a presidential cancellation, specifically that cancellation authorizes the president to actively create law that was not voted on by either house of Congress and thus is not sufficiently representative of the will of the people. He also argues historically, explaining that there are elements of the Constitution that are vague, fuzzy, and were not considered much by the Framers. The Presentments Clause is not one of those elements. The Framers put a great deal of time and effort into its contents and therefore, it must be read strictly. The judgement of the district court is affirmed. Justice Scalia dissented, arguing that the issue here is one of semantics. If the bill had been rephrased as not a cancellation but rather a declination to spend appropriated funds, the effect would have been functionally the same but there would be no constitutional problem. At the root, his argument is that the implications of this bill have been occurring since appropriations were created and that codifying that procedure should not raise any constitutional concerns.

Breyer also dissented, arguing that the evidence that this act violates the Constitution is not compelling, and he reads said act as a novel way to improve government that should at least be given a chance to succeed.