Morrison v. Olson

487 U.S. 654 (1988)


Title VI of the Ethics in Government Act allows for the appointment of an 'independent counsel' to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute certain high-ranking Government officials for violations of federal criminal laws. Under the Act, if the Attorney General has determined that there are 'reasonable grounds to believe that further investigation or prosecution is warranted,' then he 'shall apply to the division of the court for the appointment of an independent counsel.' The Special Division 'shall appoint an appropriate independent counsel and shall define that independent counsel's prosecutorial jurisdiction.' § 593(b). The Act grants the counsel full power and independent authority to exercise all investigative and prosecutorial functions and powers of the Department of Justice, the Attorney General, and any other officer or employee of the Department of Justice. The Act provides for congressional oversight of the activities of independent counsel. The counsel is required to inform the House of Representatives of 'substantial and credible information which [the counsel] receives . . . that may constitute grounds for an impeachment.' § 595(c). In addition, the Act gives certain congressional committee members the power to 'request in writing that the Attorney General apply for the appointment of an independent counsel.' § 592(g)(1). The Attorney General is required to respond to this request within a specified time but is not required to accede to the request. § 592(g)(2). Olson (P), an EPA attorney under investigation by a special counsel, challenged the Act. P claimed that the Act violated the Appointments Clause and the separation of powers doctrine. The District Court upheld the constitutionality of the Act and denied the motions to quash. The court subsequently ordered that appellees be held in contempt. A divided Court of Appeals reversed. The majority ruled first that an independent counsel is not an 'inferior officer' of the United States for purposes of the Appointments Clause. Accordingly, the court found the Act invalid because it does not provide for the independent counsel to be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, as the Clause requires for 'principal' officers. It held that the Act also violates the Appointments Clause insofar as it empowers a court of law to appoint an 'inferior' officer who performs core executive functions; the Act's delegation of various powers to the Special Division violates the limitations of Article III; the Act's restrictions on the Attorney General's power to remove an independent counsel violate the separation of powers; and finally, the Act interferes with the Executive Branch's prerogative to 'take care that the Laws be faithfully executed,' Art. II, § 3. The dissenting judge was of the view that the Act was constitutional. Appellant then sought review by this Court, and the Supreme Court granted review.