Tuesday, January 6, 2009

On "Crush Videos" and Signing Statements

Today's NY Times has a very interesting article discussing the fight over the constitutionality of a 1999 law that bans the "creat[ion], s[ale], or possess[ion] [of] a depiction of animal cruelty," which the statute defines as depictions "in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed." Apparently some people get off on this stuff.

The First Amendment issues are interesting, but what caught my eye was the following passage from the article:

When President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law, he issued a statement instructing the Justice Department to limit prosecutions to “wanton cruelty to animals designed to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.”

Whatever else may be said of presidential signing statements, they do not bind the next administration. The current Justice Department has pursued at least three prosecutions under the law, all involving videos of dogfights.

In other words, through the statement he issued when he signed the bill into law, Clinton sought to unilaterally narrow the scope of the law that Congress had just passed. Funny: I remember that when President Bush issued such signing statements, we were told that it reflected an "imperial vision of the presidency over the will of America's elected lawmakers" and an "attempt to unilaterally reorder the constitutional balance." It will be interesting to see what the socially acceptable position on signing statements will be in the Obama administration.

1 comment:

  1. While those who opposed Bush took great issue with the theory of the Unitary Executive, as advanced by scholars like John Yoo, I imagine criticism of signing statements and other uses of political power by the Executive will now come more from the Right than from the Left.

    In 1993, Walter Dellinger wrote a pretty good defense of the practice -- especially with regard to it's use in limiting the enforcement of laws.

    Seems to me that most people today forget that the shared and separated powers of government are supposed to clash with one another. The struggle is a good thing. Just because one side lacks the political will to take real action doesn't mean they don't have recourse. If Congress doesn't like a particular signing statement, they can attempt to compel the President to comply with their interpretation through the power of the purse -- or even the threat of impeachment.


Comments here are moderated. I appreciate substantive comments, whether or not they agree with what I've written. Stay on topic, and be civil. Comments that contain name-calling, personal attacks, or the like will be rejected. If you want to rant about how evil the RIAA and MPAA are, and how entertainment companies' employees and attorneys are bad people, there are plenty of other places for you to go.