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May 2, 1932



Hughes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Cardozo

Author: Brandeis

[ 286 U.S. Page 26]

 MR. JUSTICE BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This petition, in the name of the United States, for a writ of quo warrantor was filed in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, on relation of the district attorney, in deference to the desire of the United States Senate to have presented for judicial decision the question whether George Otis Smith holds lawfully the office of member and chairman of the Federal Power Commission. The case was heard upon the petition and answer. On December 22, 1931, the trial court entered judgment denying the petition. An appeal was promptly taken to the Court of Appeals of the District. That court

[ 286 U.S. Page 27]

     certified a question pursuant to § 239 of the Judicial Code. This Court granted joint motions of the parties to bring up the entire record and to advance the cause.

On December 3, 1930, the President of the United States transmitted to the Senate the nomination of George Otis Smith to be a member of the Federal Power Commission for a term expiring June 22, 1935. On December 20, 1930, the Senate, in open executive session, by a vote of 38 to 22, with 35 Senators not voting, advised and consented to the appointment of Smith to the office for which he had been nominated. On the same day, the Senate ordered that the resolution of confirmation be forwarded to the President.*fn1 This order was entered late in the evening of Saturday, December 20th; and still later on the same day the Senate adjourned to January 5, 1931. On Monday, December 22, 1930, the Secretary of the Senate notified the President of the United States of the resolution of confirmation, the communication being delivered by the official messenger of the Senate.*fn2 Subsequently,

[ 286 U.S. Page 28]

     and on the same day, the President signed and, through the Department of State, delivered to Smith a commission purporting to appoint him a member of the Federal Power Commission and designating him as chairman thereof. Smith then, on the same day, took the oath of office and undertook forthwith to discharge the duties of a commissioner.

On January 5, 1931, which was the next day of actual executive session of the Senate after the date of confirmation, a motion to reconsider the nomination of Smith was duly made by a Senator who had voted to confirm it, and also a motion to request the President to return the resolution of confirmation which had passed into his possession. Both motions were adopted and the President was notified in due course. On January 10, 1931, the President informed the Senate by a message in writing that he had theretofore appointed Smith to the office in question, after receiving formal notice of confirmation, and that, for this reason, he refused to accede to the Senate's request.*fn3

[ 286 U.S. Page 29]

     Thereafter, a motion was made and adopted in the Senate directing the Executive Clerk to place on the Executive Calendar the "name and nomination of the said George Otis Smith." Subsequently, on February 4, 1931, the President pro tempore of the Senate put to the Senate the question of advice and consent to the appointment of Smith, and a majority of the Senators voted in the negative. Notification of this action was sent to the President. On the following day, February 5, 1931, the Senate by resolution requested the district attorney of the District of Columbia to institute in its Supreme Court proceedings in quo warrantor to test Smith's right to hold office; and,

[ 286 U.S. Page 30]

     pursuant to that request, this proceeding was filed on May 4, 1931. As the officials of the Department of Justice were committed by an opinion of the Attorney General (36 Op. Atty. Gen. 382) to a conclusion adverse to the position taken by the Senate, consent to the institution of the proceeding was conditioned upon the Senate's employing its own counsel and upon the understanding that officials of the Department of Justice would not support the petitioner.

No fact is in dispute. The sole question presented is one of law. Did the Senate have the power, on the next day of executive session, to reconsider its vote advising and consenting to the appointment of George Otis Smith, although meanwhile, pursuant to its order, the resolution of consent had been communicated to the President, and thereupon, the commission had issued, Smith had taken the oath of office and had entered upon the discharge of his duties? The answer to this question depends primarily upon the applicable Senate rules. These rules are numbers XXXVIII and XXXIX.*fn4 The pivotal provisions are paragraphs 3 and 4 of Rule XXXVIII, which read:

"3. When a nomination is confirmed or rejected, any Senator voting in the majority may move for a reconsideration on the same day on which the vote was taken, or on either of the next two days of actual executive session of

[ 286 U.S. Page 31]

     the Senate; but if a notification of the confirmation or rejection of a nomination shall have been sent to the President before the expiration of the time within which a motion to reconsider may be made, the motion to reconsider shall be accompanied by a motion to request the President to return such notification to the Senate. Any motion to reconsider the vote on a nomination may be laid on the table without prejudice to the nomination, and shall be a final disposition of such motion."

"4. Nominations confirmed or rejected by the Senate shall not be returned by the Secretary to the President until the expiration of the time limited for making a motion to reconsider the same, or while a motion to reconsider is pending, unless otherwise ordered by the Senate."

The contention on behalf of the Senate is that it did not advise and consent to the appointment of George Otis Smith to the office of member of the Federal Power Commission, because, by action duly and regularly taken upon reconsideration in accordance with its Standing Rules, it refused such consent, and gave to the President formal notice of its refusal.

The argument is that the action of the Senate in assenting to the nomination of Smith on December 20, 1930, and ordering that the President be notified, was taken subject to its rules and had only the effect provided for by them; that the rules empowered the Senate, in plain and unambiguous terms, to entertain, at any time prior to the expiration of the next two days of actual executive session, a motion to reconsider its vote advising and consenting to the appointment, although it had previously ordered a copy of the resolution of consent to be forwarded forthwith to the President; that the Senate's action can not be held to final so long as it retained the right to reconsider; that the Senate did not by its order of notification waive its right to reconsider or intend that the President should forthwith commission Smith; that the

[ 286 U.S. Page 32]

     rules did not make the right of reconsideration dependent upon compliance by the President with its request that the resolution of consent be returned; that the rules were binding upon the President and all other persons dealing with the Senate in this matter; that as the President was charged with knowledge of the rules, his signing of the commission prior to the expiration of the period within which the Senate might entertain a motion to reconsider had no conclusive legal effect; and that the nominee who had not been legally confirmed could not by his own acts in accepting the commission, taking an oath of office and beginning the discharge of his duties vest himself with any legal rights.

Counsel for the Senate assert that a survey of the historical development of the rules of the Senate relating to reconsideration confirms its present interpretation of the rules; and that the interpretation is further confirmed by the multitudinous instances appearing in the Executive Journal of the Senate in which the President, at the Senate's request, returned resolutions, both of confirmation and of rejection.*fn5 We are of opinion that the Senate's contention is unsound.

[ 286 U.S. Page 33]

     a nomination, although notification of its original action has already been sent to the President. Otherwise, the provision for a motion to request the return of a resolution would be meaningless. But paragraph 4 of the same rule contemplates that normally such notification shall be withheld, until the expiration of the time limited for making a motion to reconsider, and if a motion be made, until the disposition thereof; for it declares that notification shall be so withheld "unless otherwise ordered by the Senate." In this case the Senate did so order otherwise; and the question is as to the meaning and effect of this special procedure.

Smith urges that upon receipt of a resolution of advice and consent, final upon its face, the President is authorized to complete the appointment; and that a request to return the resolution can have no effect unless it is received prior to the signing of the commission; that if this were not true the notification would not authorize the President to do anything until the expiration of the reconsideration period, and hence would be futile; or it would purport to authorize him to make an appointment defeasible upon reconsideration and reversal of the Senate's action, and hence would violate a constitutional requirement of unconditional assent. We do not understand counsel for the appellant to urge that an appointment so defeasible may be made, and we have, therefore, no occasion to consider the constitutional objection, advanced on Smith's behalf, to a construction permitting such action. Nor need we consider whether the President might decline to accede to a request to return the Senate's resolution if he received it before making the appointment. The question at issue is whether, under the Senate's rules, an order of notification empowers the President to make a final and indefeasible appointment, if he acts before notice of reconsideration; or whether,

[ 286 U.S. Page 35]

     despite the notification, he is powerless to complete the appointment until two days of executive session shall have passed without the entry of a motion to reconsider.

Third. The natural meaning of an order of notification to the President is that the Senate consents that the appointment be forthwith completed and that the appointee take office. This is the meaning which, under the rules, a resolution bears when it is sent in normal course after the expiration of the period for reconsideration. Notification before that time is an exceptional procedure, which may be adopted only by unanimous consent of the Senate.*fn6 We think it a strained and unnatural construction to say that such extraordinary, expedited notification signifies less than final action, or bears a different meaning than notification sent in normal course pursuant to the rules.

It is essential to the orderly conduct of public business that formality be observed in the relations between different branches of the Government charged with concurrent duties; and that each branch be able to rely upon definite and formal notice of action by another.*fn7 The construction urged by the Senate would prevent the President from proceeding in any case upon notification of advice and consent, without first determining through unofficial

[ 286 U.S. Page 36]

     channels whether the resolution had been forwarded in compliance with an order of immediate notification or by the Secretary in the ordinary course of business; for the resolution itself bears only the date of its adoption. If the President determined that the resolution had been sent within the time limited for making a motion to reconsider, he would have then to inform himself when that period expired. If the motion were made, he would be put upon notice of it by receipt of a request to return the resolution. But under the view urged by the Senate, that reconsideration may proceed even though the resolution be not returned, he would receive no formal advice as to the disposition of the motion, save in the case of a final vote or rejection or confirmation.*fn8 The uncertainty and confusion which would be engendered by such a construction repel its adoption.

The Senate has offered no adequate explanation of the meaning of an order of immediate notificaion, if it has not the meaning which Smith contends should be attached to it. Its counsel argues that the practice of ordering such notification developed at a time when the Senate passed upon nominations in closed session; and that the order may have been simply a means of furnishing the President with information, not available through public channels, concerning the probable attitude of the chamber prior to final action. It is suggested that the President might thereby be enabled to muster support for a nominee at first rejected, or to withdraw the nomination before final rejection. But the explanation has no application to a notification of a favorable vote. Nor is it

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     credible that the Senate by unanimous vote would adopt a procedure designed merely to permit the exertion of influence upon a majority to change a decision already made. The construction urged is a labored one. It should not be adopted unless plainly required by the history of the rules and by the meaning which the Senate and the Executive Department in practice have given them.

Fourth. We find nothing in the history of the rules which lends support to the contention of the Senate; and much in their history to the contrary. The present rules relating to the reconsideration of votes confirming or rejecting nominations are substantially those of March 25, 1868. The earlier history is this: Prior to April 6, 1867, no rule had dealt specifically with reconsideration of votes concerning nominations. A resolution adopted February 25, 1790, provided generally that "when a question has been once made and carried in the affirmative or negative, it shall be in order for any member of the majority to move for a reconsideration of it." In 1806, two limitations were attached to this provision: first, that, "no motion for the reconsideration of any vote shall be in order, after a bill, resolution, message, report, amendment, or motion, upon which the vote was taken, shall have gone out of the possession of the Senate, nor after the usual message shall have been sent from the Senate, announcing their decision;" and, second, that no such motion shall be in order "unless made on the same day in which the vote was taken, or within the three next days of actual session of the Senate thereafter."*fn9 In 1818, a resolution was adopted, "that in future, all nominations approved, or definitely acted on by the Senate, be by the Secretary returned to the President of the United States, from day

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     to day, as such proceedings may occur, any rule or usage to the contrary notwithstanding."

These rules remained in force until 1867.*fn10 Under them, the Senate decided by unanimous vote in 1830, in the earliest of the precedents cited by the parties, that it was without power to reconsider its rejection of the nomination of Isaac Hill as Second Comptroller of the Treasury, "because the President had been notified." No request appears to have been made in that case for the return of the resolution of rejection. Subsequently, however, it became the practice for the President upon request, to return resolutions of rejection or confirmation, as a matter of comity; and the Senate thereupon reconsidered its action, despite the question under its rules whether reconsideration was in order. Between 1830, the time of Hill's case, and April 5, 1867, about 160 such

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     cases occurred. But several occurring at the close of the period show clearly the limits of the practice. In two cases, the President declined to return the resolution on the ground that the commission had already issued; and the Senate acceded to the refusal.*fn11 In another, the resolution was returned, but with the statement that a commission had issued; and the Senate appears to have taken no further action.*fn12 And on April 3, 1867, in the case of A. C. Fisk, the Senate upheld a decision of the chair that a motion to reconsider a vote of confirmation was out

[ 286 U.S. Page 40]

     of order after the President had been notified, and before the resolution had been returned.

Three days thereafter decisive changes were made in the rules relating both to reconsideration and to notification of the President.*fn13 On April 6, 1867, the rule concerning reconsideration was modified so as to except specifically motions to reconsider votes upon a nomination from the general prohibition of any such motion where the paper announcing the Senate's decision had gone out of its possession; and the present provision was added, that "a motion to reconsider a vote upon a nomination shall always, if the resolution announcing the decision of the Senate has been sent to the President, be accompanied by a motion requesting the President to return the same to the Senate." At the same time, it was provided that "all nominations approved or definitely acted on by the Senate shall be returned by the Secretary on the next day after such action is had, unless otherwise ordered by the Senate."

These changes in the rules not only met the situation which had arisen in Fisk's case, but gave explicit sanction to the long-standing practice of requesting the President to return resolutions upon nominations and thereafter reconsidering them. Counsel for the Senate argue that, in addition, they completely reversed the practice theretofore established in respect to reconsideration after notification of the President; that by divorcing the period for reconsideration from the normal time for notifying the President, they showed an intention that the power to reconsider should be unaffected by the transmittal of notification

[ 286 U.S. Page 41]

     or by the President's action thereon. In a case occurring shortly after the new rules were adopted, however, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary clearly showed its understanding that no such change had taken place. Noah L. Jeffries was nominated for Register of the Treasury and confirmed and the President was notified. To a subsequent request for the return of the resolution the President replied that a commission had already issued. The Committee on the Judiciary, to which the matter was referred, expressed the opinion that the Senate had power to reconsider its vote, but gave as its reason that the request to return the resolution had in fact been received before the commission was signed.*fn14

[ 286 U.S. Page 42]

     The basis for the argument drawn from the rules of 1867, however, was clearly destroyed a year later, when the rule for notification was further altered, and given virtually its present form. The new rule, adopted March 25, 1868, provided that "nominations approved or definitely acted on by the Senate shall not be returned by the Secretary of the Senate to the President until the expiration of the time limited for making a motion to reconsider, or while a motion to reconsider is pending, unless otherwise ordered by the Senate." No material changes have since been made, either in this rule or in that respecting reconsideration.*fn15

[ 286 U.S. Page 43]

     Read in the light of the preceding rules and the practice under them, the meaning of the rules thus established is, in our opinion, free from doubt. Prior to 1867, it had been continuously recognized that the President was authorized to commission a nominee upon receiving notification of the advice and consent of the Senate, and that the signing of a commission cut short the power of reconsideration. The Senate so concedes. No explicit change in this respect was made either in the rules of 1867 or of 1868. The inference that no change was intended is strengthened by the fact that under the latter rules, for the first time, the sending of notification ordinarily coincided with the lapse of power in the Senate to reconsider its action, under any circumstances. The proviso, "unless otherwise ordered by the Senate," made possible the sending of notification before the expiration of the period provided for reconsideration. But there is no indication that the Senate intended thereby to introduce a complete departure from past practice. The natural inference is to the contrary. The proviso for immediate notification must be read in connection with the clause permitting motions to request the return of a resolution, which would be in order only in cases in which the Senate had acted under the proviso. A motion to request the return of a resolution was a familiar device, employed by the Senate on repeated occasions. There is no reason to suppose that such a motion was now intended to have a different effect than that which, by common understanding, it had had in the past. The common understanding had been that a motion to request the return of a resolution was without effect if the President before receiving it had completed the appointment.

[ 286 U.S. Page 44]

     In those two cases the President wrote informing the Senate of the issuance of a commission, and no further action was taken by it.

Attention is called, however, to other cases in which it is contended that the President returned the resolution in spite of the intervening signing of a commission, and that the Senate reconsidered its action. Sixteen cases arising after 1868 are cited.*fn18 The value of most of these

[ 286 U.S. Page 46]

     cases as precedents is questioned by Smith, and also by the Attorney General and the Solicitor General in the brief filed by them amici curiae. In none of the cases is there any indication that the Senate was informed of the fact of the signing of the commission, if in fact the commission was signed. Therefore, none of those cases furnish an authoritative construction by the Senate of its own rules made prior to the events culminating in the present litigation. They amount, at most, only to evidence of the construction placed upon the rules by the Executive Department. The weight of many of the cases, as such evidence, is further lessened by the circumstance that the records do not disclose beyond dispute that a commission had actually been signed by the President before receipt of the Senate's request for return of its resolution.*fn19 All the cases but one arose between 1870

[ 286 U.S. Page 47]

     and 1889, nine of them in the administrations of President Grant and President Hayes. Each of these Presidents on occasion refused to accede to similar requests on the ground that a commission had already been issued.*fn20

Perhaps the most satisfactory explanation of the instances cited on behalf of the Senate is that the Executive Department has not always treated an appointment as complete upon the mere signing of a commission.*fn21 Compare Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137; United States v. Le Baron, 19 How. 73, 78. Even in the view most favorable to the Senate's contention they fall far short of

[ 286 U.S. Page 48]

     clear recognition of the power, never heretofore asserted by the Senate itself, to reconsider a vote of confirmation, after an appointee has actually assumed office and entered upon the discharge of his duties. We are unable to regard any of the cases as of sufficient weight to overcome the natural meaning of the clauses.*fn22

Sixth. To place upon the standing rules of the Senate a construction different from that adopted by the Senate itself when the present case was under debate is a serious and delicate exercise of judicial power. The Constitution commits to the Senate the power to make its own rules; and it is not the function of the Court to say that another rule would be better. A rule designed to ensure due deliberation in the performance of the vital function of advising and consenting to nominations for public office, moreover, should receive from the Court the most sympathetic consideration. But the reasons, above stated, against the Senate's construction seem to us compelling. We are confirmed in the view we have taken by the fact that, since the attempted reconsideration of Smith's confirmation, the Senate itself seems uniformly to have treated the ordering of immediate notification to the President

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     as tantamount to authorizing him to proceed to perfect the appointment.*fn23

The judgment of the Supreme Court of the District is



* The record in this case contains the results of an elaborate examination of the instances in which the Senate reconsidered its votes rejecting or confirming nominations, after the President had been notified of the action reconsidered; and also of the Presidential and Senatorial practice in such matters, as revealed by the Senate Executive Journal, and by records of the Executive Offices and of certain Departments.


* Attached to the brief are appendices giving

(A) A review of decisions of state courts dealing with reconsideration by legislative bodies, citing: State v. Barbour, 53 Conn. 76; State v. Starr, 78 Conn. 638; State v. Phillips, 79 Maine 506; State v. Miller, 62 Oh. St. 436; State v. Tyrrell, 158 Wis. 425; The Justices v. Clark, 1 T.B. Monroe (Ky.) 82; United States v. LeBaron, 19 How. 73; Conger v. Gilmer, 32 Cal. 75; Lane v. Commonwealth, 103 Pa. 481; Harrington v. Pardee, 1 Cal. App. 278; Allen v. Morton, 94 Ark. 405; Jefferson's Manual, § XLIII, 2d par.; People ex rel, McMahon v. Davis, 284 Ill. 439; Witherspoon v. State, 138 Miss. 310; Attorney General v. Oakman, 126 Mich. 717; Wood v. Cutter, 138 Mass. 149; Crawford v. Gilchrist, 64 Fla. 41; Matter of Fitzgerald, 88 App. Div. (N.Y.) 434; State ex rel. Whitney v. Van Buskirk, 40 N.J.L. 463.

(B) A review of the history and interpretation of the standing rules of the Senate dealing with reconsideration of confirmation or rejection of nominations.

(C) A review of Senate, Departmental and Presidential practice in the light of the reconsideration rules of the United States Senate.

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