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UNITED STATES v. GEORGE OTIS SMITH

May 2, 1932

UNITED STATES
v.
GEORGE OTIS SMITH



CERTIFICATE FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

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 ยง 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 ...


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