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Checks and Balances: When a President’s Overreach Violates the Constitution

Let’s take a look at six of the nation’s most historic moments when U.S. presidents overreached with their powers thus violating the constitution.

Our nation’s history is littered with instances where fact seemed stranger than fiction, at least when it comes to the constitution. While the president has the ultimate power through his executive actions, that doesn’t always mean the legislation they impose adheres to the protections provided by the constitution. Let’s take a look at six of the nation’s most historic moments when U.S. presidents overreached with their powers thus violating the constitution.  

1. Woodrow Wilson and Freedom of Speech (1920)

One of the most notable highlights of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was the passage of the Espionage Act and its sister policy, the Sedition Act of 1918. Under the Sedition Act, the First Amendment freedom of speech was the center of controversy as the acts stipulated that no one could say anything “insulting or abusing the U.S. government, the flag, the Constitution or the military.” If disparaging remarks were made against the nation in such capacities, an individual could face up to 20 years in jail along with a fine. The Sedition Act was quickly overruled in 1920. However, there are parts of the Espionage Act that are still in effect today. 

2. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Internment of Japanese Americans (1945)

Very much like George W. Bush’s approach to the War on Terror, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established a similar attack on Japanese Americans. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt signed into law Executive Order 9066. The executive order forcibly removed Japanese Americans from their homes and relocated them into internment camps. This drastic response to the attack on our nation was deemed unconstitutional in 1945 when the Supreme Court ruled in Endo v. the United States. As part of the Court’s opinion, the justices decided that the War Relocation Authority “has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure.” 

3. Truman Seizes the Steel Mills (1952)

Amid the Korean War, in April 1952, President Truman seized the nation’s steel mills after issuing Executive Order 10340. The U.S. Supreme court ruled in Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer that the executive order not only usurped the powers of Congress, but the order was a violation of the separations of power. 

2006 – George W. Bush and the War on Terror

Following the attack on our nation on September 11, 2001, George W. Bush launched a “War on Terrorism” campaign that included surveilling and arresting individuals who were were thought to be enemies of the country. As part of the war on terrorism, arrests were made without obtaining a warrant, thus violating basic protections of freedom and due process as provided by the Constitution. Even though Congress passed legislation that banned this type of surveillance, arrests of individuals suspected of terrorism continued and President Bush’s overreach resulted in a ruling declaring the President’s approach to the War on Terror unconstitutional. 

4. Barack Obama and the Chrysler Crisis (2009)

After the great recession of 2008, President Barack Obama violated bankruptcy laws by pushing Chrysler’s secured creditors into accepting a lower payback of 30 cents to the dollar. These secured creditors according to code should have had “absolute priority”. Instead, junior creditors including labor unions who were not deemed “absolute priority” were given much more in terms of how much debt repayments they got back. In addition to violating the creditors’ rights and violating the Bankruptcy Code, Obama also violated the Takings and Due Process Clauses of the Constitution. 

5. Barack Obama and Immigration Policy (2014)

President Barack Obama’s policy towards immigration came under scrutiny throughout much of his presidency. However in late 2014 when a Honduran immigrant was charged with illegal re-entry into the country after having been arrested for drunk driving, Obama’s immigration policies were carefully re-examined and a Pennsylvania federal judge ruled that Obama’s recent slew of executive actions centering around immigration were unconstitutional because they went “beyond prosecutorial discretion.” The judge’s opinion explained in part that the executive order was unconstitutional because “(a) it provides for a systematic and rigid process by which a broad group of individuals will be treated differently than others based upon arbitrary classifications, rather than case-by-case examination; and (b) it allows undocumented immigrants, who fall within these broad categories, to obtain substantive rights.”

6. Donald Trump and The Border Wall (2019)

Donald Trump found himself in violation of the constitution when he declared a national emergency as a means to secure funding for his border wall. Building the border wall was one of the key components of the Trump campaign, another cornerstone of this promise was that Mexico would pay for the wall. When Mexico repeatedly refused to fund the endeavor, Trump focused his attention on congress where he asked for nearly $9 billion to complete the project. However, Congress had denied President Trump’s bid and offered just under 2 billion after back and forth negotiations. Trump routinely touted the need for a border wall by explaining that drugs and criminals were coming into the country because of the open border. After declaring a national emergency and trying to divert funds allocated for pentagon projects, A federal judge ruled Trump’s attempt unconstitutional. 

While presidents have proven that they are willing to overreach their powers and violate the constitution, our nation’s governing bodies have also proven that the checks and balances in place will not allow that to happen. While some presidents have been more notorious than others for violating the protections of the constitution, their actions have all made for some interesting stories that contribute to the fabric of our nation’s history. 

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