In my last post I explained why the terms “election” and “appointment,” as used in the original Constitution, should not be read as mutually exclusive. Today I will explain why that matters for Trump v. Anderson, the Colorado disqualification case currently pending before the Supreme Court.
But first I must note a surprising, and somewhat related, development. Professor Tillman has asked the Court for leave to participate in oral argument. I guess this was considered reasonable because the Colorado Supreme Court granted Tillman leave, through his counsel (Professor Blackman), to participate in its oral argument (though ultimately Blackman was unable to do). But still.
In any event, Tillman’s reasons for wanting to participate in oral argument relate in part to the subject of today’s post, as will be explained below.
The primary reason it matters whether elected officials are also “appointed” within the meaning of the Constitution relates to the question whether the president is an “officer of the United States.” The position taken by former president Trump, as well as by Professor Tillman and other amici, is that the term “officer of the United States” is defined (effectively, though not expressly) by Article II to include only those officers who are appointed pursuant to the Appointments Clause. Because section 3 of the 14th amendment applies only to those who took an oath as “officers of the United States,” they argue, it does not apply to taking an oath as president because the president is not appointed pursuant to the Appointments Clause.
The Appointments Clause provides:
[The president] shall nominate, and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law; but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of the Departments.
U.S. const., art. II, § 2, cl. 2 (emphasis added).
On its face the italicized phrase “whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for” would seem to show that there is a category of “Officers of the United States” who are not appointed in accordance with the Appointments Clause because their appointments are “herein otherwise provided for.” Or at least that the Appointments Clause is not attempting to define the term “officer of the United States” in, as the Conkling committee put it, the “enlarged and general sense of the Constitution.” In other words, the clause either affirmatively demonstrates that there are “officers of the United States” who are not appointed in accordance with its provisions or indicates that nothing in the clause itself negates the possibility of such officers.
Tillman and Blackman do not accept this reading. If I understand them correctly (and I am not sure I do, despite having read their passages on this several times), they contend that the positions “not herein otherwise provided for” are those offices expressly mentioned earlier in the same sentence, namely ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and judges of the Supreme Court. See Seth Barrett Tillman & Josh Blackman, Offices and Officers of the Constitution, Part III: The Appointments, Impeachments, Commissions, and Oath or Affirmation Clauses, 62 S. Tex. L. Rev. 349, 383-87,442-48 (2023). Put differently, they apparently believe that the framers felt the need– for an unknown reason—to explain what they meant by the word “other” in “all other Officers of the United States.” It is as if I said “I am inviting Fred, George, and some other people to my party, and by that I mean people who are not Fred and George but are in fact additional to Fred and George.” This might be a perfectly normal thing to do if you are writing a Monty Python skit, but it makes no sense as a matter of constitutional drafting.
Roger Parloff puts it somewhat more politely when he says that Tillman and Blackman adopt a reading of the words in question that is “exactly the opposite of what they appear to say.” And James Heilpern and Michael Worley are more polite still when they point out (pp. 27-31) that Tillman and Blackman offer no reason for rejecting the “most natural reading” of the Appointments Clause in favor of an unnaturally narrow construction of the phrase “whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for.”
To bolster their case, Tillman and Blackman point to the word “appointments” as evidence that the phrase in question cannot be referring to elected officials such as the president. That is why it is important to understand that the word “appointment” at the time of the framing was a general term that could embrace any process, including election, for filling an office. As Heilpern and Worley put it (p. 30), “[o]nce one understands this linguistic convention, we think the meaning of ‘whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for’ is clear and see no reason that it would not include the President.”
In their merits brief, the Colorado respondents argued that Trump’s interpretation of “officer of the United States” fails to account for the “not herein otherwise provided for” language of the Appointments Clause. According to Tillman, Trump failed to address this issue in his merits brief and therefore Tillman should be given oral argument time to offer his explanation of the language. This seems like an odd basis for a request for amicus oral argument, but I support it on the ground of its entertainment value alone. But I should also be given 5 minutes to provide rebuttal in the form of a Monty Python skit.
Tillman also says he should be given oral argument time to explain “his personal correspondence with the late Justice Scalia touching on the issues now before this Court.” I can see the confused look on your face so let me explain.
You may recall that a long ago there was controversy over then-President Obama’s recess appointments, which the Supreme Court declared to be illegal in a 2014 case fondly remembered by readers of this blog. Justice Scalia’s concurrence in that case begins “[e]xcept where the Constitution or a valid federal law provides otherwise, all ‘Officers of the United States’ must be appointed by the President ‘by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.’” NLRB v. Noel Canning, 573 U.S. 513, 569 (2014) (Scalia, J., concurring) (emphasis added). Scalia’s reference to a “valid federal law” refers to the portion of the Appointments Clause which permits Congress to vest the appointment of inferior officers in the president alone, in the courts or in the heads of departments. His reference to “the Constitution . . . provid[ing] otherwise” likewise obviously refers to the “not herein otherwise provided for” language of the Appointments Clause and suggests that he agrees with Heilpern and Worley on the “most natural reading” of those words.
Professor Tillman, however, was not happy that Justice Scalia read the language of the Appointments Clause to mean what it obviously says, rather than what Tillman thinks it says. Tillman therefore (I am not making this up) wrote to Scalia to ask him to explain further what he meant by this language. See Seth Barrett Tillman & Josh Blackman, Offices and Officers of the Constitution, Part III: The Appointments, Impeachments, Commissions, and Oath or Affirmation Clauses, 62 S. Tex. L. Rev. 349, 445 (2023). Scalia sent a note in reply to Tillman (I am still not making this up) as follows:
I meant exactly what I wrote. The manner by which the President and Vice President hold their offices is “provide[d] otherwise” by the Constitution. As is the manner by which the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate hold theirs.
Id. at 446.
Now I would be cautious about putting too much weight on this note. A reasonable inference is that Scalia thought all the officials he mentioned are officers of the United States, but it is hard to say how much, if any, consideration he gave to that subject. It is fair to conclude, however, that Scalia rejected the centerpiece of the Tillman/Blackman theory of “officer of the United States” because he did not believe such officers were limited to those appointed in accordance with the Appointments Clause. But this is merely to say that Scalia reads that clause to mean what it says and what his Noel Canning concurrence says that it means.
I am not sure how the Supreme Court will benefit from Tillman’s further elaboration on this “personal correspondence.” But it would be entertaining.