Morrison v. Olson 1988

Author:Daniel Brannen, Richard Hanes, Elizabeth Shaw
Pages:937-943
 
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Page 937

Appellant: Alexia Morrison

Appellee: Theodore B. Olson, Edward Schmults, Carol E. Dinkins

Appellant's Claim: That the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 which allowed for appointment of an independent counsel to investigate wrongdoing by federal officials did not violate the Appointment Clause of the Constitution or the principle of separation of powers.

Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Alexia Morrison

Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Thomas S. Martin

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O'Connor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Antonin Scalia (Anthony M. Kennedy did not participate)

Date of Decision: June 27, 1988

Decision: Ruled in favor of Morrison by finding that the act was constitutionally valid.

Significance: The ruling reaffirmed the role of independent counsel in investigating federal officials, including the president. The Court determined that a judicial office within the executive branch of government did not violate the separation of powers concepts basic to the federal government.

Page 938

"Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people [to decide]." Words spoken by Archibald Cox immediately after being fired as special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.

It all began in the summer of 1972 when someone broke into offices belonging to the Democratic Party in Washington's Watergate Complex. By 1973 newspaper stories suggested involvement by officials in the administration of President Richard M. Nixon (1969–1974). As a result, Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson, in May of 1973, selected Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to investigate the affair.

As the investigation widened, it appeared that White House officials had played a part and Cox requested from Nixon audio tapes of White House conversations. On Saturday night October 20, 1973 an outraged Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Refusing to carry out Nixon's order, Richardson and then his deputy attorney general, William D. Ruckleshaus, the top two officials of the Justice Department, resigned in protest. Later that night Robert Bock, the solicitor general, fired Cox. The night's events became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre" and left the American public reeling in dismay over Nixon's actions.

By the time the Watergate affair came to an end with Nixon's resignation in 1974, the foundation of the federal government had been shaken. Cover-ups, investigations, and controversies had pitted the three branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial against each other. Controversy over the special prosecutor's power to investigate officials of the executive branch including the president had been particularly combative and disruptive. Congress decided an independent (free from others) prosecutor was indeed useful to investigate and check government misconduct but guidelines were needed to better define the appointment process and prosecutor's duties. Hence, as a last echo of Watergate, and largely triggered by the Saturday Night Massacre, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act in 1978.

Ethics in Government Act

Title VI of the Ethics Act provided for the appointment of special prosecutor to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute high ranking...

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