Monday, May 30, 2011
Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution provides that:
Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it. . . .
What does "sign" mean? Or, more precisely, does "sign" include signature by an autopen?
That is the question raised by President Obama's "signing" the Patriot Act extension, S. 990, the “PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act of 2011, by autopen. The Presidential autopen signature of legislation is an apparent first. According to the NYT, with President Obama in Europe and the Patriot Act provisions "set to expire at midnight Thursday, the White House concluded that a mechanical signature would have to do."
Often the President signs a bill into law in a public ceremony (at right, Obama signing the Lily Lebetter Fair Pay Act). The usual practice when the President is not available, again according to the NYT, is that "White House staff members fly, unsigned legislation in hand, to wherever the president happens to be," but the Obama Administration decided to resort to the autopen, "a machine that reproduces signatures and is ubiquitous in government and business for routine transactions — letters, photos, promotional materials — into the ultimate stand-in." Recall that autopen signatures are also at issue in foreclosure actions across the US.
Representative Tom Graves (R-Ga.) has sent a public letter to President Obama questioning both the presentment criteria and the signature requirement.
The autopen issue was the subject of an extensive Memoradum Opinion by the Office of Legal Counsel in 2005. The Memorandum made clear that the issue was not whether the President could delegate the decision, but that once having made the decision, he could "direct a subordinate" to affix the signature. The Memorandum's "roadmap" paragraph outlines the analysis and conclusion:
Our analysis proceeds as follows: In Part I, we examine the legal understanding of the word “sign” at the time the Constitution was drafted and ratified and during the early years of the Republic. We find that, pursuant to this understanding, a person may sign a document by directing that his signature be affixed to it by another. We then review opinions of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice and find the same understanding reflected in opinions addressing statutory signing requirements in a variety of contexts. Reading the constitutional text in light of this established legal understanding, we conclude that the President need not personally perform the physical act of affixing his signature to a bill to sign it within the meaning of Article I, Section 7. In Part II, we consider the settled interpretation of the related provisions of the same section of the Constitution that require that bills be presented to the President and that the President return to Congress bills he disapproves, and find that this interpretation confirms our view of Article I, Section 7’s signing requirement. In Part III, we consider practice and precedent relating to the constitutional signing requirement and show that they do not foreclose our conclusion.
Supporting its conclusion that Presidential autopen signatures are constitutional signatures under an originalist interpretation, the Memorandum states
At the time the Constitution was drafted and ratified, and continuing thereafter, courts in England and the United States applied the rule that “when a document is required by the common law or by statute to be ‘signed’ by a person, a signature of his name in his own proper or personal handwriting is not required.” Finnegan v. Lucy, 157 Mass. 439, 440 (1892) (noting that this rule “was and still is very generally held”; collecting early English and American authorities) . . . . Although the precise origins of the principle of signatures are not clear, they appear to trace back at least as far as Lord Lovelace’s Case, 82 Eng. Rep. 140, Sir Wm. Jones Rep. 268 (J. Seate 1632) . . . .
The Memorandum then discusses other pre-Revolutionary War English cases, the original Statute of Frauds (1677), and the applicability of such private law principles to public law, to ultimately conclude, "Thus, it was well settled at common law that one could sign a legally binding document without personally affixing his signature to it. Rather, under the principle of signatures, one could sign a document by authorizing or directing another to place one’s signature on it."
Although President Bush never relied upon the Memorandum issued in 2005, and the use of the autopen has provoked satire ("Despite possible constitutional challenges, the Supreme Court is expected to uphold the practice given that opposing it would likely offend Justice Scalia's autopen, Clarence Thomas"), it seems that while Obama's resort to the autopen may be a first, it is not unconstitutional, even under an originalist interpretation.
[image: Obama signing the Lily Lebetter Fair Pay Act, via]