Monday, December 22, 2014
President Obama on Friday signed the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, and, as in prior years, issued a constitutional signing statement on provisions restricting the use of funds to move any detainee out of Guantanamo Bay.
President Obama's signing statement this year is a little different than in prior years: it includes an array of policy objections to Congress's forced maintenance of the detention facility. The constitutional objection is a little more dressed up than in prior years, but the core constitutional objection remains the same:
The executive branch must have the flexibility, with regard to those detainees who remain, to determine when and where to prosecute them, based on the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests, and when and where to transfer them consistent with our national security and our humane treatment policy. Under certain circumstances, the provisions concerning detainee transfers in both bills [the NDAA and the Consolidation and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015] would violate constitutional separation of powers principles. In the event that the restrictions on the transfer of detainees operate in a manner that violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my Administration will implement them in a manner that avoids the constitutional conflict.
That means that the administration claims the right to ignore the restrictions when they violate separate of powers.
It's not clear that the changed language of the signing statement this year signals any greater likelihood that the administration will actually ignore the restrictions and move a detainee off the base in violation of the provisions. But President Obama's other actions (on immigration, on Cuba) might suggest that the administration is more willing to do this.
The Supreme Court hasn't ruled on the legal status of a signing statement like this. And even though a signing statement is involved in the Zivotofsky passport case this Term, the Court's not likely to say anything about it.