Landy lectures on executive power

Posted by Jean-Ann Kubler

At 5 p.m. Sept. 17 in the Pohndorff Reading Room of the Scribner Library, Marc Landy gave a lecture titled, "Terror and the Constitution".

Landy, a professor of political science at Boston College and renowned scholar of American government has published several books on American politics and environmental policy.

The lecture was part of the Constitution Day series and focused on the powers given to the president to combat terrorism, as well as the response of Congress and the Supreme Court to these powers.

Government Professor Natalie Taylor introduced Landy to the audience as a well-regarded and beloved teacher. "I have long considered myself a student of Marc Landy," Taylor said.

Landy began by explaining the significance of the brevity of Article II of the Constitution, which deals with executive power. It is concerned mostly with the president's power as commander in chief.

He described the presidency as we know it now as a drastic departure from the founders' intentions in the Virginia Plan, which laid the groundwork for the Constitution.

Landy noted three historic examples of stretching presidential power.

George Washington's Declaration of Neutrality, issued without Congressional approval in 1793, was the first example. Washington refused to get involved with the French-British conflict, even though the U.S. had a treaty with France. Congress was out of session at this point, so Washington was able to justify his actions by claiming it was an urgent matter.

The next example was Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Lincoln claimed that in order to protect the Constitution, he had to temporarily ignore it. He also ignored the Supreme Court's declaration of his actions as unconstitutional.

The final historic example was Franklin Roosevelt's suspension of neutrality during World War II, when he agreed to aid Britain with arms. Landy explained that Roosevelt thought about going to Congress, but his advisors cautioned him against it.

Unlike the other examples, Roosevelt could not claim wartime urgency. "Notice what an expansion of power this is. The United States was not even at war in 1937," Landy said. He also explained that Congress was in session at the time of Roosevelt's action.

Landy then moved on to the current controversial expansion of the executive: the detainment of enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay. Bush had the authorization for military force when he began detaining people at Guantanamo Bay, which gave him some flexibility in his actions, but many still claim he is violating the Constitution.

The Supreme Court agrees, and has declared the use of non-traditional judicial proceedings at Guantanamo Bay a violation of the prisoners' rights.

Obama has essentially sided with Bush on the issue. "As I'm sure you all know, Guantanamo remains open," Landy said.

Landy went on to address the question of what students should think of these extensions of executive power.

"I don't have a simple answer. The Constitution is a more subtle and complicated document than we think," Landy said.

He also argued for empathy for the presidents who make tough decisions in these dangerous and time sensitive situations.

"On Constitution Day, it's worth remembering that the Constitution, as masterful as it is, is not as self correcting machine," Landy said.

A question and answer period, as well as a reception, followed the lecture.

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