Appointments Without Law

Debates about the Appointments Clause tend to turn on drawing the right distinctions. This Article argues that the Appointments Clause draws a little-recognized distinction between the officers specifically enumerated by the Clause (“Ambassadors,” “other public Ministers and Consuls,” and “Judges of the supreme Court”) and the officers referred to only as a residual category (“all other officers of the United States”). The basic claim is that enumerated offices need not be “established by Law”—that is, by congressional legislation—but are established instead by the Constitution or the law of nations.

Although the “enumerated-residual distinction” has been essentially ignored by judges and scholars, it raises a basic interpretive puzzle. The Appointments Clause appears to give the President the same authority to appoint each category of enumerated officers. But in practice, we have construed the President’s authority to appoint diplomats and Supreme Court Justices quite differently. Since the Founding, the President has appointed diplomats without congressional authorization, but at the same time everyone has assumed that Congress must pass a statute before the President may appoint any Justices.  

This Article argues that the President has the authority to appoint both diplomats and Justices without congressional authorization. This view accords with the Constitution’s text, suits the unique constitutional status of the Supreme Court, and was advanced by political actors soon after the Constitution’s ratification. But even if one rejects the strongest version of this argument, the Article’s core insight—that the Appointments Clause requires parallel treatment of diplomats and Justices—has a series of potential implications for constitutional doctrine.