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The Executive Branch and the Courts

The relationship between the executive and judicial branches of the federal government is multifaceted. The following series of essays, while not comprehensive, explores several of the most significant ways in which the branches interact. The first three essays focus on the structural and institutional relationships between the branches. One covers the president’s role, assigned by the Constitution, in nominating federal judges. Although the president has always exercised some discretion in choosing nominees, changing political circumstances, Senate norms, and government bureaucracy have shaped the process as well. The second essay describes the administration of the federal judiciary, which was carried out by various executive branch departments prior to the creation of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in 1939. Oversight by executive branch officials of many of the day-to-day operations of the courts was occasionally in tension with norms of judicial independence. A third essay outlines the development of legal positions within the federal government, in the Justice Department and elsewhere, to examine changes in the way the federal government has conducted its legal business in the federal courts.

The final three essays explore the relationship between the executive and judicial branches in the adjudicative process. In addition to reviewing the constitutionality of legislation passed by Congress, the federal courts provide a check on the executive branch by ruling on the legality of its actions. Since the flourishing of the modern administrative state during the New Deal, courts have played an important role in reviewing regulations promulgated by executive agencies and decisions made by administrative law judges. Federal courts are also called upon to rule on the legality of presidential actions, most commonly in the form of executive orders. Two essays cover these respective types of review, in which courts must strike a balance between conducting meaningful oversight and affording proper respect to the president’s power to execute the laws. The final essay addresses situations in which the federal courts have called on the executive branch for assistance in enforcing their decisions. Although these instances have been rare, the president’s power to ensure compliance with court orders has been essential in upholding the rule of law.