295 U.S. 602 (1935), 637, Humphrey's Executor v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 637
Citation:295 U.S. 602, 55 S.Ct. 869, 79 L.Ed. 1611
Party Name:Humphrey's Executor v. United States *
Case Date:May 27, 1935
Court:United States Supreme Court


Page 602

295 U.S. 602 (1935)

55 S.Ct. 869, 79 L.Ed. 1611

Humphrey's Executor


United States *

No. 637

United States Supreme Court

May 27, 1935

Argued 1, 1935



1. The Federal Trade Commission Act fixes the terms of the Commissioners and provides that any Commissioner may be removed by the President for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office. Held that Congress intended to restrict the power of removal to one or more of those causes. Shurtleff v. United States, 189 U.S. 311, distinguished. Pp. 621, 626.

2. This construction of the Act is confirmed by a consideration of the character of the Commission -- an independent, nonpartisan body of experts, charged with duties neither political nor executive, but predominantly quasi-judicial and quasi-legislative, and by the legislative history of the Act. P. 624.

3. When Congress provides for the appointment of officers whose functions, like those of the Federal Trade Commissioners, are of Legislative and judicial quality, rather than executive, and limits the grounds upon which they may be removed from office, the President has no constitutional power to remove them for reasons other than those so specified. Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52, limited, and expressions in that opinion in part disapproved. Pp. 626, 627.

Page 603

The Myers case dealt with the removal of a postmaster, an executive officer restricted to executive functions and charged with no duty at all related to either the legislative or the judicial power. The actual decision in the Myers case finds support in the theory that such an officer is merely one of the units in the executive department, and, hence, inherently subject to the exclusive and illimitable power of removal by the Chief Executive, whose subordinate he is. That decision goes no farther than to include purely executive officers. The Federal Trade Commission, in contrast, is an administrative body created by Congress to carry into effect legislative policies embodied in the statute in accordance with the legislative standard therein prescribed, and to perform other specified duties as a legislative or as a judicial aid. Such a body cannot in any proper sense be characterized as an arm or an eye of the executive. Its duties are performed without executive leave, and, in the contemplation of the statute, must be free from executive control. To the extent that it exercises any executive function -- as distinguished from executive power in the constitutional sense -- it does so in the discharge and effectuation of its quasi-legislative or quasi-judicial powers, or as an agency of the legislative or judicial departments of the Government. Pp. 627-628.

4. The authority of Congress, in creating quasi-legislative or quasi-judicial agencies, to require them to act in discharge of their duties independently of executive control cannot well be doubted, and that authority includes, as an appropriate incident, power to fix the period during which they shall continue in office, and to forbid their removal except for cause in the meantime. P. 629.

5. The fundamental necessity of maintaining each of the three general departments of government entirely free from the control or coercive influence, direct or indirect, of either of the others has often been stressed, and is hardly open to serious question. So much is implied in the very fact of the separation of the powers of these departments by the Constitution, and in the rule which recognizes their essential coequality. P. 629.

6. Whether the power of the President to remove an officer shall prevail over the authority of Congress to condition the power by fixing a definite term and precluding a removal except for cause will depend upon the character of the office. To the extent that, between the decision in the Myers case, which sustains the unrestrictable power of the President to remove purely executive officers, and the present decision that such power does not extend to an office

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such as that here involved there shall remain a field of doubt, such cases as may fall within it are left for future consideration and determination as they may arise. P. 631.

7. While the general rule preclude the use of congressional debates to explain the meaning of the words of a statute, they may be considered as reflecting light upon its general purposes and the evils which it sought to remedy. P. 625.

8. Expressions in an opinion which are beyond the point involved do not come within the rule of stare decisis. P. 626.

CERTIFICATE from the Court of Claims, propounding questions arising on a claim for the salary withheld from the plaintiff's testator, from the time when the President undertook to remove him from office to the time of his death.

Page 618

SUTHERLAND, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.

Plaintiff brought suit in the Court of Claims against the United States to recover a sum of money alleged to be due the deceased for salary as a Federal Trade Commissioner from October 8, 1933, when the President undertook to remove him from office, to the time of his death on February 14, 1934. The court below has certified to this court two questions (Act of February 13, 1925, § 3(a), c. 229, 43 Stat. 936, 939; 28 U.S.C. § 288) in respect of the power of the President to make the removal. The material facts which give rise to the questions are as follows:

William E. Humphrey, the decedent, on December 10, 1931, was nominated by President Hoover to succeed himself as a member of the Federal Trade Commission, and was confirmed by the United States Senate. He was duly commissioned for a term of seven years expiring September 25, 1938; and, after taking the required oath of office, entered upon his duties. On July 25, 1933, President Roosevelt addressed a letter to the commissioner asking for his resignation, on the ground

that the aims and purposes of the Administration with respect to the work of the Commission can be carried out most effectively with personnel of my own selection,

but disclaiming any reflection upon the commissioner personally or upon his services. The commissioner replied, asking time to consult

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his friends. After some further correspondence upon the subject, the President, on August 31, 1933, wrote the commissioner expressing the hope that the resignation would be forthcoming, and saying:

You will, I know, realize that I do not feel that your mind and my mind go along together on either the policies or the administering of the Federal Trade Commission, and, frankly, I think it is best for the people of this country that I should have a full confidence.

The commissioner declined to resign, and on October 7, 1933, the President wrote him:

Effective as of this date, you are hereby removed from the office of Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission.

Humphrey never acquiesced in this action, but continued thereafter to insist that he was still a member of the commission, entitled to perform its duties and receive the compensation provided by law at the rate of $10,000 per annum. Upon these and other facts set forth in the certificate, which we deem it unnecessary to recite, the following questions are certified:

1. Do the provisions of section 1 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, stating that "any commissioner may be removed by the President for inefficiency, neglect of duly, or malfeasance in office," restrict or limit the power of the President to remove a commissioner except upon one or more of the causes named?

If the foregoing question is answered in the affirmative, then --

2. If the power of the President to remove a commissioner is restricted or limited as shown by the foregoing interrogatory and the answer made thereto, is such a restriction or limitation valid under the Constitution of the United States?

The Federal Trade Commission Act, c. 311, 38 Stat. 717; 15 U.S.C. §§ 41, 42, creates a commission of five

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members to be appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, and § 1 provides:

Not more than three of the commissioners shall be members of the same political party. The first commissioners appointed shall continue in office for terms of three, four, five, six, and seven years, respectively, from the date of the taking effect of this Act, the term of each to be designated by the President, but their successors shall be appointed for terms of seven years, except that any person chosen to fill a vacancy shall be appointed only for the unexpired term of the commissioner whom he shall succeed. The commission shall choose a chairman from its own membership. No commissioner shall engage in any other business, vocation, or employment. Any commissioner may be removed by the President for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office. . . .

Section 5 of the act in part provides:

That unfair methods of competition in commerce are hereby declared unlawful.

The commission is hereby empowered and directed to prevent persons, partnerships, or corporations, except banks, and common carriers subject to the Acts to regulate commerce, from using unfair methods of competition in commerce.

In exercising this power, the commission must issue a complaint stating its charges and giving notice of hearing upon a day to be fixed. A person, partnership, or corporation proceeded against is given the right to appear at the time and place fixed and show cause why an order to cease and desist should not be issued. There is provision for intervention by others interested. If the commission finds the method of competition is one prohibited by the act, it is directed to make a report in writing stating its findings as to the facts, and to issue and cause to be served a cease and desist order. If the order is disobeyed, the commission may apply...

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