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Obama on signing statements: much ado about nothing?

Over at Blue Mass. Group, blogger/attorney David Kravitz makes a pretty compelling case that Barack Obama's "rein[ing] in" of signing statements (to paraphrase today's front-page Globe headline) isn't much of a change at all.

Writes Kravitz:

[T]he memorandum basically preserves the position that if the president believes that a part of a bill is unconstitutional, he can refuse to abide by it, even as he signs it into law.  Here's what Obama says:

"I will issue signing statements to address constitutional concerns only when it is appropriate to do so as a means of discharging my constitutional responsibilities."

Ah.  And who will decide when it's an "appropriate" time to issue a signing statement?  Why, the president, of course.

"In exercising my responsibility to determine whether a provision of an enrolled bill is unconstitutional, I will act with caution and restraint, based only on interpretations of the Constitution that are well-founded."

Again, in considering whether to issue a signing statement, who will decide whether the president's interpretation of the Constitution is "well-founded"?  That, too, would seem to be the president.

"I will announce in signing statements that I will construe a statutory provision in a manner that avoids a constitutional problem only if that construction is a legitimate one."

And the "decider" as to whether the president's construction is "legitimate"?  One guess. 

As far as media coverage goes, it's interesting that the Globe omits similarly critical commentary from Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) on Obama's move. In contrast, the New York Times--in a story written by Charlie Savage, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of signing statements while at the Globe--includes Specter's acid commentary. Here it is: 

The Obama administration portrayed its approach as a major departure from that of Mr. Bush. But Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, disagreed, saying Mr. Obama was “wrong” to embrace the view that signing statements can be constitutionally legitimate.

“I think the Constitution is explicit as to how you handle these situations, and if the president thinks something is unconstitutional, then he ought to veto it,” said Mr. Specter, an outspoken critic of Mr. Bush’s signing statements.

He called the practice a “dodge” and “a disregard for the separation of powers and co-equal branches of government.”

“It’s just insulting,” Mr. Specter said, “and there is no reason why we can’t follow the Constitution even if it takes a few days more.”

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