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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2013




Yale Law School




Recent years have seen much speculation over executive branch legal interpretation and internal decisionmaking, particularly in matters of national security and international law. Debate persists over how and why the executive arrives at particular understandings of its legal constraints, the extent to which the positions taken by one presidential administration may bind the next, and, indeed, the extent to which the President is constrained by law at all. Current scholarship focuses on rational, political, and structural arguments to explain executive actions and legal positioning, but it has yet to take account of the diverse ways in which legal questions arise for the executive branch, which have a significant effect on executive decisionmaking.

This Article adds necessary texture to these debates by identifying and exploring the role of distinct triggers for legal interpretation - which this Article terms “interpretation catalysts” - in driving and shaping executive branch decisionmaking, particularly at the intersection of national security and international law. Interpretation catalysts impel the executive to consider, crystallize and potentially assert a legal interpretation of its obligations under domestic or international law on a particular matter, and they can both impede and facilitate change within the executive. Examples of interpretation catalysts include such diverse triggering events as decisions whether to use force against an armed group; lawsuits filed against the U.S. government; obligatory reports to human rights treaty bodies; and even the act of speechmaking. Each of these unique catalysts triggers a distinct process for legal decisionmaking within the executive, and is instrumental in framing the task at hand, shaping the process engaged to arrive at the substantive decision, establishing the relative influence of the actors who will decide the matter, and informing the contextual pressures and interests that may bear on the decision, and thus shapes the ultimate substantive position itself. These distinct mechanisms for decisionmaking each carry their own individual pressures and biases; thus in laying bare the interpretation catalysts phenomenon, this Article demonstrates potential avenues for actors inside and external to the executive branch to predict, to explain, and even to affect executive decisionmaking. This Article will explore the effect of interpretation catalysts on executive legal interpretation, and address some of the implications of this phenomenon for scholars, private actors, courts, and executive branch officials.

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