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What did the “Decision of 1789” decide about presidential removal power, if anything? It turns out that an emerging consensus of scholars agrees that there was not much consensus in the First Congress.

Two more questions follow: Is the “unitary executive theory” based on originalism, and if so, is originalism a reliable method of interpretation based on historical evidence?

The unitary executive theory posits that a president has exclusive and “indefeasible” executive powers (i.e., powers beyond congressional and judicial checks and balances). This panel was an opportunity for unitary executive theorists and their critics to debate recent historical research questioning the unitary theory’s claims (e.g., Jonathan Gienapp’s The Second Creation and my article “The Indecisions of 1789: Inconstant Originalism and Strategic Ambiguity,” since published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review).

Unitary theorists on the panel conceded some errors and problems with the claims of a “decision.” Most pivoted away from the traditional account that, based on the legislative debates, a majority of the First Congress endorsed an interpretation that Article II established a presidential removal power. Instead, they shifted to emphasize statutory texts rather than legislative history (though the texts do not indicate an Article II removal power); that the endorsement of even a minority faction of roughly 30% of the House was still substantial; that it was the quality of the argument, not the quantity of supporters (though the “quality” is in the eye and the ideological priors of the beholder, and though it is unclear how original public meaning could be established by a defeated minority position); or perhaps it is the quality or historical importance of the speakers, like Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Marshall, that counts (nevermind that Madison, Hamilton, and Marshall also contradicted the unitary theory). None of these pivots rescues the “Decision” myth.

Perhaps most interesting was the unitary theorists' openness to turning to later evidence, of practices and debates further and further away from the Founding and Ratification. To their credit, they demonstrated a willingness to leave behind standard originalist methods of “original public meaning” during Ratification, and to engage in methods more consistent with common law constitutionalism and living constitutionalism. The challenge is whether they will acknowledge that they have to choose between originalism and the unitary theory.

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