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Morrison v. Olson

United States Supreme Court
487 U.S. 654 (1988)

Morrison v. Olson


Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 (the Act). Title VI of the Act permitted a court called the Special Division to appoint an independent counsel to investigate and prosecute certain high-ranking government officials for violations of federal criminal laws upon request by the Attorney General. The independent counsel could terminate the position when the investigation and/or prosecution was complete. Additionally, the Act gave the Attorney General sole removal power of an independent counsel “for cause.” Independent Counsel Alexia Morrison (plaintiff) was appointed to investigate possible obstruction of congressional investigations by Department of Justice officials (defendants), including allegations of misconduct and providing false or misleading testimony to a congressional subcommittee by Solicitor General Ted Olson (defendant). When Morrison requested that the federal court issue subpoenas requiring production of withheld Environmental Protection Agency documents, Olson moved to quash, claiming the Act’s independent counsel provision was unconstitutional. Olson argued that the Act violated separation of powers principles by giving to the judiciary the appointment and removal powers traditionally vested in the president. The district court denied the motion to quash, declared the Act constitutional, and held Olson in contempt for not complying with the subpoenas. A divided court of appeals reversed, holding that an independent counsel is a principal officer, rather than inferior officer, and thus the Act violated the Appointments Clause of Article II of the Constitution. Morrison appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

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