Attorney General Eric Holder assured a federal appeals court Thursday that the Obama administration believes judges have the authority to overturn federal laws, after President Obama's comments earlier this week raised concerns from the bench about his view of judicial power.
Holder, in a three-page letter to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, said "the power of the courts to review the constitutionality of legislation is beyond dispute," though it should only be exercised in "appropriate cases." He also claimed laws passed by Congress are "presumptively constitutional."
The response capped an unusual dispute between the co-equal branches of government, one which has since reverberated on the campaign trail and beyond.
Obama originally said Monday it would be "unprecedented" for the Supreme Court to overturn the federal health care overhaul, following its three-day review of the law last week. Administration officials later insisted that the president was not making a broad statement -- and was rather referring only to cases pertaining to the Commerce Clause and dealing with matters of the national economy.
The comments, though, caught the attention of a three-judge panel on the 5th Circuit, as Judge Jerry Smith paused during a hearing Tuesday to chide the administration for what he said was being perceived as a "challenge" to judicial authority.
"That has troubled a number of people who have read it as somehow a challenge to the federal courts or to their authority," Smith said. "And that's not a small matter."
Smith, part of a panel of all Republican appointees, then ordered an explanation by Thursday of no fewer than three pages.
Holder provided the single-spaced, three-page letter by the deadline. In it, he backed up the president's remarks. While saying the court has the right to review laws, he cited prior opinions that acts of Congress are "presumptively constitutional" and said the executive branch has "often urged courts to respect the legislative judgments of Congress."
He wrote that the "principles of deference are fully applicable when Congress legislates in the commercial sphere," calling Obama's comments "fully consistent" with the principles in the letter.
The fallout from the president's comments, though, is likely to drag on, with the presidential general election campaign on the horizon -- and a Supreme Court decision likely to land in the middle of it. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, in prepared remarks for a speech Thursday afternoon, told Obama to "back off" and "let the court do its work."
Holder already previewed what his response would be on Wednesday, saying the courts have "final say."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has also argued that there's no dispute from the administration regarding the courts' authority to strike down laws. He says the president was instead referring specifically to the traditional deference the court has shown Congress when it comes to laws addressing challenges to the economy -- such as health care.
"What he did was make an unremarkable observation about 80 years of Supreme Court history," Carney said Wednesday.
House Speaker John Boehner's office later cited cases over the past two decades where the Supreme Court overturned federal laws because they exceeded limitations under the Commerce Clause -- which is at the heart of the health care case.
An administration official, though, noted that those cases did not deal with major economic regulation as the health care law does.
Though Carney says the president did not misspeak when he discussed the case on Monday, Obama was not quite so specific.
"I'm confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress," Obama said on Monday. "And I'd just remind conservative commentators that for years what we've heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example. And I'm pretty confident that this court will recognize that and not take that step."
Obama reiterated his stance on Tuesday, saying the court has traditionally shown "deference" to Congress and that "the burden is on those who would overturn a law like this."