Presidential Signing Statements Research Guide
This guide is a starting point for researching presidential signing statements and their significance in the U.S. legal system.
When presidents sign bills into law, they sometimes issue written statements expressing their views on those bills. These written statements are known as "presidential signing statements." Presidents often use signing statements to express their intention not to enforce parts of legislation that they consider to be unconstitutional, or otherwise provide an interpretation of the law as executive branch agencies will be directed to enforce it.
Since at least the Reagan era, scholars, jurists, and others have debated whether presidential signing statements should be considered as legislative history for purposes of interpreting federal statutes. In a recent example, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed with his fellow justices' disregard of a signing statement related to the Detainee Treatment Act, Pub. L. No. 109-148, §§ 1005-1006, 119 Stat. 2736 (2005). Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 U.S. 557 (2006) (Scalia dissenting). In March 2009, President Obama issued a memo to the heads of executive departments and agencies in which he opined "In appropriately limited circumstances, [presidential signing statements] represent an exercise of the President's constitutional obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and they promote a healthy dialogue between the executive branch and the Congress."
This guide is intended as a starting point for research about presidential signing statements. It is not a comprehensive listing of all materials on the subject. For help finding other types of presidential documents, consult the Library's Presidential Documents Research Guide or contact the Georgetown Law Library reference desk at (202) 662-9140. You may also submit questions live online via Chat with a Librarian during reference hours or request a research consultation appointment to discuss more in-depth research with a librarian.
Sources for Presidential Signing Statements
The full text of presidential signing statements may be found in the following sources:
- Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents.
- Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States.
- United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN).
- American Presidency Project, Presidential Signing Statements: Hoover to Obama – A browsable database of signing statements from 1929 to the present.
- Coherent Babble Blog's RSS Feed of Signing Statements, 2001 to the Present.
News and Scholarly Commentary
This section presents select recent brief news articles, as well as opinion pieces. The articles are listed below in reverse-chronological order.
- Charlie Savage, Obama's Embrace of Bush Tactic Criticized by Lawmakers from Both Parties, N.Y. Times, Aug. 9, 2009, at A16. Lexis Westlaw
- Charlie Savage, Obama Looks to Limit Impact of Tactic Bush Used to Sidestep New Laws, N.Y. Times, Mar. 10, 2009, at A12. Lexis Westlaw. Report on March 9, 2009 Obama memo to executive department and agency heads on signing statements.
- Dana D. Nelson, Editorial, The "Unitary Executive": Think a Democrat Will Stop the Push for Presidential Power? Think Again, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Oct. 16, 2008, at B11. Lexis Westlaw.
- Maura Reynolds, Bush's Hedge on Bill Renews Debate Over 'Signing Statements', L.A. Times, Feb. 1, 2008, at 11. Lexis Westlaw
- Charlie Savage, Group Opposes Loss of Signing Statements, Boston Globe, Aug. 5, 2006, at A2. Lexis Westlaw.
- Walter Dellinger, Op-Ed., A Slip of the Pen, N.Y. Times, July 31, 2006, at A17. Lexis Westlaw. Op-ed piece by the author of a Clinton-era DOJ memorandum on the legal significance of signing statements. The article asserts that the Bush administration cites his memo while ignoring its cautionary guidelines.
- Untangling the Debate on Signing Statements, Georgetown Law Faculty Blog, July 31, 2006. Blog post co-written by eight former U.S. Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel attorneys.
- John W. Dean, The Bush Administration's Adversarial Relationship with Congress --
as Illustrated by Its Refusal to Even Provide the Number of Signing Statements Issued by President Bush, FindLaw's Writ, July 14, 2006.
- Brian Friehl, The Signing Statement Games, Nat'l J., June 17, 2006, at 65. Academic Search Premier .
- Chitra Ragavan, Cheney's Guy, U.S. News & World Report, May 29, 2006, at 32. Academic Search Premier . Profiles David Addington, Cheney's chief of staff and the lawyer largely responsible for President George W. Bush's use of signing statements in objecting to parts of legislation.
- Dahlia Lithwick, Sign Here: Presidential Signing Statements Are More Than Just Executive Branch Lunacy, Slate, Jan. 30, 2006.
- Adam Liptak, Presidential Signing Statements, and Alito's Role in Them, Are Questioned, N.Y. Times, Jan. 14, 2006, at A11. Lexis Westlaw
- John W. Dean, The Problem with Presidential Signing Statements: Their Use and Misuse by the Bush Administration, FindLaw's Writ, Jan. 13, 2006.
- Steve Sheppard, Presidential Signing Statements: How to Find Them, How to Use Them, and What They Might Mean, 2006 Ark. L. Notes 87. Westlaw.
The articles below are from scholarly publications, such as law reviews and academic journals, listed in reverse chronological order. Where available, links are given to the articles on the Internet or in subscription databases.
- Faith J. Jackson, The Constitutionality of Presidential Signing Statements: A Note on H.R. 5993,The Presidential Signing Statements Act of 2008, 35 J. of Leg. 1 (2009) HeinOnline
- Neil Kinkopf & Peter M. Shane, Signed Under Protest: A Database of Presidential Signing Statements, 2001-2009, Ohio State Public Law Working Paper No. 118 (Oct. 2009). SSRN.
- Michael J. Berry, Controversially Executing the Law: George W. Bush and the Constitutional Signing Statement, 36 Congress & the Presidency 244 (2009). Academic Search Premier .
- Christopher S. Kelley & Bryan W. Marshall, Assessing Presidential Power: Signing Statements and Veto Threats as Coordinated Strategies, 37 Am. Pol. Res. 508 (2009). Academic Search Premier .
- Sofia E. Biller, Note, Flooded by the Lowest Ebb: Congressional Responses to Presidential Signing Statements and Executive Hostility to the Operation of Checks and Balances, 93 Iowa L. Rev. 1067 (2008). Lexis Westlaw.
- Michael T. Crabb, Comment,"The Executive Branch Shall Construe": The Canon of Constitutional Avoidance and the Presidential Signing Statement, 56 Kan. L. Rev. 711 (2008). Lexis Westlaw.
- I-Wei Wang, Schoolhouse Rock Is No Longer Enough: The Presidential Signing Statements Controversy and Its Implications for Library Professionals, 100 Law Libr. J. 619 (2008). Lexis Web
- Nicholas J. Leddy, Note, Determining Due Deference: Examining When Courts Should Defer to Agency Use of Presidential Signing Statements, 59 Admin. L. Rev. 869 (2008). Lexis Westlaw.
- Malinda Lee, Comment, Reorienting the Debate on Presidential Signing Statements: The Need for Transparency in the President's Constitutional Objections, Reservations, and Assertions of Power, 55 UCLA L. Rev. 705 (2008). Lexis Westlaw.
- Kristien G. Knapp, Note, Resolving the Presidential Signing Statement Controversy: New York State as a Separation of Powers Laboratory, 6 Cardozo Pub. L. Pol'y & Ethics J. 737 (2008). Lexis Westlaw.
- Jeremy M. Seeley, Note, How the Signing Statement Thought It Killed the Veto; How the Veto May Have Killed the Signing Statement, 23 BYU J. Pub. L. 167 (2008). Lexis Westlaw.
- Symposium: The Last Word? The Constitutional Implications of Presidential Signing Statements, 16 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rts. J. 1-314 (2007). Includes the following articles and others:
- Neal Devins, Signing Statements and Divided Government, 16 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rts. J. 63 (2007). Lexis Westlaw.
- Saikrishna Prakash, Why the President Must Veto Unconstitutional Bills, 16 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rts. J. 81 (2007). Lexis Westlaw.
- Nelson Lund, Signing Statements in Perspective, 16 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rts. J. 95 (2007). Lexis Westlaw.
- Michele Estrin Gilman, Litigating Presidential Signing Statements, 16 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rts. J. 131 (2007). Lexis Westlaw.
- Louis Fisher, Signing Statements: Constitutional and Practical Limits, 16 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rts. J. 183 (2007). Lexis Westlaw.
- Phillip J. Cooper, Signing Statements as Declaratory Judgments: The President as Judge, 16 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rts. J. 253 (2007). Lexis Westlaw.
- Christopher S. Kelley, A Matter of Direction: The Reagan Administration, the Signing Statement, and the 1986 Westlaw Decision, 16 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rts. J. 283 (2007). Lexis Westlaw.
- Neil Kinkopf, Signing Statements and Statutory Interpretation in the Bush Administration, 16 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rts. J. 307 (2007). Lexis Westlaw.
- Note, Context-Sensitive Deference to Presidential Signing Statements, 120 Harv. L. Rev. 597 (2006). Lexis Westlaw.
- Curtis A. Bradley & Eric A. Posner, Presidential Signing Statements and Executive Power, 23 Const. Comment. 307 (2006) Westlaw.
- Louis Fisher Signing Statements: What to Do?, The Forum: Vol. 4: No. 2, Article 7 (2006). BePress.
- Steven G. Calabresi & Daniel Lev, The Legal Significance of Presidential Signing Statements, The Forum: Vol. 4: No. 2 Article 8 (2006). BePress.
- Phillip J. Cooper, George W. Bush, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Use and Abuse of Presidential Signing Statements, 35 Presidential Stud. Q. 515 (2005). ProQuest Research Library .
- Kristy L. Carroll, Comment, Whose Statute Is It Anyway?: Why and How Courts Should Use Presidential Signing Statements When Interpreting Federal Statutes, 46 Cath. U.L. Rev. 475 (1997). Lexis Westlaw.
- Christopher N. May, Presidential Defiance of "Unconstitutional" Laws: Reviving the Royal Prerogative, 21 Hastings Const. L.Q. 865 (1994). Examines several methods presidents use to defy legislation they deem unconstitutional, including signing statements. Westlaw
- Christine E. Burgess, When May a President Refuse to Enforce the Law? 72 Tex. L. Rev. 631 (1994). Discusses signing statements as one mechanism presidents use in refusing to enforce laws they deem unconstitutional. Lexis Westlaw .
- William D. Popkin, Judicial Use of Presidential Legislative History: A Critique, 66 Ind. L.J. 699 (1991). Lexis Westlaw.
- Kathryn Marie Dessayer, Note, The First Word: The President's Place in "Legislative History," 89 Mich. L. Rev. 399 (1990). Argues that Presidential documents, including messages, proposals, and legislative drafts, are relevant to statutory interpretation because of the President's legislative role. Lexis Westlaw.
- Frank B. Cross, The Constitutional Legitimacy and Significance of Presidential "Signing Statements," 40 Admin. L. Rev. 209 (1988). HeinOnline
- Marc N. Garber & Kurt A. Wimmer, Presidential Signing Statements as Interpretations Of Legislative Intent: An Executive Aggrandizement Of Power, 24 Harv. J. on Legis. 363 (1987). Westlaw
- Brad Waites, Note, Let Me Tell You What You Mean: An Analysis of Presidential Signing Statements, 21 Ga. L. Rev. 755 (1987). Lexis Westlaw .
Books and Book Chapters
The books below are available at the Georgetown Law Library or on the Internet.
- "Form over Accountability: Executive Privilege, Signing Statements, and the Illusion of Law," in Peter M. Shane, Madison's Nightmare: How Executive Power Threatens American Democracy (2009). JK516 .S435 2009.
- "The Power to Ignore the Law: Signing Statements," in James P. Pfiffner, Power Play: The Bush Presidency and the Constitution (2008). JK516 .P49 2008.
- "The Signing Statement as De Facto Item Veto," in Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words (2008). PN239.P64 C36 2008.
- Christopher S. Kelley, "The Significance of the Presidential Signing Statement," in Christopher S. Kelley, editor, Executing the Constitution: Putting the President Back into the Constitution (2006). JK511 .E93 2006.
- Christopher S. Kelley, The Unitary Executive and the Presidential Signing Statement (2003) (unpublished doctoral dissertation).
- "Presidential Signing Statements: A Different Kind of Line Item Veto," in Philip J. Cooper, By Order of the President: The Use and Abuse of Executive Direct Action (2002). KF5053 .C578 2002.
- "Signing Statements: Introduction," in Christopher N. May, Presidential Defiance of "Unconstitutional" Laws: Reviving the Royal Prerogative (1998). KF5065 .M39 1998.
- "Signing Statements: Acquiescence, Avoidance, and Compliance," in Christopher N. May, Presidential Defiance of "Unconstitutional" Laws: Reviving the Royal Prerogative (1998). KF5065 .M39 1998.
- "Signing Statements: Noncompliance," in Christopher N. May, Presidential Defiance of "Unconstitutional" Laws: Reviving the Royal Prerogative (1998). KF5065 .M39 1998.
- "Striking Down or Revising Laws: Signing Statements in the Bush Presidency," in Charles Tiefer, The Semi-Sovereign Presidency: The Bush Administration's Strategy for Governing without Congress (1994). E881 .T54 1994.
This section includes in-depth policy reports by the American Bar Association (ABA), the Congressional Research Service (CRS, an arm of the Library of Congress), and the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO).
- American Bar Association, Report of the Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine (2006). The ABA held a press conference upon releasing the report, and has made streaming audio and video of the press conference available.
- U.S. General Accountability Office, Appropriations Decision B-308603, Presidential Signing Statements Accompanying the Fiscal Year 2006 Appropriations Acts (June 18, 2007).
- T.J. Halstead, Congressional Research Service, Presidential Signing Statements: Constitutional and Institutional Implications (Sept. 17, 2007).
House and Senate Bills
The bills below were introduced during the 109th through 111th Congresses to address what some legislators saw as the abuse of signing statements.
- H.R. 149, 111th Cong. (2009). This bill would require the President to transmit to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the chairmen of the House and Senate Committees on the Judiciary, and to the Senate Majority Leader each signing statement that declares or insinuates the President's intention to disregard provisions of any bill he has signed into law because he believes it is unconstitutional. It would also provide for displaying such statements on THOMAS.
- H.R. 258, 111th Cong. (2009). This bill would prohibit the use of Executive Office of the President funds for disseminating signing statements that are inconsistent with congressional intent in enacting the signed measure.
- H.R. 3362, 111th Cong. (2009). This bill would authorize the General Counsel of the House and the Senate Legal counsel, upon adoption of a resolution by the House and Senate directing them to do so, to bring a civil action in U.S. District Court to enforce a legal provision that presidential signing statement asserts or implies an intention not to enforce.
- H.R. Res. 417, 111th Cong. (2009). This resolution would call upon the President to commit to providing all signing statements for publication, affirm Congress' right to participate in court proceedings regarding the constitutionality of such statements, and ensure that Congress can obtain testimony from administration officials claiming executive privilege to justify such statements.
- S. 875, 111th Cong. (2009). Like S. 1747, 110th Cong. (2007), this bill would prohibit both state and federal courts from relying on or deferring to a presidential signing statement as a source of authority when determining the meaning of any Act of Congress. It would also require any federal or state court in any proceeding regarding the construction or constitutionality of any Act of Congress in which a presidential signing statement was issued, to permit the Office of Senate Legal Counsel or the Office of General Counsel for the House, or both, to participate as amici curiae, and to present oral argument on the question of the Act's construction or constitutionality.
- H.R. 5993, 110th Cong. (2008). This bill would have required the President to transmit to the Speaker of the House any signing statement that expressed the President's intention to disregard provisions of any bill he signed into law because he believed it to be unconstitutional. It would also have required the Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, or White House Counsel to testify before congressional committees to explain the meaning and justification of every such signing statement. Finally, it would have barred authorization or expenditure of federal funds to implement any law accompanied by a presidential signing statement noncompliant with this bill.
- H.R. 264, 110th Cong. (2007). This bill would have prohibited the use of funds made available to the Executive Office of the President or any other federal agency for the dissemination of signing statements that contradict, or are inconsistent with, the intent of Congress in enacting a bill. It would also prohibit governmental entities from considering presidential signing statements purposes of construing or applying any Act of Congress.
- H.R. 3585, 110th Cong. (2007). This bill would have given the Senate and House of Representatives standing to file a declatory judgment action in an appropriate federal district court to challenge the constitutionality of a presidential signing statement that declares the president's intent to disregard provisions of a bill he has signed into law because he believes they are unconstitutional.
- S. 1747, 110th Cong. (2007). This bill would have prohibited both state and federal courts from relying on or deferring to a presidential signing statement as a source of authority when determining the meaning of any Act of Congress. It would also have required any federal or state court in any proceeding regarding the construction or constitutionality of any Act of Congress in which a presidential signing statement was issued, to permit the Office of Senate Legal Counsel or the Office of General Counsel for the House, or both, to participate as amici curiae, and to present oral argument on the question of the Act's construction or constitutionality.
- S. 3731, 109th Cong. (2006). This bill proposed to regulate the judicial use of signing statements in the interpretation of federal statutes, to give Congress standing to seek declaratory judgments on the legality of specific signing statements, and give Congress the right to intervene for the presentation of evidence in any litigation in which a presidential signing statement might be used to interpret a federal statute. The bill would have also given Congress the right to pass a concurrent resolution clarifying any statute that was the subject of an interpretative presidential signing statement and to have that resolution submitted into the record of a case interpreting the statute.
- H.R. 5486, 109th Cong. (2006). This bill proposed to prohibit any "federal entity," including executive agencies, from considering presidential signing statements, and also to prohibit the Executive Office of the President from using congressionally allocated funds to publish signing statements.
- H.R.J. Res. 87, 109th Cong. (2006), and H.R.J. Res. 89, 109th Cong. (2006). These proposed resolutions would have required the President to notify Congress when deciding not to enforce portions of a bill, and created expedited procedures in the House of Representatives for considering responsive legislation. In addition, they would also have required the President to report similar decisions made for laws enacted before passage of this resolution during the 107th through the 109th Congresses.
- Executive Power and Its Constitutional Limitations, Hearing before the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, 110th Cong. (July 25, 2008). This 400+ page hearing discusses signing statements and other matters related to executive power.
- Impact of the Presidential Signing Statement on the Department of Defense's Implementation of the Fiscal Year 2008 National Defense Authorization Act: Hearing before the House Committee on Armed Services, 110th Cong. (Mar. 11, 2008). Witnesses include:
- Bruce Fein, Bruce Fein & Associates, Member, American Bar Association Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements
- T.J. Halstead, Legislative Attorney, American Law Division, Congressional Research Service
- Gary L. Kepplinger, General Counsel, U.S. Government Accountability Office
- Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
- Negative Implications of the President's Signing Statement on the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act: Hearing before the House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, 110th Cong. (Feb. 8, 2008). Prepared statements and archived video of the hearing also available from the House Democrats Financial Services Committee.
- Mr. Jerry Fowler, Executive Director, Save Darfur Coalition
- The Honorable Patricia M. Wald, Former Judge and Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
- Mr. Paul H. Schwartz, Esq., Partner, Cooley Godward Kronish, LLP
- The Honorable Frank T. Caprio, General Treasurer, Office of the Rhode Island General Treasurer
- Presidential Signing Statements under the Bush Administration: Hearing before the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, 110th Cong. (Jan. 31, 2007). Prepared statements and video of the hearing also available from the House Judiciary Committee website.
- Hon. Mickey Edwards, Former Member of Congress, Aspen Institute
- John Elwood, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice
- Karen J. Mathis, President of the American Bar Association
- Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
- Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
- Use of Presidential Signing Statements: Hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, 109th Cong. (June 27, 2006). KF26 .J8 2006tt. Prepared statements available on the Senate Judiciary Committee website.
- Senator Patrick Leahy, Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee
- Michelle E. Broadman, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice
- Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
- Christopher S. Yoo, Professor of Law, Vanderbilt University Law School
- Bruce Fein, Partner, Fein & Fein LLC
- Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
Executive Branch Memoranda
The following memos were written by various members of the federal executive branch during the last three decades:
- Memorandum from Barack H. Obama, President of the United States, to for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, Presidential Signing Statements, Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents (Mar. 9, 2009).
- Memorandum from Walter Dellinger, Assistant Attorney General, to Bernard N. Nussbaum, Counsel to the President, The Legal Significance of Presidential Signing Statements (Nov. 3, 1993), reprinted at 48 Ark. L. Rev. 333 (1994). Lexis Westlaw.
- Memorandum from Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General, to the Litigation Strategy Working Group, U.S. Department of Justice, Using Presidential Signing Statement to Make Fuller Use of the President's Constitutionally Assigned Role in the Process of Enacting Law (Feb. 5, 1986) (on file with the U.S. National Archives).
- American Presidency Project, Presidential Signing Statements: Hoover to Obama. Browsable database of signing statements from 1929 to the present.
- FAQs about Signing Statements. Answers detailed questions such as "How many signing statements did George W. Bush issue?" and "Who drafted signing statements for President Bush?" Also provides links to numerous articles and blog posts.
- Law Library of Congress, Presidential Signing Statements. This research guide cites recent cases, articles, hearings and bills related to presidential signing statements.
- Signing Statement, Wikipedia. Provides a brief overview of the use and legal significance of presidential signing statements.
Created January 2007 (SKB)
Updated April 2011 (MK)
Revised May 2013 (AJC)
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