Authority of the United States to Enter Settlements Limiting the Future Exercise of Executive Branch Discretion

Headnotes: 

The Attorney General may enter into settlements that would limit the future exercise of executive branch discretion when that discretion has been conferred upon the executive branch pursuant to statute and there exists no independent statutory limitation on the authority of the executive branch to so limit the future exercise of that discretion.

The Attorney General’s power to enter into settlements that would limit the future exercise of discretion that has been conferred upon the executive branch directly by the Constitution is constrained by the very constitutional provisions that vest discretionary authority in the President and therefore necessarily preclude the President from subjecting the exercise of that discretion to the control of the other party to a settlement or to judicial enforcement.

Article III of the Constitution does not preclude the executive branch from entering into judicially enforceable, discretion limiting settlements as a general matter or bar federal courts from entering consent decrees that limit executive branch discretion whenever such decrees purport to provide broader relief than a court could have awarded pursuant to an ordinary injunction. Article III limitations may arise, however, when, for example, the terms of the governmental promise are too amorphous to be susceptible to Article III federal judicial enforcement.

Although there may be sound policy reasons to reaffirm Attorney General Meese’s 1986 policy regulating the use of discretion limiting settlements, the concerns that led to its adoption do not, in general, amount to legally binding limitations on the scope of the executive branch’s power to settle litigation in a manner that may limit the future exercise of executive branch discretion.

Updated July 9, 2014