When Is a Law Not a Law?

The presidential equivalent of finger-crossing.

The debate over presidential “signing statements” resurfaced this week as senatorson the judiciary committee  accused President Bush of abusing his executive power when signing bills into law. Presidents have long used signing statements, appended to a piece of legislation, to indicate how they want the law to be enforced. But Bush’s statements have consistently claimed that these laws may not apply to him, particularly in cases involving national security. Since taking office, Bush has inserted 110 statements into pieces of legislation, representing more 750 different constitutional challenges.

In January, Dahlia Lithwick explained in Slate how these statements, while often inconsequential, indicate Bush’s disregard for the legal process. Take, for example, the postscript tacked onto the McCain anti-torture amendment. By promising to follow the law only when it does not interfere with his war-making powers, Bush “muddies the legal waters” and “opens the door to yet more ambiguity and abuse,” Lithwick wrote.