The Hughes Court (1930–41)
How did the Hughes Court limit the power of a president to remove certain federal officials?
The Hughes Court unanimously ruled in Humphrey’s Executor v. United States (1935) that President Franklin D. Roosevelt violated separation of powers principles in removing William E. Humphrey as commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission. Roosevelt had removed Humphrey, believing he was too conservative and hostile to Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives. Humphrey sued in U.S. Claims Court, contending that Roosevelt violated a provision of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which provided that commissioners were to serve for a fixed term and could be removed only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” The president contended that such a law infringed on his executive branch powers.
The court determined that Congress could constitutionally set the limitations for removal in the statute for such an office. “The authority of Congress, in creating quasilegislative or quasi-judicial agencies, to require them to act in discharge of their duties independently of executive control cannot well be doubted,” Justice George Sutherland wrote. “The sound application of a principle that makes one master in his own house precludes him from imposing his control in the house of another who is master there.” The case remains an important precedent for limiting the power of the executive branch and articulating the separation of powers principles in American government.