Is the Library of Congress a Legislative Department or an Executive Department?

A very interesting question, raised in Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, Inc. v. Copyright Royalty Board, a certiorari petition now pending before the Court. Profs. John Duffy (Virginia), Peter Strauss (Columbia), and Michael Herz (Cardozo) — an illustrious trio who often take quite different views about other subjects — have an item about this at Concurring Opinions; here’s an excerpt (click on the Concurring Opinions post for links):

Earlier this year, more than 100,000 citizens petitioned the White House to overturn a copyright rule issued by the Librarian of Congress that made unlocking a cell phone a crime. The White House responded by promising to seek legislation to overturn the Librarian’s rule. That was the most the President would or could do because “[t]he law gives the Librarian the authority,” and the Administration would “respect that process,” even though the Librarian acted contrary to the Administration’s views. See here. As the New York Times reported, “because the Library of Congress, and therefore the copyright office, are part of the legislative branch, the White House cannot simply overturn the current ruling.” See here.

There’s only one problem with all of this: The Department of Justice has been vigorously arguing precisely the contrary constitutional position in the federal courts.

According to the Administration’s filings in litigation that has now reached the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress is “an executive Department,” and the Librarian himself is “subject to plenary oversight by the President.” Justice Department lawyers have explained that Congress made a “purposeful decision to place the Library under the President’s direct control and supervision”; that the Librarian of Congress is the “Head” of this “executive Department”; that the President may remove the Librarian “at will” just as he may remove other heads of executive departments; and that this removal power creates the Librarian’s “here-and-now subservience” to the President. See pages 16 & 17 of the Government’s Brief in Opposition filed at the Supreme Court, available here and pages 23, 29 & 37 the Government’s Brief for Appellees filed in the Court of Appeals, available here.

In light of that clear legal position, an obvious question arises: If the Librarian is really a head of an executive Department subject to “plenary oversight by the President,” why hasn’t the President either taken responsibility for criminalizing cell phone unlocking or ordered the Librarian to reverse his decision?

The answer is that no one in the political arena actually believes for one minute that the Librarian is the head of an executive department. The current Librarian has repeatedly testified to Congress that the Library is “arm of the United States Congress,” “a “branch of the Legislative branch,” and “a unique part of the Legislative Branch of the government.” Members of Congress also understand this to be true. To take but one prominent example, Senator Orrin Hatch has noted not only that “the Copyright Office is in the legislative branch of the Government” but also that this arrangement presents difficulty because “whenever the Copyright Office is tasked with an executive-type function, [a] constitutional question arises.”

The President’s supposed powers of “plenary oversight” and at-will removal are utter fiction, as the controversy about cell phone unlocking shows….

Why then are the Administration’s lawyers arguing that the Librarian is a presidential underling? The answer is easy. The Librarian has been vested with the power to appoint all of the officers who execute the copyright laws—including the Registrar of Copyrights and the judges of the Copyright Royalty Board—but the “Appointments Clause” of the Constitution makes clear that such power can be lodged in the Librarian only if he is the head of an Executive Department….