Morrison v. Olson Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The Ethics in Government Act (the Act) allows for the appointment of an “Independent Counsel” by a special court, upon the recommendation of the Attorney General. The purpose is to investigate and if necessary, prosecute government officials for certain violations of federal criminal laws.

Facts of the case

“The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 created a special court and empowered the Attorney General to recommend to that court the appointment of an “”independent counsel”” to investigate, and, if necessary, prosecute government officials for certain violations of federal criminal laws.”


Did the Act violate the constitutional principal of separation of powers?


No. The Court of Appeals, which invalidated the Act, is reversed.
The relevant constitutional provision, the Appointments Clause, reads the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper . . . in the courts of Law . . . . Art II. This language seems to clearly give Congress the power to vest the appointment of an executive official in the courts of Law. Thus, Congress is authorized to make interbranch appointments.
Because the miscellaneous powers granted to the Special Division are mostly either passive of ministerial, the Act poses no Art III difficulty concerning judicial intrusion into matters that are more properly within the Executive’s authority.
There’s no separation of powers problem with regard to the Act because the statute (1) appropriately puts the removal power in the hands of the Executive Branch: an independent counsel may only be removed by the Attorney General for good cause and (2) does not impermissibly interfere with the functions of the Executive Branch.


“Article III of the Constitution does not absolutely prevent Congress from vesting certain miscellaneous powers in the Special Division under the Act. One purpose of the broad prohibition upon the courts’ exercise of executive or administrative duties of a nonjudicial nature is to maintain the separation between the Judiciary and the other branches of the Federal Government by ensuring that judges do not encroach upon executive or legislative authority or undertake tasks that are more properly accomplished by those branches. Here, the Division’s miscellaneous powers — such as the passive powers to “”receive”” (but not to act on or specifically approve) various reports from independent counsel or the Attorney General — do not encroach upon the Executive Branch’s authority. The Act simply does not give the Division power to “”supervise”” the independent counsel in the exercise of counsel’s investigative or prosecutorial authority. And, the functions that the Division is empowered to perform are not inherently “”Executive,”” but are directly analogous to functions that federal judges perform in other contexts.”

  • Case Brief: 1988
  • Appellant: Morrison
  • Appellee: Olson
  • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Citation: 487 US 654 (1988)
Argued: Apr 26, 1988
Decided: Jun 27, 1988