Self-Help and the Separation of Powers

David Pozen, Columbia Law School


Self-help doctrines pervade the law. They regulate a legal subject's attempts to cure or prevent a perceived wrong by her own action, rather than through a mediated process. In their most acute form, these doctrines allow subjects to take what international lawyers call countermeasures – measures that would be forbidden if not pursued for redressive ends. Countermeasures are inescapable and invaluable. They are also deeply concerning, prone to error and abuse and to escalating cycles of vengeance. Disciplining countermeasures becomes a central challenge for any legal regime that recognizes them. How does American constitutional law meet this challenge? This Article contends that a robust set of unwritten, quasi-legal norms shapes and constrains retaliation as well as cooperation across the U.S. government, and it explores how these conventions of self-help correspond to regulatory principles that have emerged in public international law. Re-envisioning intragovernmental conflict through the lens of self-help gives us new descriptive and critical purchase on the separation of powers. By attending to the theory and practice of constitutional countermeasures, the Article tries to show, we can advance familiar debates over legislative obstruction and presidential adventurism, and we can develop richer models of constitutional contestation within and beyond the branches.?