Minnesota Law Review

Constitutional Dictatorship: Its Dangers and Its Design

A constitutional dictatorship is a system (or subsystem) of constitutional government that bestows on a certain individual or institution the right to make binding rules, directives, and decisions and apply them to concrete circumstances unhindered by timely legal checks to their authority. Constitutional dictatorship, far from being a contradiction in terms, has been an important feature of republican governments since Roman times. This Article describes the basic idea of a constitutional dictatorship, and discusses those elements of constitutional dictatorship that already exist in the American constitutional system, particularly in the modern presidency.

The Roman dictatorship limited the time of the dictatorship and separated the institution that declared the emergency from the person who exercised power. The American pattern has been quite different. Generally speaking, the President announces the existence of a crisis or emergency, and, at the President’s request, Congress bestows new statutory grants of power. These new powers are usually never repealed and are banked away for future use, sometimes in very different contexts. The American pattern of constitutional dictatorship does not involve the executive claiming the right to transcend the law; instead Congress grants ever more practically unreviewable discretion to the executive.

A significant feature of American constitutionalism is the rise of “distributed dictatorships,” in which executive power is spread among a number of de facto dictators, each with its own special expertise. The modern administrative state increasingly spreads unreviewable power among a variety of different agencies, czars, and bureaucrats. The Federal Reserve’s response to the recent economic crisis and the Centers for Disease Control’s powers to impose quarantines are examples.

The Article concludes with some suggestions for counteracting the more dangerous tendencies in the American pattern of constitutional dictatorship. Although emergencies often cannot always be foreseen in advance, the structural features of emergency power must be designed in advance to preserve republican government.

:: View PDF

News & Events

  • Fall Submissions Open – Headnotes

    The Minnesota Law Review: Headnotes fall submissions period is open. For more information, please visit our submissions page. Share this: on Twitter on Facebook on Google+

  • Vol. 97 Piece Quoted in Mother Jones Article

    A recent Mother Jones article predicting how the Roberts Court would resolve King v. Burwell draws on How Business Fares in the Supreme Court from Volume 97. You can read the article here. Share this: on Twitter on Facebook on Google+

  • Welcome to De Novo

    For nearly one hundred years, the Minnesota Law Review has been a leader amongst academic legal publications. When Professor Henry J. Fletcher launched the journal in 1917, his goal was simple. It was to “contribute a little something to the systematic growth of the whole law.” Since then, the Law [...]

  • Minnesota Law Review Alum Remembered 45 Years After Death

    Minnesota Law Review alumnus Tom Cranna was honored at the Annual Banquet this Spring, 45 years after his death. Mr. Cranna was remembered for his contributions to the journal, the school, and the positive impact he had on his family and friends. The Devil’s Lake Journal published a memorial which [...]

  • Follow MLR on Twitter!

    The Minnesota Law Review is proud to announce that we are now on Twitter. Follow us @MinnesotaLawRev for information and updates concerning the petition period and deadlines, the opening and closing of article submissions, our 2014 Symposium: Offenders in the Community, and all other news concerning our authors and publications. [...]


cforms contact form by delicious:days