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Is Obama 'Signing' Patriot Act From France Using 'Autopen Machine' Legal?


"As long as Congress approves the extension, the President will direct the use of the autopen to sign it."

A portable autopen machine.

Congress on Thursday passed a four-year extension of post-Sept. 11 powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists. Votes taken in rapid succession in the Senate and House came after lawmakers rejected attempts to temper the law enforcement powers to ensure that individual liberties are not abused.

Following the 250-153 evening vote in the House, the legislation to renew three terrorism-fighting authorities headed for the president's signature with only hours to go before the provisions expire at midnight.

With Obama currently in France, the White House said the president would use an autopen machine that holds a pen and signs his actual signature. It is only used with proper authorization of the president. Minutes before the midnight deadline, the White House said Obama had signed the bill.

But using a machine to sign a major piece of legislation may raise some questions about its legality. Or, better put, may raise questions about if the bill is officially signed into law. The answer, according to the Office of Legal Counsel, is "yes."

ABC News explains:

Jay Wexler, a Boston University law professor and author of “The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of Its Most Curious Provisions,” says the constitutionality of using an autopen was confirmed in a thorough 2005 Office of Legal Counsel opinion.

Here's the relevant passage written by then-Deputy Attorney General Howard C. Nielson:

“We examine the legal understanding of the word 'sign' at the time the Constitution was drafted and ratified and during the early years of the Republic.  We find that, pursuant to this understanding, a person may sign a document by directing that his signature be affixed to it by another. … Reading the constitutional text in light of this established legal understanding, we conclude that the President need not personally perform the physical act of affixing his signature to a bill to sign it within the meaning of Article I, Section 7 [of the Constitution.]"

Autopen machines have long been the center of controversy, like in 2010 when Mitt Romney was accused of using one to sign books:

"Failure to sign this legislation poses a significant risk to U.S. national security," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said in a statement. "As long as Congress approves the extension, the President will direct the use of the autopen to sign it."

And he did. Early this morning the bill became law -- via a piece of machinery.

And just in case you want to auto-sign your own documents, you currently have four days left to bid on such a machine on eBay.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Gawker has some interesting highlights of auto-sign history:

  • 1945: Harry Truman is thought to have been the first sitting president to use the autopen with any regularity. You can find examples, like this autopen-signed thank-you note, for sale on eBay.
  • 1961: President Kennedy uses the autopen for nearly any signature that wasn't of significance. To learn more, check out Charles Hamilton's 1965 book, The Robot That Helped to Make a President, the "most in-depth reference guide for the different proxy signatures produced by the autopen machines used by President John F. Kennedy."
  • 1988: Vice President Dan Quayle is confronted by ABC's Sam Donaldson about a letter he sent to a judge asking for GOP fundraiser Stephen Goot, convicted on racketeering charges in his role in fixing DUIs, to be moved to a cushier prison. Quayle pleaded the "autopen defense," saying a staffer must have the signed the letter with the machine without his knowledge. It's the second time he uses that excuse.
  • 1996: In his 2004 book My Life, Bill Clinton recalls: "In 1996, the children of one of my father's sisters came for the first time to our annual family Christmas party at the White House and brought me a gift: the condolence letter my aunt had received from her congressman, the great Sam Rayburn, after my father died. It's just a short form letter and appears to have been signed with the autopen of the day, but I hugged that letter with all the glee of a six-year-old boy getting his first train set from Santa Claus."
  • 2004: Then defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld finds himself at the center of a White House PR nightmare, when it comes out that he'd used an autopen to sign his name to condolence letters sent to relatives of soldiers sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. At first denying it, Rumsfeld then admitted, "While I have not individually signed each one, in the interest of ensuring expeditious contact with grieving family members, I have directed that in the future I sign each letter."
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