Schoolhouse Rock, and the Constitution, teach that a bill becomes a law when the president signs it. Often the Supreme Court will explain that a given bill was signed by “the president.” But on rare occasions, the justices will refer to the president by name. Does this SCOTUS name-dropping matter? If the Court merely notes which president was in office when Congress passed a specific bill, there is no problem. That fact, in the legal lingo, is merely descriptive. However, if the Court identifies the president to make a broader point—for example, that the bill was passed by a liberal or a conservative—there may indeed be a problem. The Court should resist the urge to wade, or even dip a toe, into partisan squabbles by naming the politicians responsible for legislation, unless, of course, those facts are necessary to resolve a given a case.
Recently the Court’s newest member named two presidents in two very different contexts. In Rimini Street v. Oracle, a fairly routine case about court fees, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion for a unanimous court. He observed that in 1853, “President Fillmore signed a comprehensive federal statute establishing a federal schedule for the award of costs in federal court.” This reference to Fillmore was fine, providing a brief history lesson for anyone not too sure who was president back then. On the court of appeals, then-Judge Kavanaugh would routinely name the president who signed a bill into law.