Last night, President Obama signed the bill passed by Congress, at the eleventh hour, to extend significant portions of the USA PATRIOT Act by another four years. The President was in France at the time, so he “signed” the bill by directing an aide at the White House to use a robot to replicate his signature, using a device called an autopen. Autopens are not exactly new technology, but there seems to be a minor kerfuffle about this from ultra-formalists, muted by the fact that a lot of the ultra-formalists rather like the USA PATRIOT Act and would prefer to see it renewed. As Prof. Eugene Volokh points out, this is much ado about nothing — it’s probably a valid signature for Constitutional purposes and even if it isn’t, Congress isn’t going to adjourn soon so there will be no pocket veto and the renewal will become law in a few days anyway. But it is an example of why we need to think intelligently and with comprehension about what the Constitution says.

If the President were required to “sign” a bill into law the way George Washington did it, we could complain that the President did not sign this or that bill with a feather quill dipped in ink, that he was not presented with the bill by the Secretary of State on vellum or parchment, that the President was not in reasonable proximity to the seat of government at the time of affixing his signature so as to transmit the signed bill (now law) to Congress for enrollment. What matters is that the President review the bill which Congress passes and indicate his approval or disapproval of it in some permanent, recordable sort of way which other people can later objectively verify to determine if bill “X” was or was not thus approved into law. This is (part of) the difference between reading for textual comprehension and reading for textual literalism or original intent.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. This question was asked during the last administration and they decided that what mattered was the President’s assent, not how he signed. Just like the Constitution says he has to return a bill that he’s vetoed to Congress, even though he doesn’t actually have to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.

  2. He should get a personalized 2D matrix barcode for his iPhone. (which would be slightly different, but not too much so, from the method he can now launch nuke weapons on his whim) As a bonus I’m sure it would make some endtimes and/or conspiracy types heads explode.

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