A part of Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution of the United States says this:

He [the President] ... shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

News reports recently suggest that the director of the FBI, although "inferior" to the attorney general, is not one of those "inferior officers" who do not need to get confirmed by the Senate. I suspect maybe the head of the Federal Aviation Administration or the Postmaster General or the Director of the Census is one of those. (For some decades before the late '60s -- maybe the Nixon administration -- the Postmaster General was a member of the Cabinet.)

If I'm not mistaken, all members of the Cabinet and all ambassadors and all federal judges need to get confirmed by the Senate.

What is the current list of those officers who need to get confirmed by the Senate and those "inferior officers" who are appointed by the President without the need for confirmation, and those "inferior officers" who are appointed by department heads, and those "inferior officers" who are appointed by the judiciary? Would this list be on the web somewhere?

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    The intent seems to be that congress can indicate by statute that specific "inferior offices" are not subject to confirmation by the senate. The relevant statute for the FBI Director says nothing on the subject, so that would normally mean that the appointment of the Director has not been vested in anyone else, therefore leaving the office subject to senate confirmation. There may be a statute elsewhere, though, listing offices not subject to confirmation; if there is, it would obviously be a lot easier to answer this question.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 20:53
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    Just because someone needs Senate confirmation, doesn't mean they aren't an inferior officer. Congress may provide for an alternate way to appoint them, but does not have to. Second lieutenants were inferior officers even when they needed confirmation (before 2005).
    – cpast
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 23:21

2 Answers 2


I conclude (contrary to an earlier expression) that there is no such list, nor can there be, because the term "officer" is not well enough defined.

The inferior officers are those officers who are not principal officers (as specified in the Constitution, e.g. ambassadors, cabinet members, judges), since there are only two kinds of officers. There is no constitutional or statutory definition of "Officer of the United States", so we have to figure it out from case law. As noted in Morrison v. Olson 487 U.S. 654

The line between "inferior" and "principal" officers is one that is far from clear, and the Framers provided little guidance into where it should be drawn.

Officers of the US cannot be appointed by Congress (Buckley v. Valeo 424 U.S. 1 (1976), so that narrows down the possibilities – if in fact an appointment can be made by Congress, that is not an inferior office (since Congress has no such authority). That court also said that

We think that the term "Officers of the United States," as used in Art. II, defined to include "all persons who can be said to hold an office under the government" in United States v. Germaine, supra, is a term intended to have substantive meaning. We think its fair import is that any appointee exercising significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States is an "Officer of the United States," and must, therefore, be appointed in the manner prescribed by § 2, cl. 2, of that Article.

To take a specific example, "special trial judges", authorized in 26 USC 7443a are an example of an officer. We know they are officers, because Freytag v. Commissioner 501 U.S. 868 says so (since they read Buckley):

A special trial judge is an "inferior Office[r]" whose appointment must conform to the Appointments Clause. Such a judge acts as an inferior officer who exercises independent authority in cases governed by subsections (b)(1), (2), and (3). The fact that in subsection (b)(4) cases he performs duties that may be performed by an employee not subject to the Appointments Clause does not transform his status.

The Dept. of Justice offers an analysis of "Officer of the United States". The main elements in their opinion are that the position must possess delegated sovereign authority of the Federal government, and the position must be continuing. There are other criteria possibly applicable (things that were invokes at some time) including method of appointment, having been established by law, taking an oath of office, an emolument (not a volunteer), and receiving a commission. Still, Congress authorizes (by law) the hiring of federal employees, and not all employees are "officers".

An earlier memorandum on the topic is here. Footnote 54 notes that

It is at least arguable, however, that the authority exercised by second lieutenants and ensigns is so limited and subordinate that their analogues in the civil sphere clearly would be employees.

Warrant officers and non-commisioned officers would likewise have quite limited authority.

Since the definition of "Officer of the United States" is up for grabs, there can't be a complete list of inferior officers, especially if all military officers are included. There is a long list of civilian officers under the executive branch published in United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions, after each presidential election. The so-called Plum Book is on a government web page here in the 2012 version, and here for 2016. However, you will not find special trial judges of the tax court in the Plum Book, which were held in Freytag to be officers, and are civilians in the executive branch. The special trial judges are apparently listed here, as are the sitting judges (who are also not in the Plum book).



A rebuttal to the comment above referring to the limited “limited” authority of “second lieutenants and ensigns” is found on page 91 on the linked memorandum from 2008.

The delegated sovereign authority granted every commissioned military officer necessarily includes not only the capacity to command military forces and execute all manner of public actions to plan, organize, equip and sustain, and carry out operations of a military nature, and occasionally of a civil nature, but also the very real possibility of rising unexpectedly to command military forces in the field at echelons normally reserved to more experienced officers of the United States.

  • In defense of the comment you're rebutting, they characterize the position as "at least arguable." That suggests that they don't feel very strongly about it. After all, a junior subordinate officer is still an officer. In fact, the footnote from which that comment is taken goes on to make the very points made here.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 23:11

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