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The Origins and Fall of Treaty Supremacy and Its Significance

The Origins and Fall of Treaty Supremacy and Its Significance

by Thomas Lee [Thomas Lee is the Leitner Family Professor of International Law and the Director of Graduate and International Studies at Fordham Law School. This is the fifth post in our symposium this week on treaty supremacy.]

Imagine Congress passes, and the President signs into law, a statute providing that the United States “undertakes to comply with the decision” of a bilateral US-China arbitral panel that the two countries establish to decide claims between the nationals of the two countries involved in cross-border investment disputes. The tribunal issues a judgment in a breach-of-contract case in favor of a Chinese national as against an American. The Chinese national seeks to enforce the decision against the US citizen in a Texas state court. The Texas state court refuses to honor the international tribunal’s decision, despite a letter from the US President to the Texas governor requesting that Texas comply in order to guarantee reciprocal treatment for US investors in China.

The Texas court in my hypothetical would be acting in violation of the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution (Article VI, Section 2, Clause 2) which provides: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” I believe that most lawyers, judges, and legal academics would agree that a state court cannot refuse to apply a statute under these circumstances.

What if instead of a statute, the international tribunal was set up by a treaty of the United States, ratified by China and by the United States with Presidential approval and the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate? Under the plain terms of the Supremacy Clause, it shouldn’t matter: statutes and treaties are both the “Supreme law of the land” binding on State judges.

But that is not the current law of the land, as stated most recently by the U.S. Supreme Court in Medellin v. Texas (2008), upon which my hypothetical was based (the tribunal was the International Court of Justice, the key words were the same, and President George W. Bush did write a letter to Texas, but the dispute was over an alien’s right to consult with his consulate when charged with a crime). The Court in Medellin could have relied on the loose treaty words “undertakes to comply” to suggest that actual compliance was not required, given the nature of US federalism–that was Justice Stevens’ concurring-in-the-judgment view. However, the majority issued a broader ruling that the Texas courts did not have to respect the international tribunal’s ruling because the treaty provision (UN Charter Article 94) was “non-self-executing.” In other words, the treaty itself did not merit Supremacy Clause effect in the face of “Contrary” state law, but required an implementing federal statute to have such effect. How can this be squared with the plain language of the Supremacy Clause, which does not distinguish between treaties or statutes in ordaining what is the “supreme Law of the Land”?

David Sloss’s marvelous book The Death of Treaty Supremacy–An Invisible Constitutional Change demonstrates how this bald departure from the plain-language command of the Supremacy Clause came to pass. In a nutshell, the supremacy of treaties over state law was an unquestioned axiom of the founding. This is unsurprising given that the 1783 Treaty of Peace was the foundation stone of the new nation, and state violations of its terms, particularly with respect to treaty provisions requiring payment of prewar debts to British creditors in hard currency, were rampant and a serious threat to the peace. As Sloss describes, the unchallenged understanding of treaty supremacy over state law prevailed in American historical practice from the founding until after World War II. Even Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion in Foster v. Neilson (1829)–the presumptive font of non-self-executing treaty doctrine, involved conflicting federal–not state– statutes, relied on ambiguous treaty language, and was ultimately reversed in United States v. Percheman (1833). According to Sloss, the idea of “non-self-executing” originated in reference to treaties requiring some act of Congress for implementation (such as Foster’s initial interpretation of an 1819 Treaty with Spain regarding land grants), as opposed to those that became operative upon the executive action of the President.

What changed after World War II and the ratification of the United Nations Charter was the prospect that human rights treaty obligations (such as those implied by articles 55 and 56 of the UN Charter) might be invoked as rules of decision in US courts including state courts despite state law to the contrary. This was a special concern to members of Congress from segregated states, resulting in the Bricker Amendment which only barely failed to become law. Sloss shows how this concern that actually materialized in the 1950 holding of a California intermediate appellate court in the Fujii case invalidating a state alien land law on the basis of conflict with the UN Charter. The proverbial “deal with the devil” that ingenious elite lawyers crafted to head off this politically sensitive collision between human rights treaties and the ugly reality of American racial segregation was to dilute treaty supremacy by grafting onto it the “non-self-executing” rider, lifted from its original context of a treaty that required congressional implementation. The consequence, naturally, was the “invisible constitutional change” that Sloss flags in the title of his book–a subset of treaties, the non-self-executing ones, were stripped of Supremacy Clause effect. The apotheosis (or nadir) of this transformation was the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Medellin.

I want to make three points about Sloss’s argument.  First, he is absolutely correct that treaty supremacy is not what it used to be, and that this is a departure not only from historical practice but from the plain language of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. As David Stewart has pointed out, a large part of explaining WHY this happened has to do with the changing subject matter of treaties — most of the country’s early treaties were bilateral treaties dealing with trade, war, boundaries, and peace. Today’s multilateral treaties, drafted in loose language, typically encompass such things as human rights, family law, and criminal law, that are more likely to clash with state laws. But the paradigm founding-era treaty — the 1783 Treaty of Peace, also had a key provision, broadly drafted, that directly interfered with state laws: Article IV stated: “It is agreed that creditors on either side shall meet with no lawful impediment to the recovery of the full value in sterling money of all bona fide debts heretofore contracted.” And no one doubted that Article IV could be raised directly as a rule of decision in state courts. However, truth be told, Article IV was more often honored in the breach, even after the ratification of the Constitution including the Supremacy Clause. I bring this up to point out both that the alleged changed nature of treaties is not an entirely satisfactory justification for diluting the Supremacy Clause’s treaty prong today, and also that treaty supremacy, even at a time when it was undiluted, was often simply ignored by the state courts. Ironically, part of the reason why Sloss’s “invisible constitutional change” happened was because state courts became much more serious about respecting the concept of treaty supremacy rather than blatantly flouting it, which made it useful to have an intermediate category of treaties that didn’t automatically have Supremacy Clause effect.

Second, however correct Sloss is about the transformation of the treaty supremacy rule, I wonder if the ship has sailed too far away for it to be recalled. The “problem” the presumption of non-self-executing treaties was introduced to address — a gap between the coverage of binding international human rights treaties the US has ratified and analogous state laws–has all but evaporated today. On the one hand, segregation is now constitutionally proscribed and state laws have advanced a great deal in the past several decades in the protection of civil rights. On the other hand, the United States has stopped joining multilateral human rights treaties, even those that seem modest and entirely consistent with preexisting US law like the disabilities convention; this trend is unlikely to change in the present Administration. But even if the United States were to join a treaty, and even if it were to do away with non-self-executing declarations, it would almost certainly take federalism reservations or consistent-with-existing domestic law understandings, both to eliminate any coverage gap and to preclude the possibility that a human-rights obligation might be invoked as a rule of decision in a state court case as against a countervailing state law.

Third, and finally, I want to challenge a bit Sloss’s framing of what happened as an “invisible constitutional change.” Such a framing implies that something exceptional and outrageous has happened–an important provision of the Constitution was covertly transformed, without broad public knowledge and outside of Article VII’s formal constitutional amendment rules. I am sympathetic to his assertion of a constitutional mutiny, in large part, because I am a constitutionalist who believes in trying to stay faithful to the words of the Constitution, its original meaning (when discernible, which is not often), and historical practice over a long period of time.

In fact, I see a lot of similarity between the structure of Sloss’s argument in his book and a 2004 article I wrote about the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, which was also about ensuring that the United States would keep its treaty obligations.  The Amendment provides that states cannot be sued by citizens of other states or foreign citizens or subjects. For 130 years, the Supreme Court and constitutional experts construed the Amendment to mean that foreign states, however, could sue states because, as a textual matter, Article III had originally provided for suits between states and foreign citizens, subjects, or states, and foreign “states” were excluded from the Eleventh Amendment’s prohibition. Foreign states also do not present the dignity problems of suits by individuals because they are sovereign too. I showed how the option of foreign states suing US states in the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction was envisioned as a way to allow foreign states to seek redress for treaty violations. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court suddenly reversed course in 1934 and held that foreign states could not sue states. Why? Because states were burdened with sovereign debts and it would have been politically impossible to force them to pay by lawsuits in federal court.

When I wrote my article in 2004, like Sloss, I was outraged by the disconnect between this accommodation of present circumstances and the clear weight of text, original meaning, and historical practice to the contrary. But now, I wonder if this sort of accommodation is often a necessary balancing that all of us have to accept in interpreting an old and laconic Constitution in a rapidly changing world. The United States at founding was a militarily weak, poor, revolutionary new country–a tobacco republic. We needed a ironclad rule of treaty supremacy in the face of rebellious quasi-sovereign states, in order to maintain the treaty of peace and to be treated as an equal by the European powers. The United States is in a very different place in the world order today, and the dilution of treaty supremacy seems to me a natural (if troubling) consequence of this new reality.

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