Article II, Section 2, Clause 2:
He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he 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.
Treaty commitments of the United States are of two kinds. As Chief Justice Marshall wrote in 1829:
A treaty is, in its nature, a contract between two nations, not a legislative act. It does not generally effect, of itself, the object to be accomplished; especially, so far as its operation is infra-territorial; but is carried into execution by the sovereign power of the respective parties to the instrument. In the United States, a different principle is established. Our constitution declares a treaty to be the law of the land. It is, consequently, to be regarded in courts of justice as equivalent to an act of the legislature, whenever it operates of itself, without the aid of any legislative provision. But when the terms of the stipulation import a contract – when either of the parties engages to perform a particular act, the treaty addresses itself to the political, not the judicial department; and the legislature must execute the contract, before it can become a rule for the court. 1
To the same effect, but more accurate, is Justice Miller’s language for the Court a half century later, in the Head Money Cases:
A treaty is primarily a compact between independent nations. It depends for the enforcement of its provisions on the interest and the honor of the governments which are parties of it. . . . But a treaty may also contain provisions which confer certain rights upon the citizens or subjects of one of the nations residing in the territorial limits of the other, which partake of the nature of municipal law, and which are capable of enforcement as between private parties in the courts of the country. 2
The meaning of treaties, as of statutes, is determined by the courts.
If treaties are to be given effect as federal law under our legal system, determining their meaning as a matter of federal law 'is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department,' headed by the 'one supreme Court' established by the Constitution. 3 Yet,
[w]hile courts interpret treaties for themselves, the meaning given them by the departments of government particularly charged with their negotiation and enforcement is given great weight. 4 Decisions of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) interpreting treaties, however, have
no binding force except between the parties and in respect of that particular case. 5 ICJ decisions
are therefore entitled only to the 'respectful consideration' due an interpretation of an international agreement by an international court. 6
Even when an ICJ decision has binding force as between the governments of two nations, it is not necessarily enforceable by the individuals affected. If, for example, the ICJ finds that the United States violated a particular defendant's rights under international law, and such a decision
constitutes an international law obligation on the part of the United States, it does not necessarily
constitute binding federal law enforceable in United States courts. . . . [W]hile treaties may comprise international commitments . . . they are not domestic law unless Congress has either enacted implementing statutes or the treaty itself conveys an intention that it be self-executing and is ratified on these terms. 7 A memorandum from the President of the United States directing that the United States would
discharge its international obligations under an ICJ decision interpreting a non-self-executing treaty,
by having State courts give effect to the decision, is not sufficient to make the decision binding on state courts, unless the President's action is authorized by Congress. 8
Origin of the Conception
How did this distinctive feature of the Constitution come about, by virtue of which the treaty-making authority is enabled to stamp upon its promises the quality of municipal law, thereby rendering them enforceable by the courts without further action? The short answer is that Article VI, paragraph 2, makes treaties the supreme law of the land on the same footing with acts of Congress. The clause was a direct result of one of the major weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Although the Articles entrusted the treaty-making power to Congress, fulfillment of Congress’s promises was dependent on the state legislatures. 9 Particularly with regard to provisions of the Treaty of Peace of 1783, 10 in which Congress stipulated to protect the property rights of British creditors of American citizens and of the former Loyalists, 11 the promises were not only ignored but were deliberately flouted by many legislatures. 12 Upon repeated British protests, John Jay, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, suggested to Congress that it request state legislatures to repeal all legislation repugnant to the Treaty of Peace and to authorize their courts to carry the treaty into effect. 13 Although seven states did comply to some extent, the impotency of Congress to effectuate its treaty guarantees was obvious to the Framers who devised Article VI, paragraph 2, to take care of the situation. 14
Treaties and the States
As it so happened, the first case in which the Supreme Court dealt with the question of the effect of treaties on state laws involved the same issue that had prompted the drafting of Article VI, paragraph 2. During the Revolutionary War, the Virginia legislature provided that the Commonwealth’s paper money, which was depreciating rapidly, was to be legal currency for the payment of debts and to confound creditors who would not accept the currency provided that Virginia citizens could pay into the state treasury debts owed by them to subjects of Great Britain, which money was to be used to prosecute the war, and that the auditor would give the debtor a certificate of payment which would discharge the debtor of all future obligations to the creditor. 15 The Virginia scheme directly contradicted the assurances in the peace treaty that no bars to collection by British creditors would be raised, and in Ware v. Hylton 16 the Court struck down the state law as violating the treaty that Article VI, paragraph 2, made superior. Justice Chase wrote:
A treaty cannot be the supreme law of the land, that is, of all the United States, if any act of a state legislature can stand in its way. If the constitution of a state . . . must give way to a treaty, and fall before it; can it be questioned, whether the less power, an act of the state legislature, must not be prostrate? It is the declared will of the people of the United States, that every treaty made by the authority of the United States, shall be superior to the constitution and laws of any individual state; and their will alone is to decide. 17
In Hopkirk v. Bell, 18 the Court further held that this same treaty provision prevented the operation of a Virginia statute of limitations to bar collection of antecedent debts. In numerous subsequent cases, the Court invariably ruled that treaty provisions superseded inconsistent state laws governing the right of aliens to inherit real estate. 19 An example is Hauenstein v. Lynham, 20 in which the Court upheld the right of a citizen of the Swiss Republic, under the treaty of 1850 with that country, to recover the estate of a relative dying intestate in Virginia, to sell the same, and to export the proceeds of the sale. 21
Certain more recent cases stem from California legislation, most of it directed against Japanese immigrants. A statute that excluded aliens ineligible for American citizenship from owning real estate was upheld in 1923 on the ground that the treaty in question did not secure the rights claimed. 22 But, in Oyama v. California, 23 a majority of the Court opined that this legislation conflicted with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a view that has since been endorsed by the California Supreme Court by a narrow majority. 24 Meantime, California was informed that the rights of German nationals, under the Treaty of December 8, 1923, between the United States and the Reich, to whom real property in the United States had descended or been devised, to dispose of it, had survived the recent war and certain war legislation, and accordingly prevailed over conflicting state legislation. 25
Treaties and Congress
In the Convention, a proposal to require the adoption of treaties through enactment of a law before they should be binding was rejected. 26 But the years since have seen numerous controversies with regard to the duties and obligations of Congress, the necessity for congressional action, and the effects of statutes, in connection with the treaty power. For purposes of this section, the question is whether entry into and ratification of a treaty is sufficient in all cases to make the treaty provisions the
law of the land or whether there are some types of treaty provisions that only a subsequent act of Congress can put into effect. The language quoted above 27 from Foster v. Neilson 28 early established that not all treaties are self-executing, for, as Marshall said in that decision, a treaty is
to be regarded in courts of justice as equivalent to an act of the legislature, whenever it operates of itself, without the aid of any legislative provision. 29
Leaving aside the question of when a treaty is and is not self-executing, 30 the issue of the necessity of congressional implementation and the obligation to implement has frequently roiled congressional debates. The matter arose initially in 1796 in connection with the Jay Treaty, 31 certain provisions of which required appropriations to carry them into effect. In view of Article I, § 9, clause 7, which says that
No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law . . . , it seems to have been universally conceded that Congress must be applied to if the treaty provisions were to be executed. 32 A bill was introduced in the House to appropriate the needed funds, and its supporters, within and without Congress, argued that, because the treaty was the law of the land, the legislative branch was bound to enact the bill without further ado; opponents led by Madison and Albert Gallatin contended that the House had complete discretion whether or not to carry into effect treaty provisions. 33 At the conclusion of the debate, the House voted not only the money but a resolution offered by Madison stating that it did not claim any agency in the treaty-making process,
but that when a treaty stipulates regulations on any of the subjects submitted by the Constitution to the power of Congress, it must depend for its execution as to such stipulations on a law or laws to be passed by Congress, and it is the constitutional right and duty of the House of Representatives in all such cases to deliberate on the expediency or inexpediency of carrying such treaty into effect, and to determine and act thereon as in their judgment may be most conducive to the public good. 34 This early precedent with regard to appropriations has apparently been uniformly adhered to. 35
Similarly, with regard to treaties that modify commercial tariff arrangements, the practice has been that the House always insisted on and the Senate acquiesced in legislation to carry into effect the provisions of such treaties. 36 The earliest congressional dispute came over an 1815 Convention with Great Britain, 37 which provided for reciprocal reduction of duties. President Madison thereupon recommended to Congress such legislation as the convention might require for effectuation. The Senate and some members of the House believed that no implementing legislation was necessary because of a statute that already permitted the President to reduce duties on goods of nations that did not discriminate against United States goods; the House majority felt otherwise and compromise legislation was finally enacted acceptable to both points of view. 38 But subsequent cases have seen legislation enacted; 39 the Senate once refused to ratify a treaty that purported to reduce statutorily determined duties, 40 and congressional enactment of authority for the President to negotiate reciprocal trade agreements all seem to point to the necessity of some form of congressional implementation.
What other treaty provisions need congressional implementation is debatable. A 1907 memorandum approved by the Secretary of State stated that the limitations on the treaty power that necessitate legislative implementation may
be found in the provisions of the Constitution which expressly confide in Congress or in other branches of the Federal Government the exercise of certain of the delegated powers. . . . 41 The same thought has been expressed in Congress 42 and by commentators. 43 Resolution of the issue seems to be for legislative and executive branches rather than for the courts.
Congressional Repeal of Treaties
Madison contended that, when Congress is asked to carry a treaty into effect, it has the constitutional right, and indeed the duty, to determine the matter according to its own ideas of what is expedient. 44 Developments have vindicated Madison in this regard. This is seen in the answer that the Court gave to the question: What happens when a treaty provision and an act of Congress conflict? The answer is that neither has any intrinsic superiority over the other and therefore the later one will prevail. In short, the treaty commitments of the United States do not diminish Congress’s constitutional powers. To be sure, legislative repeal of a treaty as law of the land may amount to its violation as an international contract. In such case, as the Court said,
its infraction becomes the subject of international negotiations and reclamations, so far as the injured party chooses to seek redress, which may in the end be enforced by actual war. It is obvious that with all this the judicial courts have nothing to do and can give no redress. 45
Treaties Versus Prior Acts of Congress
The Court has enforced numerous statutory provisions that it recognized as superseding prior treaty engagements. Chief Justice Marshall asserted that the converse would be true as well 46 – that a treaty that is self-executing is the law of the land and prevails over an earlier inconsistent statute – and this proposition has been repeated many times in dicta. 47 But there is dispute whether in fact a treaty has ever been held to have repealed or superseded an inconsistent statute. Willoughby, for example, writes:
In fact, however, there have been few (the writer is not certain that there has been any) instances in which a treaty inconsistent with a prior act of Congress has been given full force and effect as law in this country without the assent of Congress. There may indeed have been cases in which, by treaty, certain action has been taken without reference to existing Federal laws, as, for example, where by treaty certain populations have been collectively naturalized, but such treaty action has not operated to repeal or annul the existing law upon the subject. 48
The one instance that may be an exception 49 is Cook v. United States, 50 in which a divided Court held that a 1924 treaty with Great Britain that allowed the inspection of British vessels for contraband liquor and seizure if any was found had superseded the authority conferred by a section of the Tariff Act of 1922 51 The difficulty with this case is that the Tariff Act provision had been reenacted in 1930, 52 so that a simple application of the rule that the later enactment governs should have caused a different result. It may be suspected that the low estate to which Prohibition had fallen and a desire to avoid a diplomatic controversy should the seizure at issue have been upheld influenced the Court’s decision.
When Is a Treaty Self-Executing
Several references have been made above to a distinction between treaties as self-executing and as merely executory, in which case they are enforceable only after the enactment of
legislation to carry them into effect. 53 But what is it about a treaty that makes it the law of the land and gives a private litigant the right to rely on it in a court of law? As early as 1801, the Supreme Court took notice of a treaty, and, finding it applicable to the situation before it, gave judgment for the petitioner based on it. 54 In Foster v. Neilson, 55 Chief Justice Marshall explained that a treaty is to be regarded
as equivalent to an act of the legislature, whenever it operates of itself, without the aid of any legislative provision. A treaty will not be self-executing, however,
when the terms of the [treaty] stipulation import a contract – when either of the parties engages to perform a particular act. . . . When this is the case,
the treaty addresses itself to the political, not the judicial department; and the legislature must execute the contract, before it can become a rule for the court. 56
Sometimes the nature of a treaty will determine whether it requires legislative execution or
conveys an intention that it be 'self-executing' and is ratified on these terms. 57 One authority states that whether a treaty is self-executing
depends upon whether the obligation is imposed on private individuals or on public authorities. . . .
Treaty provisions which define the rights and obligations of private individuals and lay down general principles for the guidance of military, naval or administrative officials in relation thereto are usually considered self-executing. Thus treaty provisions assuring aliens equal civil rights with citizens, defining the limits of national jurisdiction, and prescribing rules of prize, war and neutrality, have been so considered . . . .
On the other hand certain treaty obligations are addressed solely to public authorities, of which may be mentioned those requiring the payment of money, the cession of territory, the guarantee of territory or independence, the conclusion of subsequent treaties on described subjects, the participation in international organizations, the collection and supplying of information, and direction of postal, telegraphic or other services, the construction of buildings, bridges, lighthouses, etc. 58 It may well be that these two characteristics merge with each other at many points and the language of the Court is not always helpful in distinguishing them. 59
Treaties and the Necessary and Proper Clause
What power, or powers, does Congress exercise when it enacts legislation for the purpose of carrying treaties of the United States into effect? When the subject matter of the treaty falls within the ambit of Congress’s enumerated powers, then it is these powers that it exercises in carrying the treaty into effect. But if the treaty deals with a subject that falls within the national jurisdiction because of its international character, then recourse is had to the Necessary and Proper Clause. Thus, of itself, Congress would have had no power to confer judicial powers upon foreign consuls in the United States, but the treaty-power can do this and has done it repeatedly and Congress has supplemented these treaties by appropriate legislation. 60 Congress could not confer judicial power upon American consuls abroad to be exercised over American citizens abroad, but the treaty-power can and has, and Congress has passed legislation perfecting such agreements, and the Supreme Court has upheld such legislation. 61
Again, Congress of itself could not provide for the extradition of fugitives from justice, but the treaty-power can and has done so scores of times, and Congress has passed legislation carrying our extradition treaties into effect. 62 And Congress could not ordinarily penalize private acts of violence within a state, but it can punish such acts if they deprive aliens of their rights under a treaty. 63 Referring to such legislation, the Court has said:
The power of Congress to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution as well the powers enumerated in section 8 of Article I of the Constitution, as all others vested in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or the officers thereof, includes the power to enact such legislation as is appropriate to give efficacy to any stipulations which it is competent for the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate to insert in a treaty with foreign power. 64 In a word, the treaty-power cannot purport to amend the Constitution by adding to the list of Congress’s enumerated powers, but having acted, the consequence will often be that it has provided Congress with an opportunity to enact measures that independently of a treaty Congress could not enact; the only question that can be raised as to such measures is whether they are
necessary and proper for the carrying of the treaty in question into operation.
The foremost example of this interpretation is Missouri v. Holland. 65 There, the United States and Great Britain had entered into a treaty for the protection of migratory birds, 66 and Congress had enacted legislation pursuant to the treaty to effectuate it. 67 Missouri objected that such regulation was reserved to the states by the Tenth Amendment and that the statute infringed on this reservation, pointing to lower court decisions voiding an earlier act not based on a treaty. 68 Noting that treaties
are declared the supreme law of the land, Justice Holmes for the Court said:
If the treaty is valid there can be no dispute about the validity of the statute under Article I, § 8, as a necessary and proper means to execute the powers of the Government. 69
It is obvious, he continued,
that there may be matters of the sharpest exigency for the national well being that an act of Congress could not deal with but that a treaty followed by such an act could, and it is not lightly to be assumed that, in matters requiring national action, ‘a power which must belong to and somewhere reside in every civilized government’ is not to be found. 70 Because the treaty and thus the statute dealt with a matter of national and international concern, the treaty was proper and the statute was
necessary and proper to effectuate the treaty.