When the President enters into an executive agreement, what sort of obligation does it impose on the United States? That it may impose international obligations of potentially serious consequences is obvious and that such obligations may linger for long periods of time is equally obvious. 1 Not so obvious is the nature of the domestic obligations imposed by executive agreements. Do treaties and executive agreements have the same domestic effect? 2 Treaties preempt state law through operation of the Supremacy Clause. Although it may be that executive agreements entered into pursuant to congressional authorization or treaty obligation also derive preemptive force from the Supremacy Clause, that textual basis for preemption is arguably lacking for executive agreements resting solely on the President’s constitutional powers.
Initially, it was the view of most judges and scholars that executive agreements based solely on presidential power did not become the
law of the land pursuant to the Supremacy Clause because such agreements are not
treaties ratified by the Senate. 3 The Supreme Court, however, found another basis for holding state laws to be preempted by executive agreements, ultimately relying on the Constitution’s vesting of foreign relations power in the national government.
A different view seemed to underlie the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Belmont, 4 giving domestic effect to the Litvinov Assignment. The Court's opinion by Justice Sutherland built on his Curtiss-Wright 5 opinion. A lower court had erred, the Court ruled, in dismissing an action by the United States, as assignee of the Soviet Union, for certain moneys which had once been the property of a Russian metal corporation the assets of which had been appropriated by the Soviet government. The President’s act in recognizing the Soviet government, and the accompanying agreements, constituted, said the Justice, an international compact which the President,
as the sole organ of international relations for the United States, was authorized to enter upon without consulting the Senate. Nor did state laws and policies make any difference in such a situation; while the supremacy of treaties is established by the Constitution in express terms, the same rule holds
in the case of all international compacts and agreements from the very fact that complete power over international affairs is in the National Government and is not and cannot be subject to any curtailment or interference on the part of the several States. 6
The Court elaborated on these principles five years later in United States v. Pink, 7 another case involving the Litvinov Assignment and recognition of the Soviet Government. The question presented was whether the United States was entitled to recover the assets of the New York branch of a Russian insurance company. The company argued that the Soviet Government's decrees of confiscation did not apply to its property in New York and could not apply consistently with the Constitution of the United States and that of New York. The Court, speaking by Justice Douglas, brushed these arguments aside. An official declaration of the Russian government itself settled the question of the extraterritorial operation of the Russian decree of nationalization and was binding on American courts. The power to remove such obstacles to full recognition as settlement of claims of our nationals was
a modest implied power of the President who is the ‘sole organ of the Federal Government in the field of international relations’. . . . It was the judgment of the political department that full recognition of the Soviet Government required the settlement of outstanding problems including the claims of our nationals. . . . We would usurp the executive function if we held that the decision was not final and conclusive on the courts. . . .
It is, of course, true that even treaties with foreign nations will be carefully construed so as not to derogate from the authority and jurisdiction of the States of this nation unless clearly necessary to effectuate the national policy. . . . But state law must yield when it is inconsistent with, or impairs the policy or provisions of, a treaty or of an international compact or agreement. . . . Then, the power of a State to refuse enforcement of rights based on foreign law which runs counter to the public policy of the forum . . . must give way before the superior Federal policy evidenced by a treaty or international compact or agreement. . . .
The action of New York in this case amounts in substance to a rejection of a part of the policy underlying recognition by this nation of Soviet Russia. Such power is not accorded a State in our constitutional system. To permit it would be to sanction a dangerous invasion of Federal authority. For it would ‘imperil the amicable relations between governments and vex the peace of nations.’ . . . It would tend to disturb that equilibrium in our foreign relations which the political departments of our national government has diligently endeavored to establish. . . .
No State can rewrite our foreign policy to conform to its own domestic policies. Power over external affairs is not shared by the States; it is vested in the national government exclusively. It need not be so exercised as to conform to state laws or state policies, whether they be expressed in constitutions, statutes, or judicial decrees. And the policies of the States become wholly irrelevant to judicial inquiry when the United States, acting within its constitutional sphere, seeks enforcement of its foreign policy in the courts. 8
This recognition of the preemptive reach of executive agreements was an element in the movement for a constitutional amendment in the 1950s to limit the President’s powers in this field, but that movement failed. 9
Belmont and Pink were reinforced in American Ins. Ass'n v. Garamendi. 10 In holding that California’s Holocaust Victim Insurance Relief Act was preempted as interfering with the Federal Government’s conduct of foreign relations, as expressed in executive agreements, the Court reiterated that
valid executive agreements are fit to preempt state law, just as treaties are. 11 The preemptive reach of executive agreements stems from
the Constitution’s allocation of the foreign relations power to the National Government. 12 Because there was a
clear conflict between the California law and policies adopted through the valid exercise of federal executive authority (settlement of Holocaust-era insurance claims being
well within the Executive’s responsibility for foreign affairs), the state law was preempted. 13
If the foreign relations power is truly an exclusive federal power, with no role for the states, a logical consequence, the Supreme Court has held, is that some state laws impinging on foreign relations are invalid even in the absence of a relevant federal policy. There is, in effect, a
dormant foreign relations power. The scope of this power remains undefined, however, and its constitutional basis is debated by scholars.
The exclusive nature of the federal foreign relations power has long been asserted by the Supreme Court. In 1840, for example, the Court declared that
it was one of the main objects of the constitution to make us, so far as regarded our foreign relations, one people, and one nation; and to cut off all communications between foreign governments, and the several state authorities. 14 A hundred years later the Court remained emphatic about federal exclusivity.
No State can rewrite our foreign policy to conform to its own domestic policies. Power over external affairs is not shared by the States; it is vested in the national government exclusively. It need not be so exercised as to conform to state laws or state policies, whether they be expressed in constitutions, statutes, or judicial decrees. And the policies of the States become wholly irrelevant to judicial inquiry when the United States, acting within its constitutional sphere, seeks enforcement of its foreign policy in the courts. 15
It was not until 1968, however, that the Court applied the general principle to invalidate a state law for impinging on the nation’s foreign policy interests in the absence of an established federal policy. In Zschernig v. Miller 16 the Court invalidated an Oregon escheat law that operated to prevent inheritance by citizens of Communist countries. The law conditioned inheritance by nonresident aliens on a showing that U.S. citizens would be allowed to inherit estates in the alien’s country, and that the alien heir would be allowed to receive payments from the Oregon estate
without confiscation. 17 Although a Justice Department amicus brief asserted that application of the Oregon law in this one case would not cause any
undu[e] interfer[ence] with the United States’ conduct of foreign relations, the Court saw a
persistent and subtle effect on international relations stemming from the
notorious practice of state probate courts in denying payments to persons from Communist countries. 18 Regulation of descent and distribution of estates is an area traditionally regulated by states, but such
state regulations must give way if they impair the effective exercise of the Nation’s foreign policy. If there are to be travel, probate, or other restraints on citizens of Communist countries, the Court concluded, such restraints
must be provided by the Federal Government. 19
Zschernig lay dormant for some time, and, although it has been addressed recently by the Court, it remains the only holding in which the Court has applied a dormant foreign relations power to strike down state law. There was renewed academic interest in Zschernig in the 1990s, as some state and local governments sought ways to express dissatisfaction with human rights policies of foreign governments or to curtail trade with out-of-favor countries. 20 In 1999, the Court struck down Massachusetts’ Burma sanctions law on the basis of statutory preemption, and declined to address the appeals court’s alternative holding applying Zschernig. 21 Similarly, in 2003, the Court held that California’s Holocaust Victim Insurance Relief Act was preempted as interfering with federal foreign policy reflected in executive agreements, and, although the Court discussed Zschernig at some length, it saw no need to resolve issues relating to its scope. 22
Dictum in Garamendi recognizes some of the questions that can be raised about Zschernig. The Zschernig Court did not identify what language in the Constitution mandates preemption, and commentators have observed that a respectable argument can be made that the Constitution does not require a general foreign affairs preemption not tied to the Supremacy Clause, and broader than and independent of the Constitution’s specific prohibitions 23 and grants of power. 24 The Garamendi Court raised
a fair question whether respect for the executive foreign relations power requires a categorical choice between the contrasting theories of field and conflict preemption evident in the Zschernig opinions. Instead, Justice Souter suggested for the Court, field preemption may be appropriate if a state legislates
simply to take a position on a matter of foreign policy with no serious claim to be addressing a traditional state responsibility, and conflict preemption may be appropriate if a state legislates within an area of traditional responsibility,
but in a way that affects foreign relations. 25 We must await further litigation to see whether the Court employs this distinction. 26