As regular readers know, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Bond v. United States in January. The case raises the question of whether a treaty can increase the power of Congress. Last week I posted about Paul Clement’s first-rate brief on behalf of the Petitioner.
Yesterday, I filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Cato Institute, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and the Atlantic Legal Foundation. (My superb co-counsel are Ilya Shapiro of Cato, John Eastman of CCJ, Martin Kaufman of ALF, and, I am honored to say, former Attorney General Ed Meese III.) The brief is based upon my Harvard Law Review article, Executing the Treaty Power.
Here is the Summary of Argument:
The court below held that the Chemical Weapons Convention increased the power of Congress, empowering it to enact 18 U.S.C. § 229. It held, in other words, that Congress is not limited to those powers enumerated in the Constitution; rather, those powers may be increased by treaty. The Third Circuit believed that it was bound to reach this conclusion by a single, conclusory sentence in Missouri v. Holland: “If the treaty is valid there can be no dispute about the validity of the [implementing] statute under Article I, Section 8, as a necessary and proper means to execute the powers of the Government.” Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416, 432 (1920).
But the Third Circuit was obviously uneasy with this conclusion: “with practically no qualifying language in Holland to turn to, we are bound to take at face value” that single sentence. Bond, 681 F.3d at 162. “[I]t may be that there is more to say about the uncompromising language used in Holland than we are able to say, but that very direct language demands from us a direct acknowledgement of its meaning, even if the result may be viewed as simplistic. If there is nuance that has escaped us, it is for the Supreme Court to elucidate.” Id. at 164-65 (footnote omitted).
Judge Ambro was even more explicit in concurrence:
I write separately to urge the Supreme Court to provide a clarifying explanation of its statement in . . . Holland . . . . I hope that the Supreme Court will soon flesh out “[t]he most important sentence in the most important case about the constitutional law of foreign affairs,” and, doing so, clarify (indeed curtail) the contours of federal power to enact laws that intrude on matters so local that no drafter of the Convention contemplated their inclusion in it.
Id. at 170 (Ambro, J., concurring) (quoting Rosenkranz, supra, at 1868 (2005)).
That one conclusory sentence from Holland implies that if a treaty commits the United States to enact some legislation, then Congress automatically obtains the power to enact that legislation, even if it would otherwise lack such power. It implies, in other words, that Congress’s powers are not constitutionally fixed, but rather may be expanded by treaty.
In Holland, Justice Holmes provided neither reasoning nor citation for this proposition. It appears in that one conclusory sentence, in a five-page opinion that is primarily devoted to a different question. And this Court has never elaborated. The most influential argument supporting this proposition appears not in the United States Reports but in the leading foreign affairs treatise. This argument has largely short-circuited jurisprudential debate on the question. But recent scholarship has shown that the historical premise of this academic argument is simply, demonstrably false.
The proposition that treaties can increase the power of Congress is inconsistent with the text of the Treaty Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the Tenth Amendment. It is inconsistent with the fundamental structural principle that “[t]he powers of the legislature are defined, and limited.” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 176 (1803). It implies, insidiously, that that the President and the Senate can increase their own power by treaty. And it implies, bizarrely, that the President alone–or a foreign government alone–can decrease Congress’s power and render federal statutes unconstitutional. Finally, it creates a doubly perverse incentive: an incentive to enter into foreign entanglements simply to increase domestic legislative power.
Holland is wrong on this point and it should be overruled. This Court should hold that treaties cannot vest Congress with additional legislative power.