Faculty Blog: Recent Supreme Court Term: Zivotofsky v. Kerry

In a recent blog my colleague Lawrence Friedman noted, “many cases implicating the Constitution do not turn on the document’s text.” He was writing in the context of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, but his observation is equally if not even more true in the context of foreign affairs and separation of powers. This is an area where the Court does not frequently tread for many reasons, not the least of which is that the Court is not keen to involve itself in what is usually seen as a turf battle between the two political branches.

Nonetheless, this past term the Court did take up a seemingly mundane case that has potentially significant consequences in the foreign affairs and national security arenas, areas where the Framers purposely created vague lines of authority between the President and Congress. Zivotofsky v. Kerry involved the petition of the Zivotofskys to have the birth of their child listed on his U.S. passport and consular report as “Jerusalem, Israel.” However, since 1948, when President Truman recognized Israel, he and every subsequent U.S. president have never acknowledged any country’s sovereignty over Jerusalem. Further, the Secretary of State has instructed State Department employees to record the place of birth for U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem as “Jerusalem,” with no further state affiliation.

Enter Congress, which in 2002 passed Section 214 of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act titled “United States Policy with Respect to Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel.” As this title suggests, Section 214 directed the Secretary of State to register the place of birth as Israel on registration of birth documents, certification of nationality, and passports for any U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem upon the request of the citizen or the citizen’s legal guardian. Section 214 was clearly intended to countermand the directives of the executive with respect to citizens born in Jerusalem.

The Court framed the clear conflict between the President and Congress in broad terms: 1. Whether the President has the exclusive power to grant formal recognition to a foreign sovereign? 2. If he has that power, can Congress command the President and his Secretary of State to issue a formal statement that contradicts the earlier recognition? In an opinion by Justice Kennedy the Court answered yes to the first question and no to the second.

The Court began its analysis by referring to Justice Jackson’s taxonomy in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer, noting that this is a case where the President’s power is at its “lowest ebb” because he is acting in direct contravention of Congress, and thus he can rely solely on the powers the Constitution grants to him alone. However, the Constitution is silent as to whether or which branch has exclusive authority to recognize another sovereign. In fact, the Constitution does not mention the term “recognition” at all.

Unable to rely on the text, Justice Kennedy opts for a structural and, ultimately, a pragmatic approach to answer these questions. He notes that the Reception Clause in Article II directs the President to receive ambassadors and other public ministers. According to Justice Kennedy, that sounds a lot like recognition authority. Justice Kennedy goes on to list a number of other foreign affairs powers the Constitution vests in the President, such as making treaties and appointing ambassadors and other public ministers. Even though these treaty-making and appointments powers require senatorial consent, it is enough for Justice Kennedy that each is dependent on Presidential power. It is the President who must initiate the process. From this arguably thin reed, Justice Kennedy concludes that the President has the power to grant formal recognition to a foreign sovereign.

Justice Kennedy’s pragmatism is in full view as he goes on to address the second question, whether Congress can command the President and his Secretary of State to contradict his earlier recognition. Here the Court answers no; the President’s power is exclusive. This, according to the Court, is for the simple and obvious reason that the Nation must speak with one voice on the matter of recognizing a foreign sovereign. If the President is to be effective in negotiations over a formal recognition determination, it must be evident that he speaks for the Nation.

The conservative wing of the Court dissented in Zivotofsky. In the most scathing criticism, Justice Scalia questions whether the President’s recognition power is exclusive, but more to the point, he contends Section 214 has nothing to do with recognition of foreign sovereigns. Section 214, Justice Scalia argues, performs the much more prosaic function of allowing citizens some say in what their Government says about another country’s boarders in citizenship documents. Because citizenship documents are matters within Congress’s control, Congress has the authority to direct what those documents say.

It remains to be seen if this case will have longer-term impacts beyond its rather narrow facts. However, because the Court does not wade into this area very often, it is likely that courts, advocates, and commentators will turn to this case in support of various arguments over presidential and congressional authority. Some particular points of note are that that in this case the President argued for a much broader grant of authority. Citing to the 1936 case United States v. Curtiss-Wright, the Secretary of State contended that the President has exclusive authority to conduct diplomatic relations along with the “bulk of foreign-affairs powers.” The Court declined to read Curtiss-Wright so broadly, suggesting that too oft-cited language from that case that the President is the “sole organ of the federal government in the field of international affairs” is dicta.

Also interesting is that a majority of the Court did find express and exclusive executive power absent any clear language in the Constitution. The means by which the Court found this power in the constitutional structure and the Court’s pragmatic view of how a government must function is likely to provide a road-map for future foreign affairs and national security cases where the demarcation between the President’s and Congress’s power is vague.

Finally, in reaching its decision the Court noted that the President needs exclusive recognition power in order to be effective. If the Court believes that effectiveness is the touchstone of exclusive executive authority granted by the Constitution, than Zivotofsky is truly a blockbuster case and one that the executive will cite for generations to come in order to maximize its authority. I suspect that the Court will be forced to clarify and perhaps narrow this rationale in some future case, but time will tell.

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