The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Williams v. Pennsylvania, handed down during the turmoil in the presidential campaign over the heated rhetoric on judicial impartiality, adds to the Supreme Court’s growing jurisprudence on the due process requirements for judicial disqualification. The issue in the case—whether a justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court could properly adjudicate a death penalty case when he had previously been the prosecutor who authorized capital charges against the defendant—set the stage for a ruling that could have provided broad guidance on the due process parameters for judicial disqualification, especially in criminal cases. Yet the Court’s holding may end up having only limited impact. As others have already started to note, the test announced by the Court—“that under the Due Process Clause there is an impermissible risk of actual bias when a judge earlier had significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a crucial decision regarding the defendant’s case”—will be hard to prove and adds little additional guidance to what is already available under existing ethical standards for judicial recusal in most states. In addition, my guess is that there are few cases in which a prosecutor-turned-judge will be asked to rule on a case in which he or she was previously involved, so this test is likely to directly apply to only a narrow band of future situations.
Even in the age of social media and internet searches, in which our public and private lives are increasingly (and often voluntarily) blurred, there is still something jarring about learning that your identity has been misrepresented or misconstrued. For Thomas Robins, that moment came when Spokeo, Inc., a “people search engine,” assembled an online profile of him that contained an array of incorrect information, including inaccurate statements of his age, family status, wealth, and education. Robins responded by filing a class action complaint against Spokeo in federal district court, alleging that Spokeo’s willful failure to check the accuracy of his personal information entitled him to statutory damages under the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970 (FCRA).
On April 18, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of United States v. Texas. The case involves the arguments put forward by twenty-six states, challenging the President’s November of 2014 Executive Action, which could have made around 5 million parents of citizens and lawful permanent residents (known as DAPA) eligible to apply to have their deportation deferred. It would also have slightly expanded the class of pre-existing eligibility for deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA), already in effect since 2012. The mechanism through which executive action would take place is the President’s request that his subordinates within the prosecutorial arms of DHS exercise their prosecutorial discretion in determining where and how to use and focus limited deportation resources. Congress enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act, tasking the agencies with enforcing immigration, but provides insufficient funds for the agencies to carry out their mandates. The Executive must then make decisions about how to prioritize those mandates. Neither DAPA nor the expanded DACA class confers anything other than the eligibility for certain persons to apply for time limited deferral from removal. With deferred action, under a different set of pre-existing regulations, passed under earlier Congresses and presidents, comes eligibility for work authorization.
At this writing, Senate Republicans continue to refuse even to hold a hearing on President Obama’s nominee to succeed the late Associate Justice, Antonin Scalia, on the U.S. Supreme Court. The fullest explanation of their collective decision to ignore the Senate’s constitutional role in the judicial appointment process has come from Utah Senator Orrin Hatch who, in a recent New York Times op-ed, spelled out their arguments.
In that piece, Senator Hatch attacked President Obama’s judicial appointments for embracing “the sort of judicial activism Justice Scalia spent his career seeking to curtail.” Worse, in Senator Hatch’s view, when Democrats controlled the Senate they were complicit in this effort. Thus, he concludes, voters should decide what kind of Supreme Court they want through the 2016 Presidential election—which can happen only if the Senate delays confirmation proceedings on the President’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland. He argues that considering a nominee today would be “irresponsible” and, he concludes, not “in the best interests of the Senate, the judiciary and the country.”
The Sixth Amendment, which the Supreme Court has for over half a century interpreted to afford indigent criminal defendants a right to a lawyer at government expense, now also provides wealthy defendants something: protection from the government’s freezing their untainted assets (as opposed to those traceable to, or proceeds of, crime) to prevent retaining counsel of their choice. As principled—and protective of the Sixth Amendment—as this distinction may be, it reinforces something much more pernicious: there is now effectively a right of the rich to be free from impoverishment by the government, to protect their Sixth Amendment right to retain counsel of their choosing, while the identical Amendment does not provide an indigent defendant access to an actual lawyer of anyone’s choice.
In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Professor William Baude suggested that, following the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges striking down prohibitions on same-sex marriage, the door may well be open to the argument that bans on plural marriage should fall as well. Baude takes as his cue the suggestion in the dissent of Chief Justice John Roberts that “[o]ne immediate question invited by the [Obergefell] majority’s position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people.”
The answer is, of course, “yes.” Explaining why, though, may take some doing. As my colleague, Jordan Singer, has noted, the decision in Obergefell was, at a minimum, “befuddling.” One reason is because its author, Justice Anthony Kennedy, eschewed a traditional equal protection analysis for the kind of soaring rhetoric that has become a hallmark of his opinions in the area of individual rights. Though the respect he accords the subject matter is notable, at the end of the day, lower courts, state government officials and lawyers need a good deal more to be able to understand the limits of our constitutional commitment to equality.
Had Kennedy embraced a traditional equal protection analysis—as did the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the first decision to overturn a same-sex marriage ban—the force of the Chief Justice’s predictions about plural marriage likely would have been blunted. To understand why, we must remember that, despite the fact that it is fundamental, unlike nearly all other individual constitutional rights—both explicit and implicit—the right to marry does not exist unless the state provides for it. In other words, the Constitution does not compel states to offer their citizens the opportunity to enter into the legal relationship known as marriage. But if a state chooses to offer its citizens that opportunity, it cannot discriminate against parties who seek to enter into marriage absent some legitimate basis for doing so.
As numerous federal and state courts have concluded, there is no legitimate basis for excluding same-sex couples from marriage. Though as a historical matter such couples were not eligible for marriage, that is not a valid argument for continuing to prohibit them from marrying when they otherwise satisfy the structural requirements for eligibility. Those requirements contemplate two parties who have consented to be married in the eyes of the law, so that they may both enjoy the particular benefits that this binary legal relationship provides and undertake the particular responsibilities it assigns. Nothing about the inherent nature of those benefits and responsibilities disables same-sex couples from entering into marriage.
The point here is that every state has limited marriage to a union of two—and only two—parties. That binary relationship forms the structural core of the institution of marriage. For a court to hold same-sex couples equally eligible to enter into that relationship no more changed the definition of marriage than would an order foreclosing a state from declining to provide a particular opportunity to otherwise qualified members of the opposite sex. See United States v. Virginia. On the other hand, for a court to order that a state must extend the opportunity to enter into marriage to any combination of parties who desire it would take that court well beyond the judicial role contemplated by current equal protection doctrine.
To illustrate, consider this hypothetical situation: suppose in response to Obergefell the state of Pennsyltucky decided to get out of the marriage business altogether—in other words, suppose the state decided not to offer its citizens the opportunity to enter into any form of civil marriage. Could a court order the state to create that legal relationship, with all of the public and administrative costs associated with managing it? No more than a court could order a state to provide funds to allow aspiring but impoverished political candidates to run for office. It’s equally unlikely a court would order a state that currently offers its citizens the opportunity to enter into binary marriage—which is to say, every state under current law—to admit any number of parties to that relationship. Unlike the relief requested by the plaintiffs in Obergefell, such an order would in fact change the structural definition of marriage.
At bottom, multiple-party relationships simply aren’t the same as two-party relationships. The binary relationship—and not the genders of the parties to it—lies at the heart of marriage as the states have defined it today. Plural marriage may come, but it will be the result of legislative rather than judicial action.
One of the more politically opportune reactions to the final week of the Supreme Court Term came from Senator Ted Cruz. His proposal: a Constitutional amendment that would replace life tenure for the Supreme Court with periodic retention elections. Under the Cruz plan, each Justice would face the voters in the second national election after initial confirmation, and every eight years thereafter. Justices would need a simple majority of “retain” votes to stay on the bench. Justices who are not retained would be replaced and would not be eligible for reappointment.
The Senator couched his proposal as a response to “a long line of judicial assaults on our Constitution and the common-sense values that have made America great.” Offering some red meat for his conservative base, he added that retention elections would provide a remedy for “the decisions that have deformed our constitutional order and have debased our culture” by “giving the people the regular, periodic power to pass judgment on the judgments of their judges.”
As a tool of partisan accountability, the proposal shouldn’t work. Retention elections have been used at the state level for 75 years, and only in very rare instances—California in 1986, Iowa in 2010—have multiple justices on a single court lost retention elections in the wake of a politically controversial ruling. Citizen anger over controversial decisions generally does not translate into judges being kicked off the bench. Put another way, retention voters are assessing something more than mere case outcomes when determining whether to keep a judge in office.
This may seem surprising, given that politicians routinely try to rally their bases in reaction to Supreme Court decisions they disfavor. (Consider the left’s reaction to Citizens United or Heller, or the right’s reaction to Sibelius or Obergefell.) But ordinary voters don’t think like politicians. As I have documented here and here, to everyday citizens, a judge’s perceived commitment to a fair legal process is far more important than specific case outcomes. Voters will forgive a judge with whose rulings they disagree as long as those rulings appear to have been reached fairly and with respect for the court’s (often circumscribed) institutional role. Voters are less forgiving, however, when a judge appears to have intruded into the domain of the legislature, acted obnoxiously, or reached a decision that lacks a solid legal grounding.
Senator Cruz is a smart man, and he must know that voters assess judges differently than they do legislators or executives. So I doubt he is using retention merely as a conduit for channeling partisan anger. Quite the opposite: he appears to be counting on voters to assess the Justices on their commitment to procedural fairness and institutional humility, and to find that commitment lacking.
Unfortunately, in this regard the Supreme Court has not helped its own cause. The series of befuddling opinions in Obergefell v. Hodges nicely illustrates the problem. Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion on same-sex marriage was laden with soaring, poetic rhetoric about the profundity of marriage and the entitlement of all people to “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.” One is apt to agree with these sentiments as a matter of policy or even morality. But a constitutional exegesis demands something more. The Obergefell majority never cleanly and clearly explained why it was the province of the Supreme Court to accomplish what Congress and state legislatures might have (eventually) done themselves. Indeed, Obergefell was arguably far less grounded in the constitutional text than either of the equivalent efforts on same-sex marriage offered by the Iowa Supreme Court and Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court years earlier. In doing so, the majority opened the door to criticisms that the Court had overstepped its institutional bounds.
The dissenting opinions subsequently pulled that door right off its hinges. The Chief Justice lamented, “The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment…. Just who do we think we are?” He went on: “Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own view of marriage as a matter of constitutional law.” Justice Scalia went further, charging that the majority opinion “lack[ed] even a thin veneer of law” and ruling a “system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers.” Justice Alito picked up the same theme, warning that the Constitution forbids “five unelected Justices from imposing their personal vision of liberty upon the American people.” Only Justice Thomas constrained his dissenting opinion to a legalist discussion about constitutional meaning.
As a debate over national policy or constitutional philosophy, the five Obergefell opinions make fascinating and important reading. As a vehicle for increasing, or even sustaining, the institutional legitimacy of the court, however, they are collectively a train wreck. Anyone who reads the majority opinion and suspects the court of moderately overstepping its institutional role will, upon reading the dissents, find a far more grievous critique. The Court, we are told, undermined the core of American democracy through unelected lawyers and (in Justice Scalia’s inimitable words) “judicial Putsch.” Even if one agrees with the outcome of the case (and I count myself among them), the internecine squabbling over institutional overreach is deeply unsettling. The majority could have worked harder to formulate an opinion that sounded less like public policy, and the dissenters could have made their points with far more responsible rhetorical flourish. No wonder Senator Cruz felt that the public might be ready for retention elections.
Thanks to the court’s self-flagellation, the Cruz proposal cannot be treated as mere pandering to his right-leaning base. Public respect for the judiciary is near a 15-year low, and allegations by the Justices that their own colleagues do not respect the rule of law cannot help. Those who want to see the Court regain its lost institutional legitimacy can only hope that the Justices recognize the damage that comes from their public dysfunction, and collectively work to repair it.
“The issue in this case is whether the Act’s [the Affordable Care Act] tax credits are available in States that have a Federal Exchange rather than a State Exchange.” King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. __ (2015) (p. 5). The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires each state to create its own health insurance Exchange, however, if a state refuses to do so, then the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) is authorized to “establish and operate such Exchange within the State.” Sec. 18041(c)(1).” (p. 5). Only sixteen States and the District of Columbia created their own Exchanges, while thirty-four States utilize the federal Exchange administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. (p. 6).
The tax credits, which are authorized by IRC sec. 36B, are allowed to “applicable taxpayers” who obtain health insurance through “an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care act….” (p. 5). The IRS addressed the availability of tax credits to individuals acquiring health insurance through an HHS Exchange by adopting the definition of “Exchange” as used in an HHS regulation, 45 CFR sec. 155.20, which provided that taxpayers are eligible for a tax credit if they are enrolled in an Exchange which serves the individual market, “regardless of whether the Exchange is established and operated by a State… or by HHS….” (p. 6).
In prior proceedings, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted the Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, 997 F.Supp.2d 415 (2014), and the District Court judgment was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, 759 F.3d 358 (2014).
Justice Roberts, who was joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, wrote the majority opinion, and held that tax credits for health insurance under IRC sec. 36B applied to individuals acquiring coverage on federal health insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), even though sec. 36B states that the credits apply to insurance plans that are enrolled in through “an Exchange established by the State under [42 U.S.C. sec. 18031].” Justice Roberts’ reasoning was based on the ambiguity reflected in sec. 36B when it was interpreted in connection with other provisions of the ACA, and the manner in which those ambiguities were either consistent or inconsistent with Congress’ intent that the ACA expand health care coverage, and lower the cost of health insurance as a means of facilitating that expansion of coverage. The Congressional intent to expand health insurance coverage through the ACA would have been undermined if the sec. 36B tax credits were not applicable to individuals enrolled in health insurance plans through the federal exchanges.
Justice Roberts discussed the history of health reform in the United States and how states which instituted guaranteed issue, which required insurers to cover persons regardless of health status, and community rating, which restricted insurers from taking health status into account in setting premiums, ultimately led to “adverse selection,” which occurred when a person would only seek insurance once they became sick or in need of health care coverage. Because insurers were required to cover persons regardless of health status and could not take health status into account in setting premiums for specific insureds, they were forced to raise rates for all insureds in order to account for the higher health costs, increasing the cost of coverage and reducing the numbers of individuals who could afford coverage. Justice Roberts wrote that “This led to an economic “death spiral.” As premiums rose higher and higher, and the number of people buying insurance sank lower and lower, insurers began to leave the market entirely.” (p. 2).
Congress, relying on the Massachusetts health reform effort in 2006, included in the ACA a guaranteed issue and community rating component, but also included an individual mandate requiring most individuals to maintain health insurance coverage (either employer-provided, private coverage, or government-subsidized coverage), or pay a penalty. For individuals whose household income is between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level income amount, they are eligible for a tax credit pursuant to IRC sec. 36B. The tax credit lowers the cost of health insurance for working class and middle class taxpayers, while the mandate brings into the health insurance pool more young and healthy persons (who would otherwise not obtain coverage) whose premiums subsidize the cost of coverage for sick and older persons under the ACA. ( p.4).
Justice Roberts, in discussing Congress’ awareness of the necessity of the individual mandate and the tax credit to the reform effort, writes: “These three reforms are closely intertwined. As noted, Congress found that the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements would not work without the coverage requirement. Sec. 18091(2)(I). And the coverage requirement would not work without the tax credits. “The reason is that, without the tax credits, the cost of buying insurance would exceed eight percent of income for a large number of individuals, which would exempt them from the coverage requirement. Given the relationship between these three reforms, the Act provided that they should take effect on the same day—January 1, 2014….” (p. 5).
Justice Roberts determined that due to the “economic and political significance” of the tax credits and their central role in the statutory scheme Congress created under the ACA, “It is especially unlikely that Congress would have delegated” to the IRS the authority to resolve any ambiguities with the tax credit under its regulatory authority without expressly doing so. He concludes that it is the Court’s, and not the IRS’s duty to determine the correct interpretation of sec. 36B. (p 8).
Justice Roberts’ analysis first finds that the authority granted to the Secretary of HHS to “establish and operate such Exchange within the State,” pursuant to sec. 18041(c)(1) of the ACA, shows that the HHS exchanges and the state Exchanges under sec. 18031 “are equivalent” by virtue of HHS establishing “such Exchange” under 18041, or, that HHS is to establish “the same Exchange that the State was directed to establish under Section 18031.” (p. 9–10).
Justice Roberts then analyzes sec. 36B in context with other provisions of the ACA (sec. 18032 defining “qualified individual” and sec. 300gg-91(d)(21) defining “Exchange”) and determines that a federal Exchange may be considered as one “established by the State” in order for the federal Exchange to function consistently with those other provisions within the statutory scheme of the ACA, resulting in ambiguity in the interpretation of sec. 36B within the context of the ACA’s statutory scheme, as compared to a literal interpretation of “established by the State” under sec. 36B. (p. 10–13).
Applying the principle of statutory interpretation that “the words of a statute must be read in their context with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme,” Justice Roberts concludes that a strict interpretation of sec. 36B must be rejected because “it would destabilize the individual insurance market in any State with a Federal Exchange, and likely create the very ‘death spirals’ that Congress designed the Act to avoid.” (p. 9, 15).
Justice Roberts holds that the sec. 36B tax credits are allowed for health insurance purchased on “any Exchange created under the Act.”
Justice Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. Justice Scalia applies a literal interpretation of sec. 36B and concludes that the tax credits only apply to Exchanges established by the States, therefore, no tax credits are allowed for health insurance purchased on a federal Exchange. (p. 2).
In contrast to Justice Roberts’ broad-based ambiguity analysis, which relies on his interpretation of sec. 36B in the context of the purpose and design of the ACA and his conclusion that a literal interpretation of the statute would conflict with the ACA’s design and purpose, Justice Scalia focuses solely on the language of the statute itself in determining whether there is any ambiguity, and finding no ambiguity in the statutory language, concludes that there is no reason to consider the ACA’s purpose and design for the purpose of interpreting sec. 36B. (p. 13).
Justice Scalia suggests that the design of the ACA was intended to incentivize states to create and operate their own exchanges and that limiting the 36B tax credits to health insurance plans purchased on a state exchange was one means of encouraging states to create their own exchanges. (p. 15-16). In light of that suggestion, he finds that interpreting sec. 36B to allow tax credits for health insurance purchased on a federal Exchange eliminates any need on the part of the state to create its own Exchange since the tax credit will be available on a federal Exchange. (p. 16).
Justice Scalia also states that the majority, rather than interpreting sec. 36B is actually rewriting the statute, which is a duty belonging to Congress.
This case, at its most basic level, is a statutory interpretation dispute. The lower courts which decided this case came to the same judgment as the Supreme Court, but each with slightly different reasoning.
Justice Roberts’ opinion applies a broad and policy-based analysis of both the legislative intent and design of the ACA in order to determine not only how the health insurance Exchanges were intended to operate, but also as a means of determining which interpretation of sec. 36B was most consistent with Congress’ purpose and design for the ACA.
Justice Scalia applied a more limited analysis, focusing solely on the statutory language of sec. 36B, and finding no ambiguity in the statute itself, determined that there was no need to analyze the purpose and the design of the ACA in interpreting the statutory language.
Justice Scalia’s criticism that the Court is rewriting the statute, not interpreting it, is very interesting. I think that your conclusion as to whether the Court is interpreting sec. 36B, or rewriting it, depends upon whether you agree with Justice Roberts’ or Justice Scalia’s approach in determining and analyzing statutory ambiguity. In light of the complex design and interlocking provisions of the ACA, and the need to analyze sec. 36B in the context of those aspects of the law in order to fully comprehend how it fit within the statutory scheme, Justice Roberts, as well as the lower courts, decided the case correctly.
On June 26 the U.S. Supreme Court decided the “same-sex marriage” case Obergefell v. Hodges. The Court held unconstitutional, by a 5-4 vote, state laws that limit marriage to heterosexual couples. According to the Court, these limits violate both the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.
Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court focuses on the crucial role that marriage, as a component of the liberty protected by the Due Process clause, plays both in individuals’ lives and in structuring society. Denying same sex-couples the opportunity to marry not only affects what type of society we live in, but also impoverishes the lives of a particular group of people in society. According to the Court, individuals define themselves through marriage. In addition, through marriage they access other “freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.” (p. 13) Marriage is also a means for individuals to achieve the “highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.” (p. 28) Furthermore, children in same-sex families are injured by having to endure the stigma of familial inferiority as a result of the non-recognition of their parents’ marriages. (p. 15)
Each of the four dissents objects to the majority’s conclusion that there is a violation of the Due Process clause. The dissenting justices argue that Justice Kennedy’s reasons for finding that same-sex couples have a protected fundamental right to marry are matters of policy and that the state legislatures, not the U.S. Supreme Court, should decide what policies are best for the people and society overall. The Chief Justice’s dissent, for example, does not deny that there is a fundamental right to marry; instead the Chief Justice argues that this fundamental right applies only to heterosexual couples because “the core definition of marriage … [is]the union of a man and a woman.” (pp. 8 and 16.) This “core” meaning of the fundamental right of marriage is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” Constraints on the definition of constitutionally protected rights keep the courts from legislating.
The majority and the dissents all recognize that the terms “liberty” and “marriage” must be interpreted. Unconstrained interpretation is problematic because it is difficult to distinguish from the act of legislating. Nonetheless, courts must interpret the words of a text, including a constitution. To be legitimate within our system, judicial interpretations must be bounded by an accepted and acceptable structure. The Court and the dissents disagree on what this structure is.
The Chief Justice’s dissent searches for a “core” meaning of marriage as a means of avoiding excessive interpretation. However, as the Court notes, the institution of marriage has changed dramatically over time. Different “core” meanings can be identified at different moments in time, space, and society. As Justice Kennedy wrote in his opinion for the Court, the doctrine of coverture was critical to the meaning of marriage in the early 19th century. At the time, a married woman’s husband could have determined where she would live, whether she could enter any particular contract, and how to employ any assets she may have owned upon marriage. He could also decide whether to force sexual relations on her and under what circumstances to discipline her physically or otherwise. In short, the central feature of her marriage might have been her subordination to her husband, not the fact that he was sexually male. The Chief Justice’s definition of marriage as based on heterosexuality is a choice among many central definitions of marriage.
The Court’s definition of marriage relies on a different set of concepts to constrain its interpretation: individual autonomy, intimacy and expression; the fundamental role that marriage plays in promoting child development and in structuring society; and the importance of equality as also articulated in the 14th Amendment.
For many decades, equality has had a critical function in identifying the proper role for courts in interpreting the constitutionality of majoritarian legislation. In our democratic system the courts protect minorities from oppression by the majority. (p. 24) See United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152 n.4 (1938) As the Court’s opinion notes, the ideas behind the Equal Protection clause reinforce the liberties protected by Due Process; restricting marriage to heterosexuals would have the effect of “diminish[ing] the personhood” of members of same-sex couples. (p. 19) Similarly, in U.S. v. Windsor, the Court highlighted the humiliation and financial harm to children in same-sex families when their parents’ marriages are not recognized by the federal government. This role of protecting minorities against harm done by the majority has been central to the role of the Court.
Since they cannot avoid interpretation, courts must identify the principles to guide their interpretations. In Obergefell, the Court chose protection of the members of a minority group against the demeaning life the legislative majority would have allowed them, a life determined by 19th century understandings of marriage.
The process of identifying the parameters for constitutional interpretation is one of the most important functions of courts and lawyers. The fact that it is subject to vigorous debate and is likely to continue to be so is healthy for our democracy.
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.