Opinio Juris Symposium: Are Non-Self-Executing Treaties Unconstitutional?

Opinio Juris Symposium: Are Non-Self-Executing Treaties Unconstitutional?

I would like to push the conversation about Mike Ramsey’s new book to a slightly different topic. What does the Constitution’s text tell us about the status of treaties in the domestic U.S. legal system? As many of our readers know, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution makes treaties the “supreme law of the land,” but conventional wisdom has been that the text has not resolved a variety of questions over the proper status of treaties. I think Professor Ramsey successfully defeats this conventional wisdom, but I am not sure he has completely resolved lingering questions about the status of treaties?

For instance, does Article VI mean that all treaties are “self-executing” in the sense that they bind the President and the executive branch and create enforceable judicial remedies enforceable by private actions in U.S. courts? Does Article VI also mean that treaties bind Congress so that Congress cannot pass legislation in violation of an Article II treaty? Does Article VI also tell us whether a treaty can trump the U.S. Constitution?

Staying true to his method, Professor Ramsey finds a textual answer to all of these questions. Article VI’s reference to treaties as “supreme law”, he suggests, should be understood to give treaties the same domestic legal status as federal statutes. For this reason, treaties are self-executing, at least in the same sense as federal statutes are self-executing. Congress can override treaties with subsequent legislation (e.g. the last in time rule). Moreover, treaties that are inconsistent with the Constitution are, like federal statutes, unconstitutional and unenforceable. And the President is bound by treaties, at least as much as he is bound by federal statutes.

All of these answers are consistent with existing doctrine and they provide a wonderfully clear and straightforward textual basis in favor of existing doctrine. But there is one area in which Professor Ramsey has departed somewhat from conventional doctrine.

Topics
General
Notify of
Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Might I suggest that the constitutionality of these non-self-executing treaties is possibly the wrong place to be looking. Might we say that the United States takes on its treaty obligation. Might we say that the United States like each other state is free to choose the mechanism internally to bring itself in compliance with that obligation. If compliance can be done without making the treaty self-executing fine. If it can not, we may be in breach of the treaty obligation. Congress or the President can do acts that violate the treaty and internally someone may declare that the treaty violates the Constitution, but unless this is absolutely manifest to the other treaty parties in the Vienna Convention Law of Treaties sense, the treaty remains an obligation of the United States. If our courts declare the treaty unconstitutional and the US is not to comply with its obligations then it would seem the natural response is that the other states that are parties to the treaty would examine whether the US is breaching the treaty. If someone tried to assert in the US courts that the illegal Presidential act or Congressional act violated our treaty obligations, the Court has to determine… Read more »

Matthew Gross
Matthew Gross

If our courts declare the treaty unconstitutional and the US is not to comply with its obligations then it would seem the natural response is that the other states that are parties to the treaty would examine whether the US is breaching the treaty.

Wouldn’t the US then be obligated to withdraw from any treaty (even signed and ratified) that had been ruled unconstitutional? Who would be in charge of doing so, and how would we go about doing it?

Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

The US would not be obligated to withdraw – I could imagine a President maintaining our signature of the treaty for foreign policy reasons while the treaty has been found unconstitutional. Maybe someone would argue for suspension for example. For withdrawal, 20th century practice would typically leave that to the President and pretty much has been done in myriad ways (I remember a post by Arthur Rovine on the ASILForum saying a study done had shown a whole variety of ways the President has terminated treaties). One issue that would arise would be whether the manner of withdrawal was consistent with the treaty language on withdrawal. If not consistent, that would be a further breach. I think we ran into this with the Russians on the ABM treaty. In the absence of treaty language on withdrawal then we would look to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties language as authoritative on this and I believe a one year notice is required. Otherwise, one might argue for reasonable notice and then get into debates about what is reasonable. I remember such a case on the Egypt-WHO Headqauarters Agreement at the ICJ back in 1979 or 1980 getting into those… Read more »

Michael Ramsey

To clarify my view, in saying the treaty would be unconstitutional, I acknowledge that it would remain an international obligation of the United States (since domestic invalidity is rarely a defense to a treaty violation). I had not thought about this before, but I think Matthew Gross is right that the U.S. would have a (constitutional) obligation to withdraw (or else take action to make the treaty constitutional). As the book makes clear, I think the President would have the constitutional power to do this (exercising the executive power). But, as Ben Davis says, it’s not necessarily the case that the President could simply withdraw, because (as an international law matter) the treaty might not allow it. So I would say: the President has a constitutional obligation to withdraw from an unconstitutional treaty, as soon as the President is able to.

–Mike Ramsey

Francisco F. Martin
Francisco F. Martin

Prof. Ku wrote: “My own view is that the President and Senate are authorized under Article II and Article VI to choose whether or not to make a treaty self-executing and that the courts should defer to this decision.” I would love to know exactly where in Article II or Article VI it says anything about the President’s or the Senate’s authority to declare a treaty non-self-executing, or for that matter where it says anywhere in the Constitution about non-self-execution. Indeed, Prof. Ku appears to be misconceptualizing the issue of non-self-execution. A treaty provision is non-self-executing only as a factual matter, namely, a political branch has not performed some overt act to implement a treaty duty requiring the performance of an overt act. Declaring a treaty provision, which requires a party to not perform some overt act, to be non-self-executing is non-sensical. Therefore, when the President or Senate makes a declaration that, e.g., the prohibition of torture under the ICCPR is non-self-executing, this declaration makes no sense because the prohibition does not require the commission of an overt act. The non-self-execution doctrine as Prof. Ku characterizes it only makes sense in the context of Parliamentary Supremacy in which a democratically… Read more »

Francisco F. Martin
Francisco F. Martin

Prof. Ku wrote: “Staying true to his method, Professor Ramsey finds a textual answer to all of these questions. Article VI’s reference to treaties as “supreme law”, he suggests, should be understood to give treaties the same domestic legal status as federal statutes. . . . Congress can override treaties with subsequent legislation (e.g. the last in time rule).” If Prof. Ku has correctly characterized Prof. Ramsey’s arguments (I have not read his book), then I have to disagree that according to Constitution’s text federal statutes have the same domestic legal status as treaties and that federal statutes can trump earlier ratified treaties. The texts of Articles III and VI give different legal authority to federal statutes and treaties. According to Article VI, the laws of the United States are made only in pursuance of the Constitution. In other words, federal statutes only implement the Constitution. Not all U.S. treaties implement the Constitution because some treaties that are part of the supreme law of the land were made before the Constitution coming into effect, and therefore could not implement the Constitution. Furthermore, both Articles III and VI say that treaties are made under the authority of the United States, which… Read more »

Matthew Gross
Matthew Gross

I’ll leave Mr. Martin’s argument untouched, save the admission that I find it very strange that an equal-priority document (The Constitution) could directly mandate the status of other equal-priority documents (Foreign treaties.)

So I would say: the President has a constitutional obligation to withdraw from an unconstitutional treaty, as soon as the President is able to.

What of enforcement during that period? Are we to enforce an unconstitutional agreement that we entered into, because of another (apparently constitutional) treaty limitation?

If we don’t enforce it, is the US liable for violations of that treaty (via international law, for the hypothetical, lets say via the ICC) for the period before it is actually revoked?