The End of “Respectful Consideration” and the Birth of Disaggregated Deference

by Roger Alford

There is much one could say about Medellín, but I want to focus on the meta-question of what this decision portends for the future of international courts and tribunals. While the domestic effect of ICJ decisions is now cast into serious doubt (at least in terms of direct enforcement), I think there is far more reason to be hopeful than some are suggesting.

First, the Court emphasized that the effect to be given to international courts and tribunals depends first and foremost on whether there is a federal mandate to respect such decisions. It emphasized that such a federal mandate might be found in a self-executing treaty or a congressional statute. The Court said it agreed “as a general matter [that] an agreement to abide by the result of an international adjudication can be a treaty obligation,” but found that “the particular treaty obligations on which Medellín relies do not of their own force create domestic law.” (p. 24). The Court also agreed that a statute could have the same effect. “The judgments of a number of international tribunals enjoy a different status because of implementing legislation.” (p. 25).

Second, the Court fully embraced the principle that domestic effect should be given to decisions of international courts and tribunals if that is what federal law requires. As I have written elsewhere, this domestic effect falls along a continuum of deference. The Court cited with approval the “full faith and credit” approach of 22 U.S.C. 1650a, which treats ICSID decisions exactly the same as domestic court decisions. (p. 25). It also cited with approval an “arbitration model” under the New York Convention that accords great deference to international arbitral decisions pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act. (p. 26). The decisions of the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal are the best example of an international tribunal that falls within this sort of approach. Although somewhat less clear, the Court also appears to accept a “foreign judgment” model, provided the international tribunal is rendering monetary awards (rather than injunctive relief) and provided the international decision does not contravene domestic law. (p. 26). Mass claims tribunals such as the UNCC are possible candidates for such a foreign judgment model. (It is also worth noting that the citation in footnote 1 to the La Abra case involving the U.S.-Mexico Claims Commission–one of the few Supreme Court decisions utilizing a foreign judgment model for an international tribunal decision–may suggest that if a foreign judgment model is to be employed, again the treaty (or implementing legislation) must mandate that approach.)

Third, the Court effectively relegated ICJ decisions to the same status as the decisions of the WTO Appellate Body. Direct recognition of WTO decisions is precluded by implementing federal legislation (19 U.S.C. 3512(c)). Under this implementing legislation, the political branches must decide what domestic effect to give to WTO decisions. Apparently the same now applies to ICJ decisions. ICJ decisions may be given domestic effect, but the mechanism is through the political branches. The President tried to do that, but failed in his choice of mechanism. Obviously if it so desired, Congress could achieve what the President’s Memorandum did not. That frequently happens with WTO decisions, with Congress amending the law to bring the United States into conformity with our international obligations as interpreted by WTO Appellate Body decisions.

Fourth, the Court did not address the issue of indirect recognition of decisions of international courts and tribunals. On this score nothing has changed. Charming Betsy remains vibrant and there is every reason to think that domestic courts in construing statutes will continue to rely on decisions of international courts and tribunals (including the ICJ) to interpret international law. The same goes for using international decisions as persuasive authority to understand the content of international law in matters such as ATS claims or boundary disputes.

We are witnessing the end of the era of “respectful consideration” and the birth of disaggregated deference. That is, the degree of deference domestic courts should accord to decisions of international courts depends on what federal law (i.e., self-executing treaties or implementing legislation) requires. That mandate may be more or less than “respectful consideration.” In the absence of such a federal mandate, international tribunal decisions will not have direct effect, but they will continue to enjoy indirect recognition as tools of interpretation.

3 Responses

  1. Aren’t ‘respectful consideration’ and ‘disaggregated deference’ fundamentally different concepts, the former relating to the treatment of judicial precedent (as in Sanchez-Llamas), the latter to the enforcement of judgments (as in Medellín)?

  2. I don’t think so. “Respectful consideration” was just the catch-all phrase the Court has used in Breard (involving the enforcement of an ICJ order) and Sanchez-Llamas (involving judicial precedent) to accord ICJ decisions some vague degree of respect. Now with Medellin the degree of respect required for international tribunal decisions is whatever federal law mandates for that particular international tribunal.

  3. Thank you. I’d had some doubts with regard to Breard.

    In fact, I still do. I guess Breard was a bit of an oddity in terms of the distinction between judicial precedent and enforcement of a judgment or court order. At the time, it was unknown whether ICJ orders indicating provisional measures had binding force or not. The Supreme Court therefore could not have been talking strictly in an enforcement context. But nor could Breard then be described as raising issues of judicial precedent; the ICJ had asked for something (not) to be done, but it had not created precedent on the interpretation of any relevant legal instrument.

    Which I guess proves your point, that ‘respectful consideration’ is a fairly loose catch-all phrase.

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