Not a Transnationalist. Some (Really) Early Thoughts on Judge Sotomayor

Not a Transnationalist. Some (Really) Early Thoughts on Judge Sotomayor

As a judge in the New York federal courts over the past 15 years, both at the district and appellate level, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has had a fair number of cases involving the application of international law.  She has never ruled on an Alien Tort Statute case, but my very quick scan suggests that, whatever else her critics can say, her judicial record does not suggest she will be a particularly “transnationalist” justice. 

Closet Sovereigntist?

United States v. Ni Fa Yi, 951 F. Supp. 42 (S.D.N.Y. 1997), involved a defendant’s challenge to his prosecution under the Hostage Taking Act, and the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages.  While ruling for the government, Judge Sotomayor went out of her way to reject the government’s argument that the fact that the criminal statute  was enacted to implement treaty obligations should automatically satisfy judicial scrutiny of the statute’s constitutionality. “The Court agrees with defendant, however, that this begs the question: “[N]o agreement with a foreign nation can confer power on the Congress, or on any branch of Government, which is free from the constraints of the Constitution.” (Citing Reid v. Covert, 353 1, 16 (1957)).

Deferential to Executive Foreign Affairs Power?

European Commission v. RJR Nabisco, 355 F.3d 123 (2d Cir. 2004) involved an attempt by the European Commission to bring a RICO action in U.S. courts against tobacco companies for lost tax revenues.  Invoking the common law “revenue rule”, Judge Sotomayor barred the action on the grounds that the suit essentially requires US courts to enforce European tax laws.  In barring the action, though, she did leave open the possibility of executive intervention in the litigation as a mechanism to lift the bar imposed by the revenue rule. Interestingly, this was also part of the theory for the Supreme Court’s eventual decision to relax the revenue in another context, in an opinion by Justice Thomas.  And it was the lack of intervention by the executive that led her to continue to bar the suit, even after the Supreme Court had remanded her earlier decision.

Staying Neutral on the Relationship Between International law and the Supremacy Clause

In Beharry v. Ashcroft, 339 F.3d 51 (2d Cir 2003), Judge Sotomayor went out of her way to avoid opining on a lower court decision (by Judge Jack Weinstein) that casually gave customary international law the same status as federal legislation under the Supremacy Clause. In reversing the lower court on statutory grounds, Judge Sotomayor offered this gentle non-opinion: “Nothing in our decision to reverse on other grounds the judgment of the district court should be seen as an endorsement of the district court’s holding that interpretation of the INA in this case is influenced or controlled by international law.”

Similarly, in Center for Reproductive Law v. Bush, 304 F 3d. 183 (2d Cir. 2002), in rejecting a lawsuit challenging the ban on funding for overseas abortions under constitutional and customary international law, Judge Sotomayor disposed of the customary international law argument in a single footnote: “As plaintiffs’ claims based on customary international law are substantively indistinguishable from their First Amendment claims, they are dismissed on the same ground. We express no view as to whether those claims are otherwise viable.”

Topics
Featured, General
Notify of
Jeffrey Davis

She did rule in two ATS cases although not precisely on the applicability of the ATS.  In Aguinda v. Texaco, 303 F.3d 470 (2002) Judge Sotomayor joined the court dismissing Ecuadoran plaintiffs’ ATS claims on forum non conveniens grounds. And in Abrams v. Societe Nationale, 332 F.3d 173 (2003), Judge Sotomayor joined the courtin  ruling that the FSIA did not apply retroactively and thus federal jurisdiction could lie under the ATS and the FSIA.  Shameless plug: For more analysis on the ATS see my book Justice Across Borders (Cambridge University Press 2008). 

Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Seems to me she falls in with pretty much the typical American judicial approach to international treaties or customary international law – try to avoid it by anchoring something (somehow) in the Constitution or statute.  Alas, I think it is more a comment on the state of legal education then on her.
Best,
Ben

Patrick
Patrick

I thought that was not so much ‘much the typical American judicial approach’ as the ‘only legitimate common-law approach with a possible exception for the admiralty jurisdiction’?

Definitely no causes of action or remedies under international law of any kind in Australia independent of statute,* and I was always under the impression that the US worked the same way.

*There is a small technicality around how the foreign affairs power in the Constitution works, but suffice to say that the technicality starts with the foreign affairs power being there in the first place and is really only about the demarcation between the executive and the legislature.

Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

But see, Paquete Habana (1900) and much early jurisprudence after the Constitution here (David Sloss did some very interesting work on this that he presented at a conference several years ago).  You can look at the work of Jordan Paust going back to cases in the 19th century that suggest that this is not the only legitimate common law approach in the US.  Beyond that, one notes in criminal cases that judges find themselves having to address treaty objections to the death penalty raised by the defendants.  The one’s I have seen have not simply rejected the treaty argument (ICCPR usually) out of hand.  Rather, while recognizing the internal law distinction I have seen cases where the judge still makes the time to analyze under the treaty whether we are in compliance.  Maybe this would be considered obiter dicta but even if only that, it represents an effort by some judges to speak to those international obligations.  Hamdan would have been a better decision – in my opinion – if the Supreme Court had gone beyond the minimalist “at least common article 3 applies” to look more broadly at the international obligations. But, we have to see what was before… Read more »

Jordan J. Paust
Jordan J. Paust

I am a bit surprised because she was a Managing Editor of Yale Studies in World Public Order, which became Yale Journal of International Law, and must have taken a class from Reisman?  Of course, it is true that, as expressed in Reid v. Covert, no int’l ag. as such can confer power on the Congress or President free from any restraints in the Const. — although, contra Medellin, it can enhance either congressional or executive power (the latter prescisely because under the Const. the Pres. must faithfully execute the laws, which include tretaies of the U.S., and, therefore, the Pres. must execute treaties (as long as such presidentail execution does not step too much on congressional powers otherwise shared).

Patrick
Patrick

Well, Ben, there are several cans of worms there, and it is beyond me to appropriately address them. Your student’s paper probably does a much better job than I can in the time available to me. What is important to note is that there are three almost wholly distinct main issues. One is land rights: on this issue the High Court found that Aborigines did have residual land rights where they had maintained their traditional connection to the land or some semblance thereof. This was mainly circumvented by legislation. Two is ‘stolen’ children, which refers to the policy of raising (generally half-caste) aborigine children in orphanages or foster-homes to, in effect, make them more like whites. Three is the current ‘intervention’ in aborigine communities. One is something of a dead letter now. The High Court decisions were seminal, and despite the largely negative legislative reactions this was the aborigines’ greatest ‘victory’ yet since it resulted in lasting and meaningful recognition and financial compensation. Two is now almost solely a political question. First, the High Court has changed, and it could not now be contemplated that there would be any emanations from any hitherto-unsuspected penumbras. Secondly, the legal argument is almost embarrassingly weak in… Read more »

trackback

[…] Opinio Juris, Julian Ku has a brief but interesting post looking at some of Judge Sotomayor’s opinions involving the application of international […]

Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Patrick,
Thanks very much for your stretching.  It is very interesting to read your thoughts on this area.  Much appreciated.
Best,
Ben

LW

Good Luck and Happy Blogging.

trackback

[…] SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Closet sovereigntist? […]

Patrick
Patrick

haha no wonder the site was down…