Will Bond v. United States Matter?
Bond v. United States is one of those cases that promises both more and less than it seems.
At first glance, it seems an important and fascinating case because it is the first time the U.S. Supreme Court will revisit any aspect of the famous 1920 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s decision in Missouri v. Holland. That decision, arguably the most famous decision in the U.S. foreign affairs law canon, held that the treaty power was not constrained by the state’s rights limitations in the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It also held that Congress’ power to implement treaties through normal legislation is similarly unconstrained.
By agreeing to decide Bond, the Supreme Court may reconsider the second (and less famous) of those two holdings. That second holding, on the much understudied “treaty implementation” power, was challenged in a 2005 Harvard Law Review article by Georgetown Professor Nicholas Rosencranz. (BTW, large congratulations should go to Nick for almost single-handedly creating, or at least reviving, this argument.)
As a matter of high constitutional principle about the nature of the U.S. Constitution’s grant of enumerated powers, this could be a huge case. But there are reasons to doubt the practical importance of any decision by the Court to revisit Missouri v. Holland in the context of Bond. Why? Because the central holding of Missouri v. Holland was that treaties are not constrained by the Tenth Amendment. Even if the Court holds that Congress cannot use a treaty to exceed its Article I powers, the President and Senate could still simply use a self-executing treaty to implement the same obligations (as Prof. Rick Pildes argues here).
Having said all that, a favorable decision for the petitioners in Bond could still have a practical impact by reviving that almost extinct constitutional creature: the self-executing treaty. The President and Senate, at least in the past few decades, have very rarely approved self-executing treaties outside of a few subject matter areas (like taxes, extradition, and investment). Big important treaties, such as human rights treaties, have generally been approved on the condition they are non-self-executing. (Go ahead, name the most important self-executing treaty of the past thirty years. That Tax Convention with Chile?) Or they are approved like most trade agreements via the route of the congressional-executive agreement.
So Bond might actually result in giving the President and the Senate the incentive to go the “self-execution” route. As a matter of politics, this might be difficult in today’s Senate, but I think future treaty supporters might not think it would be safer to go the self-execution route to avoid future Bond-like challenges to their treaties.