Bond v. United States and the Non-Use of the Treaty Power
Has the federal government ever put Missouri v. Holland to work? I don’t think so, though I always hesitate to state it categorically. The Supreme Court’s 1920 decision in Holland squarely held that the Treaty Power adds something to other enumerated federal authorities. But there appears to be no instance in which the federal government has actually used a treaty to do something that it couldn’t do under some other power, other than in the (putative) controversy implicated by Bond itself. (The Supreme Court hears arguments in Bond tomorrow.)
I thought for a moment I was nailed on this point reading through the amicus brief submitted by John Bellinger and other former State Department Legal Advisers. The brief highlights the Controlled Substances Act and its status as implementing legislation for the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. (Well, that would be a big one!) The Act does put the treaty to work in interesting ways, including as a kind of international delegation under which domestic procedures for drug classification can be ignored if a drug becomes controlled under an international agreement. See 21 U.S.C. 811(d). Very interesting, but somewhat beside the point. As the Supreme Court recently held in Raich, Congress has the power to regulate controlled substances under the Commerce Clause.
The same goes for other agreements discussed in the Legal Advisers’ brief, including agreements relating to environmental protection, diplomatic immunity, and international driver’s licenses. In other words, the U.S. could enter into those agreements — and implement them — even if Missouri v. Holland were overruled.
The non-practice under Holland cuts both ways. As those supporting the government point out, it shows that political process works to protect state interests. The Treaty Power as interpreted by Justice Holmes looks pretty scary in theory, from a states rights perspective, to the extent it could swallow up all constraints on federal power. But in practice it’s been toothless.
On the other hand, complete non-use by the political branches might evidence that Missouri v. Holland doesn’t reflect constitutional norms on the question, that the Treaty Power has fallen into a kind of constitutional desuetude. In other words, Missouri v. Holland may have been overruled by nearly a century’s worth of subsequent contrary practice.
Either way, the lack of any real practice (and the anomalous circumstances of Bond itself) cautions against a merits ruling on the Treaty Power issue, in the spirit of judicial minimalism and constitutional avoidance. Who knows, there may come a time when the political branches are interested in intentionally asserting a more robust Treaty Power. That world would almost surely be a different one than we find ourselves in today (different enough to overcome the longstanding refusal to use the Treaty Power to expand federal authorities). Better to wait to see what that world looks like before deciding so important a question.