Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez: The Latest Supreme Court Treaty Interpretation Case

by Duncan Hollis

I’m a bit pressed for time, but wanted to offer a brief post calling readers’ attention to a US Supreme Court case that came down today – Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez.  In it, a unanimous Court interprets the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction to not allow equitable tolling of the requirement that a child be automatically returned to the country from which s/he was abducted in the one year period after the child is taken.  The case involved two Colombian nationals living in England in 2008 when the mother leaves with her child for France and then New York (via a shelter for victims of domestic violence).  The father was unaware where his child had been abducted to, and thus could not file for the return remedy provided for by Article 12 of the treaty.  After much searching, he located her in the United States in November 2010.  At that point, however, the near automatic-right of return for one year provided via Article 12 no longer applied and the Convention imposes a different standard – wherein courts must order the return of the child ‘unless it is demonstrated that the child is now settled in its new environment’ (emphasis added).  Lower courts found that the child had become settled and thus she remained in the United States pending the outcome of this litigation.

In its opinion, the Court interpreted Article 12 not to contain any equitable tolling possibility with respect to the one year period for the automatic right of return.  In doing so, it declined to apply the equitable tolling doctrine available for federal statutes to treaties, offering in the process some general statements on its approach to treaty interpretation:

For treaties, which are primarily “‘compact[s] between independent nations,’” Medellín v. Texas,  552 U. S. 491, 505 (2008), our “duty [i]s to ascertain the intent of the parties” by looking to the document’s text and context, United States v. Choctaw Nation, 179 U. S. 494, 535 (1900); see also BG Group plc v. Republic of Argentina, post, at 10. We conclude that the parties to the Hague Convention did not intend equitable tolling to apply to the 1-year period in Article 12.

It is our “responsibility to read the treaty in a manner ‘consistent with the shared expectations of the contracting parties.’” Olympic Airways v. Husain, 540 U. S. 644, 650 (2004) (quoting Air France v. Saks, 470 U. S. 392, 399 (1985); emphasis added). Even if a background principle is relevant to the interpretation of federal statutes, it has no proper role in the interpretation of treaties unless that principle is shared by the parties to “an agreement among sovereign powers,” Zicherman v. Korean Air Lines Co., 516 U. S. 217, 226 (1996). Lozano has not identified a background principle of equitable tolling that is shared by the signatories to the Hague Convention. To the contrary, Lozano concedes that in the context of the Convention, “foreign courts have failed to adopt equitable tolling . . . because they lac[k] the presumption that we [have].” Tr. of Oral Arg. 19–20. While no signatory state’s court of last resort has resolved the question, intermediate courts of appeals in several states have rejected equitable tolling….

I don’t see anything too dramatically different in this reasoning than the Court’s earlier pronouncements.  More interesting, perhaps, is the Court’s unwillingness to let the existence of implementing legislation via federal statute impact its interpretative analysis:

It does not matter to this conclusion that Congress enacted a statute to implement the Hague Convention. See ICARA, 42 U. S. C. §§11601–11610. ICARA does not address the availability of equitable tolling. Nor does it purport to alter the Convention. See §11601(b)(2) (“The provisions of [ICARA] are in addition to and not in lieu of the provisions of the Convention”). In fact, Congress explicitly recognized “the need for uniform international interpretation of the Convention.” §11601(b)(3)(B). Congress’ mere enactment of implementing legislation did not somehow import background principles of American law into the treaty interpretation process, thereby altering our understanding of the treaty itself.

There’s more later in the opinion offering views on the negotiators’ intent as well as the object and purpose of the Hague Convention itself.  But, I’ll leave that for readers to comment on if anyone is inclined to do so.


2 Responses

  1. Would also suggest people look at the BG v Argentina decision on investor/state arbitration about the UK-Argentina treaty that came out the same day.  The majority seems to be very taken with US domestic arbitration jurisprudence while the dissent of Roberts joined by Kennedy seems much more focused on the nature of a treaty obligation in this arbitration space.  The dceision is available over at http://www.scotusblog.com.

  2. What is partly problematic is a focus on treaties as compacts between nations IF some members of the Court were to ignore many prior S.Ct. decisions that recognize that rights under treaties can be express or implied and that they are to be interpreted in a broad manner.  Citing Medellin is somewhat scary in that regard, since the Roberts opinion contained several manifest errors (including nonsense that “Congress” ratifies treaties, the “Senate” ratifies treaties).
    At least the opinion knocks out the nonsense that one sees in the majority opinion in Alvarez Machain that one should not consider the object and purpose of the treaty — of course, contrary to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, art. 31.  Sale was another problematic S.Ct. majority opinion.

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