08 Jun Notes on Zivotofsky
A fascinating ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court this morning in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, the case presenting the question whether Congress can mandate that U.S. citizens born (to American parents) in Jerusalem may have Israel listed on their passports as their place of birth. Since 1948, every U.S. president has carefully avoided opining in any context on the status of Jerusalem as falling within Israeli or any other nation’s sovereignty. The U.S. State Department has thus always issued passports listing “Jerusalem,” and not Israel as the place of birth for citizens born there. In 2002, Congress enacted a law mandating that citizens so desiring could have “Israel” listed as their place of birth. President Bush, then Obama, objected, arguing that such a law infringed on the President’s power to recognize foreign sovereign governments – a power both administrations maintained is held exclusively by the executive. The case marks the first time the Court has ever recognized a ‘preclusive’ power of the executive branch – that is, a power the President not only holds under the Constitution, but holds even if Congress enacts a law otherwise.
Two brief initial notes as I continue to digest. First, the majority’s opinion is workmanlike and narrow. The Court applies the well known framework for analyzing questions of executive power established in Justice Jackson’s concurrence in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, relies on a host of earlier Court opinions, and concludes that the Reception Clause (the Article II provision giving the President the power to receive ambassadors) necessarily “encompasses the authority to acknowledge, in a formal sense, the legitimacy of other states and governments, including their territorial bounds.” The Court’s opinion – which transcends typical political divisions (Justice Thomas joins (in part) the majority of Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) – expressly disclaims any reliance on Article II’s Vesting Clause, the broad and undefined vesting in the President of “the executive power.” A holding based on that clause would have had potentially much more significant implications; the Vesting Clause has been regularly invoked by those advocating the most capacious understandings of executive power as a catch-all provision for affording the President sweeping powers in national security and foreign affairs. This decision offers no support for that theory.
Second, the majority’s opinion sensibly relies repeatedly on the nature and practice of recognition at international law as informing the framers’ understanding of the import of affording the President the power to receive ambassadors. As the Court puts it on one of several occasions: “[I]nternational scholars [citing Grotius and Vattel] suggested that receiving an ambassador was tantamount to recognizing the sovereignty of the sending state.” This is and should be seen as yet another unremarkable example of reliance by the Court on international law in understanding the scope of contemporary executive power under the U.S. Constitution. Not even Thomas in concurrence (much) protests. Whether the Supreme Court’s relative comfort with such analysis trickles down to the lower courts as questions of executive power arise in other contexts – the D.C. Circuit, among others, remains chronically allergic to international law in any form – will be among the more interesting consequences of this otherwise limited ruling to watch.