Bringing Human Rights Home: Reflections on the Treaty Supremacy Rule

Bringing Human Rights Home: Reflections on the Treaty Supremacy Rule

[Carmen G. Gonzalez is a Professor of Law at Seattle University School of Law. This is the second post in our symposium this week on treaty supremacy.]

David Sloss’ eye-opening new book, The Death of Treaty Supremacy: An Invisible Constitutional Change (Oxford University Press, 2016) should be read by lawyers, judges, law students, policy-makers, and legal scholars for its valuable insights on constitutional law, international law, legal history, human rights, and the quest for racial justice. The book’s thesis is that federal courts have misinterpreted legal precedent and inverted fundamental constitutional principles by authorizing states to violate the treaty commitments of the United States.

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution were acutely aware that violations of international law by the states could disrupt trade, incite wars, and besmirch the reputation of the United States. Accordingly, the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution provides that “all treaties . . . shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” [U.S. Constitution, Article VI, clause 2]

From the earliest days of the Republic until World War II, all treaties ratified by the United States were understood to supersede conflicting state laws pursuant to the treaty supremacy rule. When state laws contravened ratified treaties, federal courts were obligated to enforce U.S. treaty commitments. After World War II, opposition to the civil rights movement and to international human rights law sparked a subtle and pernicious re-interpretation of the treaty supremacy rule. A small but influential group of lawyers and policy-makers persuaded federal judges that non-self-executing treaties do not supersede conflicting state laws and are unenforceable in U.S. courts in the absence of implementing legislation. Because the U.S. Senate routinely attaches unilateral reservations to human rights treaties proclaiming these treaties non-self-executing, this re-interpretation of the treaty supremacy rule gives states carte blanche to violate international human rights law.

The Death of Treaty Supremacy explains that resistance to the struggle for racial justice triggered the transformation of the treaty supremacy rule. The U.N. Charter, which entered into force in 1945, expressly prohibits racial discrimination. Civil rights plaintiffs cited the Charter’s human rights provisions to challenge discriminatory state laws. In Fujii v. California, 217 P.2d 481 (Cal. App. 2d 1950), a California appellate court applied the treaty supremacy rule to strike down California’s Alien Land Law because it discriminated against Japanese nationals in violation of the U.N. Charter. The decision sparked controversy because it seemed to suggest that the United States had abrogated Jim Crow when it ratified the U.N. Charter.

Determined to maintain racially discriminatory state laws, conservative legislators (led by Republican Senator John Bricker of Ohio) proposed a Constitutional amendment that would require approval of implementing legislation by both houses of Congress before a human rights treaty could supersede conflicting state laws. Bricker’s opponents argued that the amendment was unnecessary because the treaty supremacy rule only applied to self-executing treaties. While the proposed amendment was ultimately defeated, this patently erroneous interpretation of the U.S. Constitution gradually gained acceptance. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed this interpretation of the treaty supremacy rule in Medellin v. Texas. That decision authorized the state of Texas to execute a Mexican national without the hearing required by the International Court of Justice’s Avena decision in violation of Article 94 of the U.N. Charter (which requires compliance with ICJ decisions).

The Death of Treaty Supremacy will be of particular interest to scholars whose work intersects with international human rights law. Environmental justice scholars, for example, have long grappled with the absence of legal remedies for the concentration of polluting industries and hazardous waste disposal facilities in neighborhoods populated by Latinos and African-Americans. U.S. anti-discrimination law has failed to curb the disparate siting of polluting facilities in communities of color by state and local governments because the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution to require proof of discriminatory intent. Discriminatory purpose is extremely difficult to prove. Much discrimination is entirely unconscious. Many race-neutral policies have disparate impacts on communities of color despite the absence of discriminatory purpose because they reinforce pre-existing structural disadvantages caused by unequal access to education, housing, and employment. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination by programs receiving federal funds, has likewise been interpreted to require proof of intentional discrimination.

International human rights law provides more robust protection against environmental injustice than U.S. law. In 1994, the United States ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD treaty), which defines racial discrimination to encompass government actions with discriminatory purpose as well as government actions with discriminatory impacts. The objective of the treaty is not simply formal equality through racially neutral laws and policies, but the attainment of substantive equality.

The treaty supremacy clause, as interpreted prior to World War II, would enable plaintiffs in environmental justice cases to invoke the CERD treaty to challenge state laws and policies that have a disparate impact on communities of color, including laws relating to the siting of polluting facilities. As The Death of Treaty Supremacy points out, the disconnect between U.S. Constitutional law and the evolving norms of international human rights law explains, at least in part, the Supreme Court’s re-interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause in Brown v. Board of Education and related cases to prohibit state-sponsored racial segregation. Disparate impact litigation pursuant to the CERD treaty would obligate federal courts to grapple with the growing gap between the narrow interpretation of antidiscrimination norms adopted by the United States and the more expansive requirements of international human rights law.

The Death of Treaty Supremacy is meticulously researched, carefully argued, and highly compelling. The book reminds us that international law has always been part of U.S. law, and provides a warning about the dangers of surreptitious re-interpretation of foundational constitutional principles. Lawyers, judges, and legal scholars should read this book and consider its implications for the relationship between domestic law and the nation’s international human rights obligations.

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