The Death of Treaty Supremacy: An Invisible Constitutional Change–Introduction to Opinio Juris Book Symposium
[David Sloss is a Professor of Law at Santa Clara University.]
I want to thank Opinio Juris for hosting a symposium on my new book, published last fall by Oxford University Press. I also want to thank the group of distinguished scholars who have agreed to offer their perspectives on The Death of Treaty Supremacy as part of this symposium. I very much look forward to their contributions.
The book’s central claim is that an invisible constitutional revolution occurred in the United States in the early 1950s. From the Founding until World War II, the treaty supremacy rule, codified in Article VI of the Constitution, was a mandatory rule that applied to all treaties. As originally understood, the rule consisted of two elements. First, all valid, ratified treaties are supreme over state law. Second, judges have a constitutional duty to apply treaties when a treaty conflicts with state law.
The Framers adopted the treaty supremacy rule to solve a specific problem. Before adoption of the Constitution, state governments refused to comply with U.S. treaty commitments. Treaty violations by the states created serious foreign policy problems for the nation. James Madison and others highlighted this problem as one of the primary reasons for adopting a new Constitution. The Framers designed the Constitution to ensure that state governments would not violate U.S. treaty obligations without express authorization from the federal political branches.
The treaty supremacy rule was a bedrock principle of U.S. constitutional law from the Founding until World War II. However, the advent of modern international human rights law sparked a process of invisible constitutional change. The United States ratified the UN Charter in 1945. The treaty obligates UN member states to promote “human rights . . . for all without distinction as to race.” Beginning in the late 1940s, litigants filed dozens of suits challenging discriminatory state laws by invoking the Charter together with the treaty supremacy rule. In the landmark Fujii case, 217 P.2d 481 (Cal. App. 2d 1950), a court applied the traditional treaty supremacy rule to invalidate a California law that discriminated against Japanese nationals. The court held that state law conflicted with the Charter and the Charter superseded California law under Article VI of the Constitution.
Fujii sparked a political firestorm because it implied that the United States had abrogated Jim Crow laws throughout the South by ratifying the UN Charter. In response, conservatives lobbied for a constitutional amendment, known as the Bricker Amendment, to abolish the treaty supremacy rule. Senator John Bricker, the leading proponent of the amendment, sought to prevent the United States from becoming a party to any human rights treaty. Although the Amendment never passed, Senator Bricker and his supporters achieved some of their objectives through a process of invisible constitutional change, which I call the “de facto Bricker Amendment.”
Bricker’s opponents resisted the proposed Amendment by reinterpreting the Constitution. Before World War II, a firm consensus held that the treaty supremacy rule was a mandatory rule that applied to all valid, ratified treaties. Controversy over the Bricker Amendment gave rise to a new constitutional understanding—that the treaty supremacy rule is an optional rule that applies only to “self-executing” treaties. Thus, modern doctrine holds that the treaty makers may opt out of the rule by deciding, at the time of treaty negotiation or ratification, that a particular treaty provision is “non-self-executing” (NSE). In sum, the de facto Bricker Amendment converted the treaty supremacy rule from a mandatory to an optional rule by creating an exception for NSE treaties.
The lawyers who invented the NSE exception to the treaty supremacy rule in the early 1950s claimed that they were merely following nineteenth century precedent. That claim was patently false. Before World War II, self-execution doctrine and treaty supremacy doctrine were independent, non-overlapping doctrines. The treaty supremacy rule governed the relationship between treaties and state law. Self-execution doctrine addressed the division of power over treaty implementation between Congress and the President. In the 1950s, though, self-execution doctrine effectively swallowed the treaty supremacy rule, creating a novel NSE exception to the treaty supremacy rule. The NSE exception now controls the domestic application of human rights treaties in the United States.
The Supreme Court applied the NSE exception to the treaty supremacy rule in Medellín v. Texas (2008). The Court held, in effect, that a treaty that was admittedly binding on the United States was not binding on the State of Texas because it was not self-executing. Medellín was directly contrary to the original understanding because the Court permitted Texas to violate U.S. treaty obligations without authorization from the federal political branches. In contrast, the Framers adopted the Constitution’s treaty supremacy rule to prevent state governments from violating a valid, ratified treaty without authorization from the federal political branches.
The world has changed dramatically in the past 230 years. However, some principles endure. In a system that divides power between the states and the federal government, it is absurd to grant states the power to violate national treaty commitments. As James Madison said more than two hundred years ago, a constitutional system that grants such power to sub-national governments would be “an inversion of the fundamental principles of all government.” It would create “a monster, in which the head was under the direction of the members.” The de facto Bricker Amendment created Madison’s monster. It is our responsibility to tame that monster.