Everyone is ramping up for Monday’s Supreme Court argument in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, with notable entries from Jack Goldsmith on Lawfare, Marty Lederman on Just Security, and Eugene Kontorovich on Volokh. They have been debating a narrow doctrinal basis (suggested by the SG and pressed by Jack) for striking down the law as a kind of passport regulation beyond Congress’ power under Article I.
A little more on that below, but in the meantime, here are three atmospheric factors that point to sustaining the statute, none of which will be mentioned in the decision.
1. Passports would say “Israel,” not “Jerusalem, Israel”. Along the way, Zivotofsky modified his demand from the latter to the former. If he wins, his passport will list his place of birth simply as “Israel”. This makes a huge difference in the optics, literally. There are already an estimated 100,000 US passports that list “Israel” as place of birth; upholding the passport measure will only increase the number. None will say “Jerusalem, Israel.”
The visual out on the web of the passport with the Stars and Stripes and other official US Government ornamentation as background on the personal information page would have easily been mistranslated as US Government recognition of Israeli sovereignty. Without the graphic, there’s too much explaining to do — you have to connect the document with a person (and that person’s birth information) to cause the offense. The attenuation should mitigate the risk of damage on the ground.
2. The government lacks the amicus support one has come to expect in a case like this. Where is the brief from former U.S. diplomats? In Medellin, Madeleine Albright et al. argued that the failure to find the VCCR self-executing would do serious damage to US foreign relations. There’s no equivalent in Zivotofsky, in circumstances in which the risk of damage would seem an order of magnitude higher (in the end, US-Mexico relations survived Medellin’s execution, and there have been no reported cases of other countries violating US citizen rights under the VCCR). The silence from other quarters might make the justices feel a little more confident that upholding the statute is not going to spark riots in the Arab world.
The government garnered only three amici in support. Perhaps everyone is scared away from taking a stance that looks anti-Israel. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination League makes a non-delegation argument (as in, the statute unconstitutionally delegates decisionmaking to private individuals, namely, those who choose “Israel” over “Jerusalem”). The “True Torah Jews” argue that Zivotofsky lacks standing. And one David Boyle makes a grab-bag of arguments, including a Logan Act claim. Can anyone with a bar admission file green briefs these days? On the petitioner’s side, check out Louis Fisher’s anti-Curtiss-Wright diatribe (okay, did the Government have to cite Curtiss-Wright more than a dozen times in its brief?).
3. Why would the Court have taken the case, except to reverse? If the Court were inclined to strike the statute down, letting the D.C. Circuit’s creditable ruling stand would have accomplished that objective in a low-profile, low-cost way.
The doctrinal math for sustaining the statute is straightforward. The Secretary’s action is readily framed as Youngstown category 3 (much more so than the presidential memo in Medellin). From there, it’s a simple matter of finding Congress to have authority over the issuance of passports.
Assuming it doesn’t ignite the Arab Street, the decision won’t be of immediate consequence. Recognition decisions are much less important than they once were, and the probability of serious splits between Congress and the White House slighter still (hence the relative paucity of recent historical precedent for the issue). Ditto for passport authority parameters. This just isn’t something that gets fought over very often. Because the result looks unthreatening in these ways, I don’t see the Court going through Article I gymnastics to carve out this particular aspect of passport issuance from what is otherwise clearly within congressional authority (that is, some general authority over the issuance of passports under the foreign commerce and naturalization clauses). The Article I argument sounds more like a hairsplitty Breyer dissent than a broadly reasoned Roberts majority.
Upholding the statute would fit nicely into the Court’s project of normalizing foreign relations law. Zivotofsky I was a key step in that agenda, playing the Marbury card against the conventionally deployed political question doctrine in this kind of foreign relations dispute. Medellin was another. Upholding the statute would be normalizing. Exclusive presidential powers are exceptional; they seem less amenable to judicial supervision, especially when they are located in an amorphous and historically uncabined foreign relations power.
Update: Eugene Kontorovich notes here that there aren’t any amicus briefs from foreign governments, either. One wouldn’t think that unusual, but (as Eugene points out) such foreign government amicus participation has become pretty routine. (One other case in which foreign governments went missing: last year’s treaty power case, Bond v. United States.) Eugene is right to remind us that we shouldn’t read too much into amicus non-participation. But the silence might make the Court more confident in rebuffing the Government and its argument that enforcing the statute will upsets the apple cart of Middle East peace.