Author Archive for
Peter Spiro

Three Quick Thoughts on Zivotofsky

by Peter Spiro

Long-awaited decision here finding the President to have exclusive recognition power, trumping Congress’ attempt to require birthplace of US citizens born in Jerusalem to be recorded as “Israel” on US passports issued to them.

1. Phew. Who knows what the response would have been in the Middle East if the Court had come out the other way. Maybe nothing, but it’s obviously still a tinderbox in which little sparks can lead to firestorms.

2. Though the President wins, Kennedy’s opinion cuts back on Curtiss-Wright, dismissing its broad characterization of executive power as dicta.

In a world that is ever more compressed and interdependent, it is essential the congressional role in foreign affairs be understood and respected. For it is Congress that makes laws, and in countless ways its laws will and should shape the Nation’s course. The Executive is not free from the ordinary controls and checks of Congress merely because foreign affairs are at issue. See, e.g., Medellín v. Texas, 552 U. S. 491, 523–532 (2008); Youngstown, 343 U. S., at 589; Little v. Barreme, 2 Cranch 170, 177–179 (1804); Glennon, Two Views of Presidential Foreign Affairs Power: Little v. Barreme or Curtiss-Wright? 13 Yale J. Int’l L. 5, 19–20 (1988); cf. Dames & Moore v. Regan, 453 U. S. 654, 680–681 (1981). It is not for the President alone to determine the whole content of the Nation’s foreign policy.

The era of government lawyers playing the “Curtiss-Wright, so I’m right” card is officially over.

3. There’s a lot of “one voice” talk in Kennedy’s opinion, trumpeting the functional virtues of presidential control (see especially the bottom of p. 11). That’s disappointing to those of us looking for a move away from exceptional approaches to resolving foreign affairs disputes. Together with last year’s flame out in the big Treaty Power case, maybe the Court is having second thoughts about the normalization project. This was a bad vehicle for advancing that agenda (see thought #1), but now that the decision is on the books, it will retard it in more favorable ones.

But there are developments beyond the Court’s control at work on the ground. Remember the huge flap over the Tom Cotton letter to Iranian leaders earlier this spring. So much for “one voice.” Things are anything but normal when it comes to separation of powers respecting foreign affairs. Zivotofsky notwithstanding, we’re not going back to an old world in which Presidents had centralized control of the nation’s engagement with the world.

Is Ted Cruz a “Natural Born Citizen”?

by Peter Spiro

cruz imageShort answer: yes. Ted Cruz is constitutionally eligible to run for President. As he moves to announce his candidacy tomorrow, the question is sure to flare up again. As most will know, Cruz was born in Canada. He had U.S. citizenship at birth through his mother and the forerunner to section 301(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. He also had Canadian citizenship until he formally renounced it only last year.

The constitutional terrain is covered in this 2013 post and an essay of mine in the online Michigan Law Review on the question as presented in the context of John McCain’s Canal Zone birth. This is a terrific case study for demonstrating constitutional evolutions outside the courts. No court will ever touch the question at the same time that particular cases show us where the law is.

One recent addition to the mix: Neil Katyal and Paul Clement have this piece on the Harvard Law Review Forum arguing that Ted Cruz qualifies as “natural born”. If Katyal and Clement say he is natural born, then he is natural born, merits aside. Bipartisan pronouncements from legal policy elites become a source of the law. The Katyal-Clement offering echoes a similar effort by Larry Tribe and Ted Olson with respect to McCain’s eligibility, which was also the subject of a consensus U.S. Senate resolution.

Who can’t love that the question is being raised? Birthers who have challenged Barack Obama’s constitutional eligibility (on the basis of a fictitious birth in Kenya or a lame claim that he is a dual citizen) will have to eat their words now that they have a candidate whose foreign birth/dual citizenship is documented fact. But those ironies shouldn’t distort the answer. There are lots of reasons to oppose a Ted Cruz candidacy, but his citizenship status isn’t one of them.

GOP Iran Letter Might Be Unconstitutional. Is It Also Criminal?

by Peter Spiro

I’ll one-up Julian’s post below on Tom Cotton’s letter to the leaders of Iran admonishing them that any agreement entered into today could be reversed by Obama’s successor. It appears unprecedented for a group of opposition members of Congress to engage in such a communication.

It may also be criminal. The 1799 Logan Act provides that:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

Most putative Logan Act violations violate the spirit and structural foundations of the Logan Act (John Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu supplying a recent example). This one seems to squarely satisfy its elements. We have:

  • a correspondence with a foreign government (whether direct or indirect, in the form of an “open letter”, matters not),
  • without the authority of the United States (it enjoys no imprimatur from the executive branch nor, for that matter, from Congress as an institution),
  • with the pretty clear intent “to influence the measures or conduct of” the government of Iran in relation to a controversy with the United States.

Some might debate the last prong, but what other motivation could the letter have than to persuade Iranian leaders to back off a deal for fear that it will hardly be worth the paper it’s written on?

Now I know as well as the next guy that there’s been no Logan Act prosecution in the modern era. I also understand that in the wake of globalization national legislators routinely interact with foreign government officials. Iran is probably sophisticated enough about US constitutional law to the point that the letter’s substance isn’t news to them. But an initiative like the Cotton letter seems to cross a line, and perhaps it should be slapped back. How will contested foreign policy initiatives ever get off the ground if whoever’s out of the White House can meddle so brazenly? We have clearly left the era in which politics stopped at the water’s edge.

UPDATE: Steve Vladeck has this post up at Lawfare arguing against the Logan Act’s viability in this context. I take the point on desuetude. A law that lies around unused for a protracted period at some point becomes not-law (think jaywalking). Steve also argues that as a legislator, Cotton may have been acting with the “authority of the United States.” I can’t agree on that point. If anything, Cotton’s status as a senator makes the offense a greater one, because it’s more likely to be taken seriously and do real damage to national foreign relations.

As for the First Amendment, there are certainly First Amendment implications here. The Cotton letter involves speech that would be fully protected in the ordinary domestic context. But the Constitution in general and the First Amendment in particular are seen through different lens when it comes to foreign relations.  Does that mean that the Logan Act would withstand a First Amendment defense? Not necessarily. But the answer is not so clear cut as it would otherwise seem.

None of this is to say that there will or even should be a Logan Act claims against Cotton and his collaborators, and the factors that Steve highlights plainly contribute to non-prosecution as a prudential matter. But the above-the-fold attention given to the Cotton letter shows that there is something out of the ordinary going on here. If he had said the same things on CNN no one would have paid any attention; it would have been business as usual. Not so as addressed to the Iranian leadership.

U.S. May Let Go of Accidental Americans (Eliminating Tax Hurdle to Renunciation)

by Peter Spiro

It’s finally seeping into the mainstream consciousness that the U.S. tax system works very aggressively against citizens abroad, even those who are citizens in name only. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, is renouncing his U.S. citizenship after he had to pay a hefty IRS tab on capital gains on the sale of his London home. Johnson was born in the U.S. and spent some of his toddler-hood here before moving back home, permanently, with his parents to the UK.

In the future, shedding U.S. citizenship may be a lot cheaper for those with similarly thin connections to the United States.

Existing tax law treats renunciation as if it were a liquidation event. If you have more than $2 million in assets, you have to pay capital gains on all of your assets as if they were sold as of the date of expatriation — an exit tax, in effect. Prospective renunciants must also show that they have been tax compliant for the past five years on regular income taxes, which all U.S. citizens must file regardless of residence. External Americans who haven’t been filing have to pay hefty back taxes and penalties on the way out the door (including some under the hated FBAR and FATCA regimes relating to foreign accounts that fall heavily on external citizens). Even so, every quarter now we are hearing that record numbers of individuals are renouncing their U.S. citizenship.

The Obama Administration’s 2016 Green Book  includes a proposal under which an individual would not be subject to the exit tax requirements if the individual:

1. became at birth a citizen of the United States and a citizen of another country,
2. at all times, up to and including the individual’s expatriation date, has been a citizen of a country other than the United States,
3. has not been a resident of the United States (as defined in section 7701(b)) since attaining age 18½,
4. has never held a U.S. passport or has held a U.S. passport for the sole purpose of departing from the United States in compliance with 22 CFR §53.1,
5. relinquishes his or her U.S. citizenship within two years after the later of January 1, 2016, or the date on which the individual learns that he or she is a U.S. citizen, and
6. certifies under penalty of perjury his or her compliance with all U.S. Federal tax obligations that would have applied during the five years preceding the year of expatriation if the individual had been a nonresident alien during that period.

This would exempt those whose citizenship really is nominal (or even unknown to them). It may be the smart U.S. citizen parent outside the U.S. who doesn’t register a child’s birth with a U.S. consulate, a trend that is now being reported.

It would still leave covered a lot of folks whose connections are very tenuous (maybe Boris used a U.S. passport here and there). It’s only a proposal, requesting and requiring congressional action. This very informative post from the Canadian law firm Moodys Gartner explains how the Obama Administration might be able to accomplish the same end through a regulatory backdoor allowing it to backdate the expatriation of birthright dual citizens.

In any case, the proposal does evidence some understanding that the imposition of U.S. taxes on accidental Americans is unsustainable. The Moodys Gartner post plausibly suggests that foreign governments (including Canada) may be pushing for the reform as their constituents get caught in FATCA’s net. This is a continuing story.

More on Boehner’s Netanyahu Invite (and What It Says About Constitutional Change)

by Peter Spiro

My earlier post on whether John Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have triggered a little in-house conservative disagreement on the issue (or at least Weekly Standard’s Adam J. White is giving me credit for that). Mike Ramsey and David Bernstein come out against the invite’s constitutionality here and here; White argues in favor.

As I left off my first post, the question is appropriately raised but I think ultimately the Boehner move will go down as policy stupid but constitutionally legitimate. Appropriately raised because the invitation seems so patently at odds with a “one voice”/”sole organ” approach to foreign relations. Nice to have Mike Ramsey to confirm that the Founding generation wouldn’t have bought in (though Ryan Scoville dissents on the historical record here). But it would have provoked a huge controversy in the 20th century as well — see the much more informal interaction between Jim Wright and the Sandinistas during the Reagan years. Imagine if Wright had invited Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega to address Congress. I think a lot of folks would have deployed constitutional objections to that.

But just because it may have been unconstitutional then doesn’t mean it’s unconstitutional now.

The fact that it was left to a niche blogger to raise the constitutional question this time around pretty much proves the fact that this is now water under the constitutional bridge. There’s no way to put the lid on direct communication between members of Congress and foreign government officials. So much for “one voice.” One has to assume such communications are now dense. Making the jump from lots of behind-the-scenes contact to more formal actions like the Boehner invitation looks small. One might even argue that it is transparency enhancing. Better to play the institutional cards openly than hide them under the table. (Adam White highlights similar activity on the part of the courts, including the increasing amicus practice of foreign states. That practice would have raised a lot of eyebrows as recently as a couple of decades ago, especially on domestic issues; it’s now pretty routine.)

So the episode is a nice illustration of how changes in context can change constitutional understandings. Assuming the constitutional debate on the Boehner move remains restricted to a side conversation among constitutional scholars, it will supply a good precedent for similar moves on Congress’ part in the future. The practice then becomes constitutionally entrenched, accepted by all relevant actors. Any earlier understandings (including ones dating back to the founding) are overtaken by events. Th Constitution necessarily adapts to the world in which it has to operate.

Is Boehner’s Netanyahu Invite Unconstitutional?

by Peter Spiro

John Boehner has invited Bibi Netanyahu to address Congress. There’s a modern tradition of foreign leaders appearing before the legislature (list here). I’m willing to bet that every single one of those appearances was pre-cleared with the State Department or White House in advance.

I’m no student of Middle East politics, but it’s seems pretty clear that the the White House and the congressional GOP leadership are at loggerheads on US policy here and that the Boehner invitation is meant to advance the GOP (and Israeli) position on Iran. In the past, when members of Congress have gone freelance on foreign policy there’s been a tradition of waving around of the Logan Act, which provides:

Private correspondence with foreign governments.

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

It happened most prominently when Jim Wright played footsie with Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime in the 1980s. It was suggested as a problem as recently as 2007 when Nancy Pelosi visited Syria against Bush Administration wishes. As conservative commentator Bob Turner argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (“Illegal Diplomacy“):

consider this statement by Albert Gallatin, the future Secretary of the Treasury under President Thomas Jefferson, who was wary of centralized government: “it would be extremely improper for a member of this House to enter into any correspondence with the French Republic . . . As we are not at war with France, an offence of this kind would not be high treason, yet it would be as criminal an act, as if we were at war . . . .” Indeed, the offense is greater when the usurpation of the president’s constitutional authority is done by a member of the legislature — all the more so by a Speaker of the House — because it violates not just statutory law but constitutes a usurpation of the powers of a separate branch and a breach of the oath of office Ms. Pelosi took to support the Constitution.

No intent here to compare Netanyahu and Assad, but the logic of presidential control applies in both cases. (This isn’t about actual prosecution under the Logan Act. No one is ever actually prosecuted under the measure; it’s more a focal point for highlighting structural aspects of foreign relations.) In both cases, presidential powers are “embarrassed” in the terms of Curtiss-Wright. Will the Wall Street Journal take Boehner to task for his move? Somehow I doubt it. (For that matter how could constitutional originalists square this with the Framers’ intent? No head of a foreign state appears to have addressed Congress prior to 1919.)

The White House has called the Boehner move a breach of protocol. If this were happening beyond the political anomalies of the Middle East, I wonder if it might be using some stronger language. In any case the episode will set a precedent for congressional bypass of executive branch foreign policy in interacting, fairly formally, with foreign government leaders. (Will the Speaker host something like a state dinner for Bibi?)

Mind you, I’m not sure it’s a bad precedent (again, leaving aside policy particulars of the ME situation). It’s a fact of life that governmental components are now semi-autonomous foreign policy players in a way that would have been unimaginable in the 18th century. The constitutional custom, norms, “protocols” — whatever you want to call them — are catching up to those realities. Presidents will just have to learn to deal with the new tools of foreign policy dissent.

UPDATE: More thoughts from me on this here. On the originalism point, don’t take it from me, take it from Mike Ramsey, easily the leading expert on originalism in the context of foreign affairs. The VC’s David Bernstein, a consistent Israel/Netanyahu/GOP backer, is also on board in thinking there is a constitutional problem.

International Law Ten Years Later — On the Ground and In the Academy

by Peter Spiro

You know you’ve reached a certain age when you start saying, “I remember when. . .”

Well, I remember when international law was considered a legal chimera and an academic backwater. Policymakers would take it into account in only a limited set of circumstances, and then usually only where it was consistent with other agendas. In law schools it was ghettoized: schools understood they needed one member of the faculty to cover international law courses, but at many it was only one. Among the international relations theorists, international law was the target of ridicule (“epiphenomenal,” delivered with a heavy dollop of condescension).

Things had begun to change around the time that I joined the blog in 2006. One sign of change was a new wave of entry-level international law faculty, among whom Chris, Peggy, and Julian prominently counted. International law felt like the academic equivalent of a start-up, and Opinio Juris was there, helping to build the community of international law academics (something reflected in our impressive list of alumni guest contributors). There was a time when it was required reading among IL scholars. The blog helped demonstrate international law’s relevance on a day-in, day-out basis.

In those early years, I felt like blogging here was part of that cause – to prove the reality of international law against a stolid cohort of non-believers, both in and outside of the academy. It wasn’t advocacy in the traditional sense; international law doesn’t always point to progressive (or otherwise “correct”) results. (In any case, one of OJ’s virtues is its ideological diversity.) More in the way of advocacy for the discipline, at a point at which its respectability was still contested.

Today, there’s no longer any real need to engage in that kind of promotional activity. I don’t feel like I have to do the sort of cheerleading that I engaged in my early years here. International law has left its Ice Age behind. It is now arguably the center of the action, both on the ground and in the academy, as it comes to touch every area of law. It is in its take-off phase. Foundations are being built that will have consequences for generations to come. There’s still a tremendous level of instability. Some institutions now in their infancy will crash and burn. But others will survive. Things happening today will be studied by future generations, even if they aren’t necessarily very high-profile in the contemporary imagination. Some institution-builders anonymously at work today will be celebrated only long after they are dead.

The accelerated growth isn’t all upside, even leaving aside the inevitable missteps and false starts that are part of any take-off. In the “be careful what you wish for” department, international law has grown to the point where it’s no longer a unified field. It’s a lot of fields that are starting to go their own way. The number of international law generalists is dwindling; it’s impossible to keep up with developments in fields as diverse as those in domestic law. The level of specialization now makes it tough to talk across specialties. It’s like your first cousins — you have a recent common ancestor and probably spent some time together in your youth, but may more recently have drifted apart. The next generation will likely as not be strangers.

That’s presents a challenge for a blog that remains generalist in orientation. There are times when the debates in the weeds aren’t worth following if it’s not your particular area. Appealing to the larger community gets more difficult.

I’m also old enough to remember when blogging was new (not so old!). As Julian points out, it has changed – much more serious now, less of the breezy sort of pointers and back-and-forth chatter, much of which has moved to Twitter (which itself has started to get more serious). The emergence of other international law-oriented blogs (Just Security and Lawfare in particular) is a testament to that seriousness, as well as another data point evidencing the robust state of the field. In any case it’s been fun to be a part of a project that has seen these things through.

Obama’s Immigration Action: (Probably) Constitutional

by Peter Spiro

I was quoted in the NY Times on Friday on Obama’s executive action on immigration to the effect that it is unprecedented in scale and formality. I’ll stick to that position, but that doesn’t mean that I think that the executive action is unconstitutional. Just a few thoughts to clear that up (especially since David Brooks used the quote on NPR to support his position against the action).

The action may be unprecedented, but not in a discontinuous way. The media is full of discussions of prior “deferred action” programs, most of them involving global hot spots. Immigration enforcement has always been severely underfunded, which has demanded systematic identification of enforcement priorities. Once a matter of internal administrative guidance, since John Lennon forced transparency in the early 1970s these priorities have been a matter of public record.

But there’s never been anything like this in terms of numbers. More important, no president has undertaken this kind of program in the face of this kind of opposition. No other president appears to have used executive action to break a legislative logjam.

Consider the “Family Fairness” program undertaken by the George H.W. Bush administration in February 1990 to protect spouses and children of those whose status was regularized under the landmark 1986 legislation, a precedent that got a lot of play last week. The action affected a large number (as many as 1.5 million). It also involved work authorization. But the action appears to have been utterly uncontroversial. The action was announced by the commissioner of the INS, not the White House. The NY Times item reporting the action (published on page 28) did not so much as mention George Bush much less any opposition to the move. Subsequent legislative validation was hardly reported at all (it was part of a package that increased annual legal immigration quotas). In short, the Bush administration move was uncontested. (UPDATE: The Washington Post debunks the 1.5 million figure here. It was probably under 100,000, which helps explain the absence of controversy.)

That makes it a pretty weak precedent. The Obama action, to say the least, is being vigorously contested. It doesn’t mean Obama’s action is unconstitutional. It means that the Obama action is provisional. It could be overcome.

The courts will stay away. It’s not clear who would have standing to challenge the action. Even if a court got to the merits, there is recent precedent (the 2012 decision in Arizona v. United States) clearly inscribing the president’s prosecutorial discretion over immigration enforcement.

Congress will have to carry its own water in overcoming the Obama move, with assists from other elites and the public at large. I’m not sure what it would take beyond an improbable defunding. We may see non-binding “sense of” resolutions decrying the action in constitutional terms. Those would count for something as formal institutional pronouncements.

The ultimate test may be whether Congress eventually comes on board and fully regularizes the status of beneficiaries of the executive action. No Republican president is going to reverse the action and start deporting these sympathetic people. But that doesn’t mean Congress will adopt Obama’s action as a matter of law. Listen for those (like David Brooks) who favor real immigration reform but oppose the Obama move. That’s the control group on the constitutional issue.

Meanwhile, immigrants covered by the executive action are definitely better off for it. But their status will still be second-class. The government will discriminate against them on benefits like health care, and of course they won’t have the vote. Their ultimate status may depend on whether Obama’s constitutional gambit is a successful one, and everybody falls into line with it.

Kuwait Bulk-Orders Comoros Citizenship for Stateless Bidoon

by Peter Spiro

Citizenship for sale schemes have become an increasingly common phenomenon as the rich from non-Western states look to upgrade their travel privileges. The likes of Malta, Cyprus, and St. Kitts have had some success selling citizenship to plutocrats from Russia, China and other non-visa waiver countries. The revenues supply a nice fiscal bump at low marginal cost to these small states. The price is fairly steep (more than a million Euros in the case of Schengen-advantaged Malta) but the number of buyers has been relatively small.

That’s cash-for-passports on a retail basis. We now have reports of the first wholesale purchase. Kuwait has long been criticized for its refusal to extend Kuwaiti citizenship to native-born tribal Bidoon, who as a result have been left stateless. (See this report from Human Rights Watch, for example.) Kuwait continues to deny the Bidoon Kuwaiti citizenship. But it is now moving to procure them citizenship in the Comoros. Kuwait purports to solve the statelessness problem. The Comoros (not a rich country) gets a couple of hundred million dollars for the favor.

Full report here from Atossa Abrahamian in Aljazeera America. Those Bidoon who accept Comoros citizenship will no longer be stateless, which will better their lot in place in Kuwait for things like health care. But human rights groups aren’t buying. The Comoros scheme will continue to deny the Bidoon access to citizenship in their place of habitual residence. That’s problematic as a matter of international human rights, which is beginning to assimilate an “access to citizenship” norm beyond the long-established regime against statelessness.

The transaction itself is probably consistent with international law. States have near-complete discretion with respect to the extension of citizenship. If the Comoros wants to sell nationality on a bulk basis to a group of people that have no ties to the Comoros, that’s its business, at least to the extent that the Comoros doesn’t try to assert the nominal nationality against other states (which would bring the ICJ’s Nottebohm threshold of “genuine links” into play). That’s highly unlikely, since the Comoros won’t have much interest in expending diplomatic resources on behalf of citizens with whom it has no organic social connection.

So the deal is likely to stick. It might even serve as a template for other states that host large stateless populations. Hard to argue that this doesn’t supply further evidence of citizenship’s degradation, but there’s not much to do about it.

 

Zivotofsky and the Disaggregated State

by Peter Spiro

Transcript of today’s argument here. Scalia, Roberts, and Alito are siding with petitioner (and Congress), Kagan and Sotomoyor are with the Government. Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kennedy didn’t tip their hands clearly one way or the other.

A lot of speech-related framings. Zivotofsky’s lawyer argued that allowing “Israel” as a choice for those born in Jerusalem is a matter of self-identification. Kagan had the best one-liner of the day in response, noting that it is “a very selective vanity plate law” insofar as it doesn’t give Palestinians the same choice. On the other side there was some characterization of the law as imposing “compelled speech” on the Government. Justice Kennedy took care of that with prospective disclaimers that the executive branch could issue, even on the passport itself.

Along those lines, there was this interesting response from Justice Alito to SG Verrelli’s assertion that the statute poses a “very serious risk” of harming US credibility on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem’s status:

Justice Alito: Why would that be so? No matter how this Court decides, everyone will know what the position of the President is. Everyone will know what Congress thought when they passed this legislation. Whatever we do, that’s not going to be changed, and our decision isn’t going to be based on any view that we may have about whether Jerusalem should be regarded as part of Israel or the capital of Israel.

So why will there be any effect on foreign policy except by people who will misunderstand the situation, either ­­ — either because they really don’t understand it or they will exploit it in some way?

He has a point. One might add that everyone will know that Congress has no idea what it’s doing on foreign policy or anything else, and that “everyone” includes most of the world. Certainly sophisticated foreign government elites — they know that on everything from climate change to the International Criminal Court to human rights, Congress is way, way behind the curve.

That would take care of many contexts but perhaps not this one. There will be some people out there (not sophisticated government elites) who could take the passport policy the wrong way, not knowing that Congress is out to lunch and that US policy has not changed. That’s where the risk comes in. It’s what makes this case less than ideal for adapting the Constitution to the new global dynamic. The Middle East is a throwback to the old world. Arguments like Noah Feldman’s here still make a lot of sense when it comes to Israel-Palestine, even if they don’t make so much sense anywhere else.

But the risk may be small enough that the Court is willing to take it. As Wells Bennett notes, some of the Justices seemed not really to believe the Government’s predictions of dire foreign policy consequences. (On this score it may help them that there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of back-up evidence.) If the Court rebuffs the executive branch and all hell doesn’t break loose when Zivotofsky and others get their passports, it will undermine all such claims in future cases, and we can expect the Government to get a dwindling bump from the increasingly putative foreign relations power.

Three Reasons Why Jerusalem Passport Statute Survives Zivotofsky

by Peter Spiro

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.

Paul Barrett’s Law of the Jungle (Excellent Account of Chevron Ecuador)

by Peter Spiro

Paul Barrett gave a talk earlier this week at Temple on his Law of the Jungle. It’s a terrific journalistic account of the epic 20-year battle over Chevron’s pollution of Ecuador’s rain forest.

For anyone with a vague awareness of the case the book supplies a highly readable cheat-sheet. I suspect like many with incidental interests in international law, I had some idea that Chevron (Texaco) did some awful things in Ecuador but also that there was something not-quite-right about the plaintiffs’ side of the equation. Barrett’s account fills out the picture on both sides.

The book is a model biography of a case with epic turns. It’s also in many respects the biography of Steven Donziger, the activist lawyer who made this case different from other suits against US multinationals for misdeeds abroad. Barrett paints a pretty persuasive picture of how Donziger’s hubris ultimately did him in. For starters, Donziger had himself shadowed by a documentary filmmaker, the raw footage of which ended up discoverable along with the rest of his paper trail. Material that would ordinarily have remained protected by attorney-client privilege ends up supplying the backbone to Barrett’s narrative.

That gives the book something of an unbalanced feel — the equivalent from Chevron’s side isn’t part of the record ($400 million in fees to Gibson Dunn!), so Chevron’s litigating maneuvers get much less air time here. Conservatives and the business community will be happy with the result (see this favorable review in the Wall Street Journal, for instance). But although Chevron got itself in trouble in various respects along the way (starting with the oil drilling itself, but also including the strategically disastrous push to have the proceedings transferred to an Ecuadorian court which ultimately delivered an $18 billion judgment in the case), its lawyering was clearly of a more conventional description. There are interesting cameos of Ecuadorian politicians and judges, litigation venture capitalists, and other US lawyers who misguidedly jumped on board even after the veneer of celebrities and good press had started to crack. But it’s Donziger that makes this the exceptional case.

And exceptional for the telling. For any cause lawyer, this is a cautionary tale. Sure, one has to play public interest cases from various angles, in and outside the courtroom (including of course the media, with which Donziger proved masterful until things started falling apart). But there are limits, and Donziger clearly exceeded them on various fronts. Though he may yet survive the RICO judgment entered against him in the SDNY (on appeal, on fairly technical grounds unrelated to the underlying facts), he’ll come out of this with a severely tarnished reputation among progressives as well as more natural adversaries.

I’m not sure that the lessons are generalizable much beyond that. The book closes with thoughts on how US class-action lawyers have overreached in other contexts. I don’t know that Chevron Ecuador necessarily points in that direction. US-style litigation could still take hold on a global basis even as it gets a haircut at home. This case shows that transnational disputes have yet to be adequately institutionalized, with much greater potential to get out of hand in various directions. No one really wins on that terrain.