As David Kaye notes, treaty-power advocates everywhere may be breathing a collective sigh of relief with the Supreme Court’s decision in Bond v. United States. I’m not so sure how big a difference it makes, given the Senate’s persistent refusal to put an expansive treaty power to work. From an academic perspective the decision is a big let-down. No big pronouncements on Missouri v. Holland, the treaty power, the future of federalism in a different world.
On the substance, we have Jean’s excellent post below as well as Curtis Bradley’s characteristically precise analysis on AJIL Unbound. As Curt points out, the straight-up application of the federalism clear-statement rule in the foreign affairs context is significant. Perhaps a little tension with Charming Betsy? But this is incremental stuff, not the kind of ruling that marks a major pivot on the Court’s part in foreign relations law. The money quotes in the majority opinion relate to domestic affairs of a decidedly mundane kind, as Roberts decries an application of the treaty that “would sweep in everything from the detergent under the kitchen sink to the stain remover in the laundry room.”
The Court may have understood this to be too freaky a case on which to peg a major ruling (hence also the silence from the Left side of the Court). The parade of horribles may be theoretically long and broad when it comes to imagining the ways that treaties might subsume core state authorities. But when it comes to making that specter a little more concrete, Justice Scalia is left conjuring up a multilateral “Antipolygamy Convention” with which Congress then trumps state intestacy laws. Really? (Scalia is known to write his concurrences and dissents from scratch. That was once a good thing; now it may be a bad. His concurrence here has a sloppy feel to it.)
For his part, Justice Thomas walks us through the original understanding of the Treaty Power in calling for its limitation to international relations. With due respect to the many rigorous scholars of an originalist orientation, I must admit that I have less patience for this oracular stuff the older I get. It never coughs up determinate answers. (How could it, in this context perhaps more than any other.) In what should be a candidate for SCOTUS understatement of the year, Thomas concludes: “I acknowledge that the distinction between matters of international intercourse and matters of purely domestic regulation may not be obvious in all cases.”
As foreign affairs law becomes increasingly doctrinalized, with a slew of major cases over the last 15 years, this is one area that will now remain up for grabs (the persistence of the century-old Holland decision notwithstanding). Maybe that’s not a bad thing for methodological and pedagogical purposes. As the Court plays the Marbury card more frequently (Scalia does it here), a last-word mirage rises in which the Court seems to be calling all the shots. But the new global architecture is far too immense and intricate for the Court to stay on top of it. Better to stay attuned to non-judicial mechanisms of constitutional evolution.