Author: Ryan Scoville

[Ryan Scoville is an Assistant Professor of Law at Marquette University Law School.] Recently the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Zivotofsky v. Kerry to resolve an important question in U.S. foreign relations law: does the power to recognize foreign states and governments belong exclusively to the President, or do the political branches hold it concurrently? More specifically, Zivotofsky concerns the constitutionality of Section 214(d) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 2003, which requires that upon request from a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem the Secretary of State must record “Israel” as the place of birth on the individual’s passport. Oral arguments are scheduled for the fall. The case has generated a lot of interesting commentary, the most impressive of which is a pair of law review articles (here and here) by Robert Reinstein, who uses textual and historical analysis to argue that the President shares the recognition power with Congress. In this post, I want to sketch out an alternative view that grants substantial recognition powers exclusively to the President while also making sense of Professor Reinstein’s historical research. As I understand it, Reinstein’s argument goes like this: First, claims of executive exclusivity must meet a heavy burden of persuasion because plenary executive power is contrary to the Constitution’s system of checks and balances. Second, the claim of an exclusively executive power over recognition fails to meet this burden—the plain text of the Constitution offers no support, evidence of original meaning is silent, and post-ratification history suggests, if anything, that the political branches hold the recognition power concurrently. Congress thus shares authority to recognize foreign states and governments. Reinstein focuses more on defeating the idea of plenary executive power than identifying the affirmative source of a concurrent power in Article I, but he notes that Congress’s authority to declare war, regulate foreign commerce, and enact necessary and proper legislation creates an implied basis for congressional recognition. In laying out an alternative view, I want to suggest first that it’s important to be precise about what “recognition” means. International law of course differentiates between the recognition of states and governments, and between recognition de jure and de facto. With de jure recognition of a state, the United States expresses that a given political unit qualifies as a state under international law and thus holds the rights and obligations that accompany statehood, including the right to invoke sovereign immunity and the act of state doctrine as defenses in court. De jure recognition of a government, by contrast, is acknowledgment of a foreign government as the depository of a state’s sovereignty. This kind of recognition signals a general willingness to enter into normal diplomatic relations and facilitate the government’s exercise of the state’s sovereignty vis-à-vis the United States. Finally, de facto recognition also entails a willingness to carry on official relations, but without necessarily saying anything about the particular form those relations will take. One can de facto recognize a foreign government, for example, without exchanging ambassadors or providing its leaders with immunity from suit. (For a more extensive discussion, see the work of Stefan Talmon.)