Tag: federalism

The President Can’t Expand Federal Power by Signing a Treaty

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Trevor Burrus.

In 2010, the Supreme Court decided United States v. Bond, a case that seems right out of a soap opera. Carol Anne Bond learned that her best friend was having an affair with her husband, so she spread toxic chemicals on the woman’s car and mailbox. Postal inspectors discovered this plot after they caught Bond on film stealing from the woman’s mailbox.

Rather than leave this caper to local law enforcement to resolve, however, a federal prosecutor charged Bond with violating a statute that implements U.S. treaty obligations under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Bond pled guilty and was sentenced, but she reserved the right to appeal her conviction on the ground that the statute at issue violates the Tenth Amendment—in that her offense was local in nature and not properly subject to federal prosecution.

She won the first part of that appeal process: The Supreme Court unanimously accepted the argument offered in an amicus brief by Cato and the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence that there’s no reason in constitutional structure or history that someone can’t use the Tenth Amendment to challenge the constitutionality of the statute under which she was convicted.

On remand to the Philadelphia-based U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Bond (now with standing to challenge that law) raised the argument that Congress’s limited and enumerated powers cannot be increased by treaties. We again filed in that case in support of Bond. The Third Circuit disagreed, however—if reluctantly—based on one sentence by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Missouri v. Holland (1920) that has been interpreted to mean that Congress’s constitutional powers can indeed be expanded by treaties.

Writing separately, Judge Ambro agreed that Holland clearly addressed the issue but “urge[d] the Supreme Court to provide a clarifying explanation of its statement” regarding the treaty power. Bond has thus brought her case back to the Supreme Court, asking the Court to clarify and cabin Holland.

In this, our third brief in the case, we are joined again by the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence in arguing—again based on the work of Georgetown law professor and Cato senior fellow Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz—that allowing Congress to broaden its powers via treaties is an astounding manner in which to interpret a document that creates a federal government of limited powers. Not only would this mean that the Executive has the ability to expand federal power by signing a treaty, but it would mean that foreign governments could change federal power by abrogating a previously valid treaty—thus removing the constitutional authority from certain laws.

We also point out how the most influential argument supporting Holland is based on a clear misreading of constitutional history that has been repeated without question and that the ruling is in deep tension with other cases. We’re in a constitutional quagmire with respect to the treaty power that can only be escaped by limiting or overturning Missouri v. Holland.

The Court will decide this fall whether to Bond v. United States.

The GOP’s Insipid American Exceptionalism

I’ve had it with “American exceptionalism.” Enough already.

The phrase has garnered a considerable amount of attention lately, namely because Republicans are saying it over and over again. The Atlantic points out that the term itself was coined by Joseph Stalin, lamenting America’s inability to go communist (cf. Louis Hartz). Of course, the concept that America was different than Europe goes back at least to Tocqueville, but is it too much to ask that we recall Tocqueville was writing nearly 200 years ago? Might we not pause, at least momentarily, to reconsider the argument from authority and subject it to a bit of scrutiny?

I complained about the pervasive theme at the Republican convention in my podcast yesterday, and Alex Massie holds forth against the exceptionally exceptionalistic speechifying at Foreign Policy today. Republicans—and the rest of us—ought to just shut up about exceptionalism already. As it stands now, a few word substitutions could make Herder or Fichte feel right at home at a GOP convention. We ought not to like this.

Encouraging citizens to reify, then flutter with excitement at the uniqueness of their own “imagined community” lubricates both the administrative capacity of and enthusiasm for the Great American Welfare/Warfare State that is presently bankrupting our unborn children. Those of us who would like a bit more federalism, veering toward sectionalism even, do so realizing that this would create downward pressure on the centralization of our lives in the body of the national government. (“Who is this fellow 2,000 miles away from me and why should I subsidize his career and pay his flood insurance and pension?”) That the disgrace of slavery accompanied the last era of sectionalism in this country is no reason to throw out the concept itself.

Bizarrely, the GOP married this nationalistic theme with an ostensible concern for how America is viewed across the world. Might we not consider that the world finds this constant self-congratulation unseemly and perhaps even dangerous? Imagine your coworker, or neighbor, or spouse, constantly parading about, preening and pronouncing that he is the greatest person ever to have been made and marveling at how lucky are those subject to his ministrations. Any impartial observer would forgive you for nudging him off a pier, and all the more so if he were, in fact, great.

This is perhaps the saddest part of the whole garish spectacle. The United States is a great country. Take a look around you. Saying it over and over again doesn’t make it any more so; in fact it makes it less. All the bleating about our exceptionalism from our leaders is enough to make you think that they don’t really believe it. The party doth protest too much, methinks.

The next time your would-be ruler holds forth about exceptionalism, remind yourself what Mencken said:

Democratic man, as I have remarked, is quite unable to think of himself as a free individual; he must belong to a group, or shake with fear and loneliness—and the group, of course, must have its leaders. It would be hard to find a country in which such brummagem serene highnesses are revered with more passionate devotion than they get in the United States. The distinction that goes with mere office runs far ahead of the distinction that goes with actual achievement.

That’s what this is all about: If we allow the other party or candidate to insert its peculiar and grotesque proboscides into our homes, wallets, and lives—well, we’ll be just that much less exceptional.

Much more in the podcast:

States Should Flatly Refuse to Create ObamaCare Exchanges (New Cato Video)

This new Cato Institute video explains why it is in no state’s interest to create an ObamaCare Exchange.

Many thanks to Cato’s very talented Caleb O. Brown and Austin Bragg.

For the more-words-no-pictures version, click here or here. For a word about ObamaCare profiteers the pro-Exchange lobby, click here. Click here to read about what is happening in the states.

The Federal Government Can’t Give Itself More Power Just By Signing a Treaty

With ObamaCare, immigration, affirmative action, gay marriage, and the other hot-button issues rolling through our courts this year, some of you may have overlooked a little case on the Treaty Power, United States v. Bond, which was at the Court last year and may well make it back next year.

I’ve covered Bond before, and Cato has filed two amicus briefs in the case (before the Supreme Court and then in the Third Circuit on remand). As I described it last year, Bond is “your typical sordid tale of adultery, toxic chemicals, and federalism.” It’s a bizarre scenario you can read about in the previous links, but the issue that has drawn Cato’s attention—and that of Paul Clement, who remains Mrs. Bond’s counsel—is whether Congress can regulate the conduct of something solely because the United States is party to a treaty regarding that subject.

That is, even though Congress does not have the power to pass, for example, general criminal statutes, if Congress ratifies a treaty calling for such statutes, the dominant reading of an old precedent called Missouri v. Holland is that its power increases beyond constitutional limits. Not only would this mean that the Executive has the ability to expand congressional power by signing a treaty, but it would mean that foreign governments could change congressional power by abrogating a previously valid treaty—thus removing the constitutional authority from certain laws. Cato’s briefs have taken issue with such an interpretation of the Treaty Power, tracking the argument made by new Cato senior fellow (and Georgetown law professor) Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz in his magisterial Harvard Law Review article, “Executing the Treaty Power.”

Earlier this month, the Third Circuit upheld Mrs. Bond’s conviction because the statute under which she was convicted duly implemented the Chemical Conventions Act and a lower court can’t overrule Missouri v. Holland. The court cited Cato’s brief and Nick’s article, however, and a concurrence by Judge Thomas Ambro, after also citing John Eastman’s article about the case in the Cato Supreme Court Review, specifically called on the Supreme Court to clarify the meaning of Missouri v. Holland.

The Court will have an opportunity to do so, with Paul Clement currently preparing a cert petition, which Cato will again support. In the meantime, you can listen in on a teleforum the Federalist Society is having about the case, featuring Prof. Rosenkranz (Fed Soc membership required, which costs $5-50 per year).

Immigration Laws at the Supreme Court: Constitutional but Bad Policy

For anyone suffering from post-Obamacare-argument Supreme Court withdrawal, this Wednesday the Court takes up Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill (“SB”) 1070.  See my blogpost from when the Court granted review for some background.

SB 1070 is much-misunderstood: it has nothing to do with sexy political issues like racial profiling and everything to do with boring legal ones like whether a given state provision is “preempted” by federal law.  That is, do the various parts of the state law – each one of which the Court will be evaluating independently – conflict with federal law (direct preemption) or intrude in an area exclusively reserved to Congress (implied preemption).

United States v. Arizona shows that there’s a difference between what’s constitutional and what’s good policy. SB 1070 was crafted to mirror federal law rather than asserting new state powers that interfere with federal authority over immigration.  That’s why lower courts only enjoined four of its provisions and why the Supreme Court would not be wrong to resurrect even those four.

But beyond this hyper-technical legal analysis, SB 1070 and copy-cat laws elsewhere – some of which go further than Arizona’s and thus are of more dubious constitutionality – highlight the dysfunction in our immigration system.  Given Congress’s failure to act in this area, state governments have spawned a host of federalism experiments.  Many of these laws are terrible policy for reasons ranging from economic effects to the misuse of law enforcement resources.

Legal scholars always enjoy the opportunity to point out laws that they think are constitutional but bad policy.  It makes them feel intellectually honesty (if they have reason to be defensive in that regard).  Well, immigration is the most obvious place where my constitutional and policy views diverge.  The ultimate solution here isn’t for the Supreme Court to strike down the states’ lawful if misguided legislation, but for Congress and the president to enact a comprehensive national reform.

For more on what’s at stake in the case, see my SCOTUSblog essay from last summer, my forthcoming law review article, and my new colleague Alex Nowrasteh’s recent op-ed.  For the briefs and other background materials, see SCOTUSblog’s case page.

National Surveillance Programs and Their State Impediments

Having originally come to Washington to defend federalism, I am always delighted to see the division of powers among the states and the federal government have its proper effect: to protect liberty and limited government.

As with REAL ID, the E-Verify federal background check system is meeting up with state resistance. The Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire reported yesterday:

This afternoon, the House passed HB 1549, which would prohibit the state’s participation in the E-Verify system, with a nearly unanimous voice vote. The House also killed HB 1492, which would require employers to verify an employee’s eligibility to work in the United States using the E-Verify System, with a 226-59 vote.

E-Verify is essentially a national identification system that requires employers to verify all job applicants’ citizenship in a national database system before they can employ them. If the state agreed to participate, all citizens would have to be listed in this national database as a U.S. citizen in order to get a job.

You want to fix immigration, feds? You do it without putting American citizens into a national ID system. Good message.

Here’s the clear language of HB 1549, which the New Hampshire House has approved to govern release of motor vehicle records. It embraces legitimate law enforcement while rejecting national identification schemes.

III. Motor vehicle records may be made available pursuant to a court order or in response to a request from a state, a political subdivision of a state, the federal government, or a law enforcement agency for use in official business. The request shall be on a case-by-case basis. Any records received pursuant to this paragraph shall not be further transferred or otherwise made available to any other person or listed entity not authorized under this paragraph. No records made available under this section shall be used, directly or indirectly, for any federal identification database. (New language in bold.)

To learn more about E-Verify and its role as a nascent national identification scheme, read my Cato Policy Analysis: “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

The REAL ID Fight Continues in the States

Federal programs almost never die. Bureaucrats and their big-government allies are still trying to cobble together an American national ID.

But leaders in the states continue to fight. In this case, it’s Michigan state representative and House transportation committee chairman Paul Opsommer (R-DeWitt). In response to a recent report citing state compliance with REAL ID “benchmarks,” he’s put out a scathing report that was written up in the River Country (MI) Journal.

“The things we have done in Michigan, like making sure illegal aliens cannot get driver’s licenses, we are doing independently of REAL ID, and we are not interested in allowing the federal government to have permanent control over our licenses,” said Opsommer. “You can bet your bottom dollar that at some point if Obamacare is not repealed that the federal government will adopt new rules in the future requiring the cards’ use for access to healthcare. You can bet they will require it to buy a firearm. You can bet they ultimately want to put RFID chips into all these and share our full data with Canada, Mexico, and beyond. If we don’t repeal Title II of the REAL ID Act, all we are doing is putting off the ‘I told you so’ moment for a few years down the road.”

The tensions that the Framers of the Constitution designed into our governmental structure are doing their work through Rep. Opsommer.

“State documents should be state documents, and federal documents should be federal documents,” he says.

“If the federal government is bent on having a national ID card, they need to get their own house in order and start to make federal passports more secure and more affordable. Quit trying to outsource your own mismanagement of the federal passport system onto the states and let us get onto the business of issuing our own safe and secure sovereign driver’s licenses.”

The bureaucrats will keep at it at least until the Congress defunds REAL ID. But they’ll keep bumping into the likes or Rep. Paul Opsommer.