United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp.
United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304 (1936), was a decision of the United States Supreme Court concerning the foreign affairs powers of the executive branch. In its majority opinion, the Court held that powers over foreign affairs were innately vested in the President of the United States, who as the federal government's "sole organ" in international affairs, exercises significant discretion and power in the foreign sphere, beyond what was permitted in solely domestic affairs or accorded to the U.S. Congress.
|United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp.|
|Argued November 19–20, 1936|
Decided December 21, 1936
|Full case name||United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation et al.|
|Citations||299 U.S. 304 (more)|
|Prior||Judgment sustaining a demurrer to the indictment, 14 F. Supp. 230 (D. D.C. 1932)|
|While the Constitution does not explicitly say that all ability to conduct foreign policy is vested in the President, it is nonetheless given implicitly and by the fact that the executive, by its very nature, is empowered to conduct foreign affairs in a way that Congress cannot and should not.|
|Majority||Sutherland, joined by Hughes, Van Devanter, Brandeis, Butler, Roberts, Cardozo|
|Stone took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.|
In June 1932, war broke out between Paraguay and Bolivia. Both belligerents were poor and relied on outside military assistance, arousing interest among American armament manufacturers. However, in response to national antiwar sentiment, widespread revulsion at the conduct of the war, and diplomatic pressure from Great Britain and the League of Nations, the U.S. government sought to terminate any developing arms trade.
To that end, on May 24, 1934, Congress approved a joint resolution providing that "if the President finds that the prohibition of the sale of arms and munitions of war in the United States to those countries engaged in conflict in the Chaco may contribute to the establishment of peace between those countries," he is authorized to proclaim an embargo on American arms shipments to the belligerents, with violators subject to a fine, imprisonment, or both. The same day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the joint resolution and issued a proclamation reaffirming its language and establishing an embargo; on November 14, 1935, the proclamation was revoked..
Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. was indicted for violating both the joint resolution and the embargo for conspiring to sell aircraft machine guns to Bolivia. It demurred to the indictment, arguing that the embargo and proclamation were void, as Congress had unconstitutionally delegated legislative power to the executive branch, giving the President "unfettered discretion" to make what should be a legislative determination.
The defendant raised several issues for consideration by the Court:
- Did the joint resolution passed by Congress grant unconstitutional authority and legislative power to the President, in violation of the nondelegation doctrine?
- Was the President required by considerations of due process to make findings of fact in support of the proclamation?
- Did the revocation of the May 1934 proclamation eliminate the penalty for its violation?
In its 7–1 decision authorized by Justice George Sutherland, the Court ruled that the U.S. government, through the President, is categorically allowed great foreign affairs powers independent of the U.S. Constitution:
The ["powers of the federal government in respect of foreign or external affairs and those in respect of domestic or internal affairs"] are different, both in respect of their origin and their nature. The broad statement that the federal government can exercise no powers except those specifically enumerated in the Constitution, and such implied powers as are necessary and proper to carry into effect the enumerated powers, is categorically true only in respect of our internal affairs.
While the Constitution does not explicitly say that all ability to conduct foreign policy is vested in the President, it is nonetheless given implicitly and by the fact that the executive, by its very nature, is empowered to conduct foreign affairs in a way that Congress neither can nor should. The Court stated that "there is sufficient warrant for the broad discretion vested in the President to determine whether the enforcement of the statute will have a beneficial effect upon the reestablishment of peace in the affected countries."Thus, the
It is important to bear in mind that we are here dealing not alone with an authority vested in the President by an exertion of legislative power, but with such an authority plus the very delicate, plenary and exclusive power of the President as the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations–a power which does not require as a basis for its exercise an act of Congress, but which, of course, like every other governmental power, must be exercised in subordination to the applicable provisions of the Constitution.
The crux of the Court's ruling is that the President is accorded vast powers over foreign affairs, as the vastness and complexity of international relations requires significant discretion.
The ruling not only upheld export limitations on the grounds of national security, but also established the broader principle of executive supremacy in national security and foreign affairs, one of the reasons advanced in the 1950s for the near success of the attempt to add the Bricker Amendment to the US Constitution.
The Court has not recognized the full scope of executive power suggested by Justice Sutherland's sweeping language. The Supreme Court sometimes thus presented contradictory rulings about foreign policy powers between the President and Congress.
Congressional authorization may be necessary to legitimize many executive acts. In Regan v. Wald (1984), for example, the Supreme Court cited Curtiss-Wright in upholding the constitutionality of the president's regulations restricting travel to Cuba, expressly on the ground that they had been authorized by Congress. On the other hand, in Federal Energy Administration v. Algonquin SNG, Inc. (1976), the Court validated presidential restrictions on oil imports, based on very broad congressional language delegating apparently unlimited regulatory authority to the executive branch.
Despite its controversy, Curtiss-Wright is among the Supreme Court's most influential decisions. Most cases involving conflicts between the executive and legislative branches involve political questions that the courts refuse to adjudicate. Therefore, the sweeping language of Curtiss-Wright is regularly cited to support executive branch claims of power to act without congressional authorization in foreign affairs, especially if there is no judicial intervention to interpret the meaning of that text.
- United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304 (1936).
- "United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304 (1936)". Justia Law. Retrieved 2019-07-21.
- Lofgren, Charles A. “United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation: An Historical Reassessment.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 83, no. 1, 1973, pp. 1–32. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/795317.
- "United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304 (1936)". Justia Law. Retrieved 2019-07-18.
- Lofgren, Charles A. (1973). "United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation: An Historical Reassessment". Yale Law Journal. 83 (1): 1–32. JSTOR 795317.
- Lofgren, Charles A. "United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation: An Historical Reassessment." Yale Law Journal 83 (1973): 1+. online
- Divine, Robert A. (1987). "The Case of the Smuggled Bombers". In Garraty, John A. (ed.). Quarrels That Have Shaped the Constitution. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-055062-7.