Defining and Punishing Offenses Under Treaties

Sarah H. Cleveland

Columbia Law School

William S. Dodge

University of California Hastings College of the Law

August 15, 2013

UC Hastings Research Paper No. 62

The Offenses Clause of the Constitution gives Congress power “[t]o define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations.” Past scholarship has assumed that the Clause allows Congress to enforce only customary international law. This article demonstrates that this conventional academic wisdom is mistaken and that the Offenses Clause constitutes an additional source of authority for Congress to implement certain treaty commitments. The Framers of the Constitution clearly understood the law of nations to include treaties, or what they called “the conventional law of nations.” The history of the Offenses Clause shows that it was intended to reach treaties and thus to facilitate compliance with the United States’ international commitments. Moreover, despite the prevailing view in the academy, Congress, the Executive, and the Supreme Court have shared this understanding of the Clause through most of our nation’s history.

The Offenses Clause provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of reading constitutional text without sensitivity to its historical background and demonstrates the need for care in translating that text into modern terms. Our argument also has significance for a range of contemporary contexts — from piracy to international counter-narcotics activity — and for the case of Bond v. United States, currently pending before the United States Supreme Court. Most fundamentally, our argument contributes to understanding the role of international law in our constitutional scheme. It underscores the importance that the Framers placed on crafting a national government with robust authorities to fully enforce treaties and customary international law.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 65

working papers series

Download This Paper

Date posted: August 16, 2013 ; Last revised: September 25, 2013

Suggested Citation

Cleveland, Sarah H. and Dodge, William S., Defining and Punishing Offenses Under Treaties (August 15, 2013). UC Hastings Research Paper No. 62. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2310779 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2310779

Contact Information

Sarah H. Cleveland
Columbia Law School ( email )
3022 Broadway
New York, NY 10027
United States
William S. Dodge (Contact Author)
University of California Hastings College of the Law ( email )
200 McAllister Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
United States
415-565-4830 (Phone)
415-565-4865 (Fax)

Feedback to SSRN

Paper statistics
Abstract Views: 461
Downloads: 102
Download Rank: 153,175

© 2014 Social Science Electronic Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.  FAQ   Terms of Use   Privacy Policy   Copyright   Contact Us
This page was processed by apollo5 in 0.407 seconds