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: 65working papers series
Date posted: August 16, 2013 ; Last revised: September 25, 2013
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