Introduction: The Death of Treaty Supremacy: An Invisible Constitutional Change
D. Sloss, The Death of Treaty Supremacy: An Invisible Constitutional Change, Oxford University Press, 2016.
13 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2016 Last revised: 19 Nov 2016
Date Written: 2016
This book provides the first detailed history of the Constitution's treaty supremacy rule. It describes a process of invisible constitutional change. The treaty supremacy rule was a bedrock principle of constitutional law for more than 150 years. It provided that treaties are supreme over state law and that courts have a constitutional duty to apply treaties that conflict with state laws. The rule ensured that state governments did not violate U.S. treaty obligations without authorization from the federal political branches. In 1945, the United States ratified the UN Charter, which obligates nations to promote human rights “for all without distinction as to race.” In 1950, a California court applied the Charter’s human rights provisions along with the traditional supremacy rule to invalidate a state law that discriminated against Japanese nationals. The implications were shocking: the decision implied that the United States had abrogated Jim Crow laws throughout the South by ratifying the UN Charter. Conservatives reacted by lobbying for a constitutional amendment, known as the Bricker Amendment, to abolish the treaty supremacy rule. The amendment never passed, but Bricker's supporters achieved their goals through de facto constitutional change. Before 1945, the treaty supremacy rule was a mandatory constitutional rule that applied to all treaties. The de facto Bricker Amendment converted the rule into an optional rule that applies only to “self-executing” treaties. Under the modern rule, state governments are allowed to violate national treaty obligations — including international human rights obligations — that are embodied in “non-self-executing” treaties.
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