The Law of Nations and the Judicial Branch

40 Pages Posted: 26 Sep 2018

See all articles by Thomas H. Lee

Thomas H. Lee

Fordham University School of Law

Date Written: September 20, 2018


This Article explains what the law of nations meant at the time the United States was established and how it interacted with the original U.S. Constitution. The “law of nations” was not only a historical term for modern customary international law, it (1) was sometimes a broad term for all inter-national law, including conventions or treaties—the “conventional” law of nations; (2) included principles of domestic law perceived to be shared by all civilized nations; (3) was a source of the U.S. law of federalism, given the early American view that the states retained residual sovereignty beyond what was conferred on the new general government by the Constitution; and (4) was perceived in part as unwritten natural law. The Americans who adopted the Constitution were keenly aware of their place in the world as a militarily weak new state in need of peace and trade with the European powers for survival, and thus eager to comply with the law of nations—the intramural rules of the European world order. They recognized that the judi-cial branch could play an important role in advancing the new nation’s inter-national acceptance and survival by judicious deployment of the law of nations as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, which is why eight of the nine constitutional grants of judicial power in Article III implicated the law of nations. The law of nations was the original federal common law.

Keywords: law of nations, international law, customary international law, US foreign relations law, constitutional interpretation, federal courts, federal jurisdiction

Suggested Citation

Lee, Thomas H., The Law of Nations and the Judicial Branch (September 20, 2018). Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 106, No. 1707, 2018; Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 3252527. Available at SSRN:

Thomas H. Lee (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

150 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
212.636.6728 (Phone)

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics