American Insurance Association v. Garamendi and Executive Preemption in Foreign Affairs

89 Pages Posted: 27 May 2004 Last revised: 25 Feb 2021

See all articles by Brannon P. Denning

Brannon P. Denning

Samford University - Cumberland School of Law

Michael D. Ramsey

University of San Diego School of Law


In American Insurance Association v. Garamendi, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated California's Holocaust Victim Insurance Relief Act (HVIRA), which required insurance companies doing business in California to disclose all policies they or their affiliates sold in Europe between 1920 and 1945. According to the Court, the state's law unconstitutionally interfered with the foreign affairs power of the national government. The decision was easily overlooked in a Term filled with landmark cases dealing with affirmative action and sexual privacy. What coverage the case did receive emphasized its federalism aspects, and excited little reaction because the result seemed intuitively appropriate given the federal government's interest in conducting foreign affairs.

We argue in this paper, however, that Garamendi is more important - and problematic - when seen as a case about separation of powers. In particular, we argue that the decision expands presidential control over foreign affairs, not only at the expense of the states, but also and more critically at the expense of Congress and the Senate. This arises from the Court's invention of a novel constitutional power of executive preemption - that is, an independent ability of the President to override state laws that interfere with executive branch policies in foreign affairs. Until Garamendi, no one had thought that a mere executive branch policy, unsupported by the formal or even tacit approval of any other branch, could have the effect of preemptive law.

As a result, one need not be a defender of foreign policy federalism, nor a critic of executive foreign affairs powers, to have grave reservations about the decision's implications for separation of powers, federalism and constitutional theory. It is uncontroversial that state laws and policies must give way to the foreign affairs objectives of the national government. The critical question, though, is how these overriding federal goals are developed and identified. We argue that the Garamendi decision has at least three separate and substantial ill-effects upon this process.

First,executive preemption conveys to the President the power to decide which state laws affecting foreign affairs survive and which do not. This concentrates foreign affairs power in the President in a way not contemplated by the Constitution's Framers, who sought to separate executive power from legislative power. Second, Garamendi seemed to make executive agreements the functional equivalents of congressional statutes; this functional equivalency may hasten the decline of the treaty as a foreign policy-making tool, with a concomitant decline in the opportunities for Congress - the Senate, in particular - to shape foreign policy. Third, the decision implicated the relationship between the states and the federal government in foreign affairs, but did so in a way that provided essentially no guidance for the future.

Part I of this Article discusses the factual setting of the Holocaust insurance claims that formed the background of the case. Part II outlines the constitutional law of federal-state relations in foreign affairs as it stood before the Garamendi decision. Part III describes the Supreme Court's decision, and points out its discontinuity with prior decisions. In Part IV we turn to the troubling structural implications of Garamendi, which we regard as occurring primarily in the field of separation of powers. We conclude that the Court ended up far from the text, structure and history of the Constitution. In Part V we address the decision's implications for federalism, particular the dangers of concentrating preemptive power in the executive branch.

Part VI relates the Garamendi case to the wider theoretical debates of modern foreign affairs law and constitutional interpretation. In contrast to other federalism and separation of powers cases, the Garamendi Court paid little attention to text or structure in analyzing the constitutional questions presented. More surprising, perhaps, is the Court's complete lack of interest in what light history might shed on the foreign affairs issues before it. But neither is Garamendi an exercise in common law doctrinal evolution, because it owes essentially nothing to prior cases or practice, except as rhetorical cover. Garamendi's near-exclusive attention to loose interpretations of prior case law and its lack of sensitivity to text, history, and structure, suggest to us a danger in common law constitutional interpretation as a preferred approach to constitutional interpretation and adjudication in foreign affairs controversies.

Keywords: american insurance association v. garamendi, foreign affairs, federalism, separation of powers, Youngstown, Zschernig, common law constitutional interpretation

JEL Classification: K100

Suggested Citation

Denning, Brannon P. and Ramsey, Michael D., American Insurance Association v. Garamendi and Executive Preemption in Foreign Affairs. 46 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 825 (2004) U San Diego Public Law Research Paper No. 04-06, Available at SSRN:

Brannon P. Denning

Samford University - Cumberland School of Law ( email )

800 Lakeshore Dr.
Birmingham, AL 35229
United States
205-726-2413 (Phone)
205-726-4060 (Fax)

Michael D. Ramsey (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States
619-260-4145 (Phone)
619-260-2218 (Fax)

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics