Congressional Repeal of Treaties.

Madison contended that, when Congress is asked to carry a treaty into effect, it has the constitutional right, and indeed the duty, to determine the matter according to its own ideas of what is expedient.351 Developments have vindicated Madison in this regard. This is seen in the answer that the Court gave to the question: What happens when a treaty provision and an act of Congress conflict? The answer is that neither has any intrinsic superiority over the other and therefore the later one will prevail. In short, the treaty commitments of the United States do not diminish Congress’s constitutional powers. To be sure, legislative repeal of a treaty as law of the land may amount to its violation as an international contract. In such case, as the Court said, “its infraction becomes the subject of international negotiations and reclamations, so far as the injured party chooses to seek redress, which may in the end be enforced by actual war. It is obvious that with all this the judicial courts have nothing to do and can give no redress.”352

Footnotes

351
See, e.g., 5 Annals of Congress 493 (1796). [Back to text]
352
Head Money Cases, 112 U.S. 580, 598 (1884). The repealability of treaties by act of Congress was first asserted in an opinion of the Attorney General in 1854. 6 Ops. Atty. Gen. 291. The year following the doctrine was adopted judicially in a lengthy and cogently argued opinion of Justice Curtis, speaking for a United States circuit court in Taylor v. Morton, 23 Fed. Cas. 784 (No. 13,799) (C.C.D. Mass 1855). See also The Cherokee Tobacco, 78 U.S. (11 Wall.) 616 (1871); United States v. Forty-Three Gallons of Whiskey, 108 U.S. 491, 496 (1883); Botiller v. Dominguez, 130 U.S. 238 (1889); The Chinese Exclusion Case, 130 U.S. 581, 600 (1889); Whitney v. Robertson, 124 U.S. 190, 194 (1888); Fong Yue Ting v. United States, 149 U.S. 698, 721 (1893). “Congress by legislation, and so far as the people and authorities of the United States are concerned, could abrogate a treaty made between this country and another country which had been negotiated by the President and approved by the Senate.” La Abra Silver Mining Co. v. United States, 175 U.S. 423, 460 (1899). Cf. Reichart v. Felps, 73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 160, 165–66 (1868), which states in dictum that “Congress is bound to regard the public treaties, and it had no power . . . to nullify [Indian] titles confirmed many years before by the authorized agents of the government.” [Back to text]