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Photo of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Atlantic Charter Conference.
In United States v. Curtiss-Wright, the Supreme Court ruled that the president has broad power to conduct foreign affairs. Above, President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Atlantic Charter Conference.

Reproduction courtesy of the U.S. Naval Historical Center
U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright (1936)

In United States v. Curtiss-Wright (1936), the Supreme Court ruled that the president has broad power to conduct foreign affairs. The case began in 1934, when a Joint Resolution of Congress authorized President Roosevelt to prohibit the sales of arms to Paraguay and Bolivia, both of which were engaged in armed conflict. Upon the resolution's passage, President Roosevelt proclaimed an embargo against the countries. Curtiss-Wright Export Company, the defendant in this case, was soon charged with conspiracy to sell machine guns to Bolivia in violation of the embargo. In its defense, the company asserted that the joint resolution was an unconstitutional delegation of congressional power to the president and thus violated the Constitution's separation of powers. The trial court agreed with the company and dismissed the case. The government appealed to the Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1936.

The Court, in an opinion written by Justice George Sutherland, ruled that the joint resolution was constitutional and that the charges against Curtiss-Wright would stand. The Court held that the Constitution's text constrains only the domestic activities of the federal government, but does not constrain the activities of the government abroad. The Court argued further that, like any other country, the United States has "external sovereignty" by which it may liberally assert or defend itself on the world stage as a free and independent nation. As Sutherland put it, "as a member of the family of nations, the right and power of the United States [in foreign affairs] are equal to the right and power of the other members of the international family. Otherwise, the United States is not completely sovereign." The federal government thus has unlimited power to conduct foreign affairs on the nation's behalf.

The Court also ruled that this unlimited power lies exclusively with the president. Quoting former Chief Justice John Marshall (in his role as a member of the House of Representatives, before his appointment to the Court), the Court maintained that "The President is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations." The president's exclusive power to negotiate treaties and conduct warfare proves that the Constitution's drafters intended the document to give the executive significant powers to conduct foreign affairs. In sum, even though the Constitution is silent as to the president's power to impose embargos, such a power is implied within the executive's constitutional authority to manage foreign affairs. The government's charges against the Curtiss-Wright company would stand.

United States v. Curtiss-Wright expanded the president's already wide latitude in conducting foreign affairs. At its most basic level, the case ruled that the president's foreign powers are open-ended and inherent in his position as the executive authority of a sovereign nation. The Court's ruling in Curtiss-Wright, which is still good law, coincided with the rapid growth of executive power during the Roosevelt administration, an expansion that helped defeat both the Great Depression and the Axis Powers of World War II. Since the 1930s, the president has become more powerful still, particularly with respect to foreign affairs. Yet many assert that the Founders intended Congress, with its extensive but limited Article I powers, to be the dominant branch of government. Indeed, while threats to our nation's integrity may necessitate granting the executive unlimited authority to conduct foreign policy, this authority always risks overwhelming the government's limited domestic powers and Americans' liberties.

Alex McBride is a third year law student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He is articles editor on the TULANE LAW REVIEW and the 2005 recipient of the Ray Forrester Award in Constitutional Law. In 2007, Alex will be clerking with Judge Susan Braden on the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington.

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