Thursday, September 9, 2010

Erie, International Law and Guantanamo: Judge Kavanaugh's Opinion in Al-Bihani v. Obama

Last week the D.C. Circuit refused to grant en banc rehearing of its decision in Al-Bihani v. Obama, 590 F.3d 866 (D.C. Cir. 2010). The denial of rehearing (available here) was accompanied by several statements by individual D.C. Circuit judges, including one from Judge Kavanaugh that opines on the relationship between Erie and international law. From Judge Kavanaugh’s statement (some citations omitted): 

[I]n light of the Supreme Court’s 1938 decision in Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938), which established that there is no federal general common law, international-law norms are not enforceable in federal courts unless the political branches have incorporated the norms into domestic U.S. law. None of the international-law norms cited by Al-Bihani has been so incorporated into domestic U.S. law.

To be sure, there was a time when U.S. courts stated that customary international law was “part of our law” so that “where there is no treaty, and no controlling executive or legislative act or judicial decision, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations; and, as evidence of these, to the works of jurists and commentators.” The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 700 (1900). But that oft-quoted statement reflected the notion, common in the early years of the Nation but now discredited, that international law was part of the general common law that federal courts could apply.

But as decided by the Supreme Court in its landmark Erie decision in 1938, the view that federal courts may ascertain and enforce international-law norms as part of the general common law is fundamentally inconsistent with a proper understanding of the role of the Federal Judiciary in our constitutional system. In Erie, the Supreme Court famously held that there is no general common law enforceable by federal courts. Erie, 304 U.S. at 78. The Court said that “law in the sense in which courts speak of it today does not exist without some definite authority behind it.” Id. at 79 (quotation omitted). Erie means that, in our constitutional system of separated powers, federal courts may not enforce law that lacks a domestic sovereign source.

Judge Kavanaugh also writes that Erie overturned the so-called Charming Betsy canon, under which federal courts should construe ambiguous U.S. statutes to be consistent with international law: “[I]n the post-Erie era, the canon does not permit courts to alter their interpretation of federal statutes based on international-law norms that have not been incorporated into domestic U.S. law. Indeed, since Erie was decided, the Supreme Court has applied that canon only to support the presumption that a federal statute does not apply extraterritorially.”


(Hat Tip: Jonathan Hafetz)

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