Monday, November 3, 2014
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, the case testing whether Congress can require the State Department to list "Israel" as the country of birth for a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem, upon the request of that citizen. The State Department has long declined to list "Israel" (or "Palestinian Territories" or the like) as the country of birth on such a passport, in order to promote its long-standing position of neutrality with regard to sovereignty over Jerusalem. This case tests which branch gets to decide whether Congress, or the executive branch, gets to decide what goes on the passport.
If arguments are any indication, this'll be a 5-4 opinion, along conventional lines (conservatives for Congress; progressives for the President). In short, conservatives didn't seem to think the Act's place-of-birth designation mattered much to recognition or to foreign affairs (or, as Justice Kennedy suggested, that its impact could be mitigated), and therefore that the Act didn't seriously interfere with any exclusive powers of the presidency. Progressives took the opposite view.
Zivotofsky tried to steer the Court toward his argument that the country-of-birth deisgnation on a passport has nothing to do with official recognition of a foreign sovereign. This position could allow the Court to dodge a thorny separation-of-powers problem entirely, by hanging its hat on the idea that the country-of-birth designation serves only an identification purpose, not a sovereign-recognition purpose. If so, the Court could rule for Zivotofsky by saying that Congress can require anything it wants in the place-of-birth line, because it doesn't interfere with the President's recognition power. (Or, as the government argued, the Court could rule for the government, saying that the congressionally required designation in effect requires the President to issue a diplomatic communication that contradicts the President's own recognition and foreign policy. But this would require at least some consideration of constitutional separation of powers--in particular, whether the President's power of recognition is exclusive.)
This approach seemed to get the attention of the conservatives on the Court. In particular, Justices Kennedy and Scalia in different ways seemed to suggest that the country-of-birth designation didn't recognize sovereignty. (If not, however, Justice Kennedy at one point wondered why Congress would have passed it in the first place.) Justice Kennedy returned several times to the ideal of a State Department disclaimer--that State could just write a statement that the place-of-birth designation didn't reflect the policy of the United States. And Chief Justice Roberts wondered later in the arguments whether the President's objections to the Act and the executive's position in litigation amount to a self-fulfilling prophecy--that is, whether designating "Israel" wasn't really all that big of a deal, until the President made it so. (This exchange, with SG Verilli, came up in a line of questions about why President Bush signed the Act in the first place, even with his constitutional reservations in the signing statement.) All these, and Justice Alito, suggested at different times that the country-of-birth designation wasn't all that important, anyway--a corollary to the country-of-birth-designation-as-mere-identification theory.
But Justice Kagan pushed back against the self-identification theory: she called the Act a "very selective vanity plate law," because it allows a passport holder to determine the designation of country of birth. She also underscored the passport-as-diplomatic-note point by asking whether a hypothetical congressional act would be constitutional if it required the State Department to inform all foreign minister that a new American was born in Israel whenever a new American was born in Jerusalem. (Zivotofsky's answer: Yes. Justice Kagan called this "a little bit shocking.") Justice Sotomayor went a step further and said (several times) that Zivotofsky and Act supporters wanted the government to lie--to say that Israel was the place of birth, even though the government doesn't recognize Israel as sovereign over Jerusalem.
Justice Breyer took an institutional competence view of the case, asking if the foreign affairs experts at the State Department declined to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, who was he to question them?
Justice Kagan took the final shot at the it-doesn't-matter-that-much view at the very end of arguments:
Can I say that this seems a particularly unfortunate week to be making this kind of, "oh, it's no big deal" argument. I mean, history suggests that everything is a big deal with respect to the status of Jerusalem. And right now Jerusalem is a tinderbox because of issues about the status of and access to a particularly holy site there. And so sort of everything matters, doesn't it?
It seems doubtful that she'll persuade her conservative colleagues.