Goldwater v. Carter
444 U.S. 996 (1979)

  • The US signed the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan. Congress ratified the treaty and it came into force.
  • Later, President Carter wanted to establish diplomatic relations with China, so he unilaterally cancelled the treaty with Taiwan to get the Chinese to agree to relations.
    • He did not consult with Congress, or ask them to ratify the nullification.
  • Senator Goldwater sued for an injunction, claiming that in order to nullify a treaty, the President needs to get the advice and consent of the Senate.
    • See Article II, Section 2, which states that the President cannot make treaties without a Senate majority 2/3rds vote.
      • The Constitution says nothing about how to break a treaty.
  • The US Supreme Court dismissed the case.
    • The US Supreme Court found that this was a political question, and so it could not be decided by the courts.
  • In a concurrence, it was argued that the issue itself, the powers of the President to break treaties without Congressional approval, would have been arguable had Congress issued a formal opposition through a resolution to the termination of the treaty.
    • This would have turned the case into a constitutional debate between the executive powers granted to the President against the legislative powers granted to Congress. As the case stood, however, it was simply a dispute between the executive and legislative branches of government, and was political in nature.
  • In a dissent, it was argued that “the issue of decisionmaking authority must be resolved as a matter of constitutional law, not political discretion; accordingly, it falls within the competence of the courts.”
  • The case is a good example of the Political Question Doctrine.
  • As it stands now, there is no official ruling on whether the President has the power to break a treaty without the approval of Congress.