United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp.
299 U.S. 304 (1936)

  • In an effort to reduce civil wars in South America, Congress issued a Joint Resolution that authorized the President, “to prohibit the sale of arms if he found that such a prohibition would contribute to the establishment of peace in the region.”
    • Roosevelt used the authorization to prohibit exports of weapons and military equipment to some South American countries.
  • Curtiss-Wright was charged with conspiring to sell fifteen machine guns to Bolivia.
    • Curtiss-Wright argued that the commerce involved was not interstate commerce but international commerce (so the Interstate Commerce Clause didn’t apply), and Congress didn’t have the power to regulate it.
    • Curtiss-Wright argued that the regulation was not being made by Congress but by the President, and that’s unconstitutional.
      • Article I Section 8(3) specifically says that Congress has the power to regulate “commerce with foreign nations.”
    • Btw, the ‘Wright’ of Curtiss-Wright was one of the Wright Brothers.
  • The Trial Court held that the Joint Resolution was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power to the President.
    • Basically the Trial Court was saying that only Congress can make laws, they can’t tell the President to make a law.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and upheld the ban on arms sales.
    • The US Supreme Court found that while the Constitution may not explicitly say that all ability to conduct foreign policy on behalf of the nation is vested in the President, that it is nonetheless given implicitly and by the fact that the Executive, by its very nature, is empowered to conduct foreign affairs in a way which Congress cannot and should not.
      • The Court distinguished the President’s authority in the area of domestic affairs from that of foreign affairs.
      • The Court felt that the US must speak with a single authoritative voice in foreign affairs. There can’t be a bunch of second-guessing and a chorus of independent voices from Congress and the States.
    • The Court found that the delegation of authority from Congress to the President was constitutional.
      • The Court felt that the because Joint Resolution came from Congress, it wasn’t a case of the President making the law, but just executing a law made by Congress.
  • The basic ruling here is that when Congress authorizes it, the President gains the power to make laws via executive order that he wouldn’t normally have.
    • This case has been used to argue that the President can do whatever he wants in the international matters (see Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (542 U.S. 507 (2004)) for example). But that’s a misreading of the ruling. In this case, Congress authorized the ban and set the penalties. It wasn’t generated by the President from whole cloth. All that was delegated to the President was the determination of when and where the ban should come into effect.