Landmark Supreme Court Cases: U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright (1936)
U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright (1936) is the 65th landmark Supreme Court case, the fifth in the Foreign Policy module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright (1936)
In June 1932, war broke out between Paraguay and Bolivia. Both belligerents were poor and relied on outside military assistance, arousing interest among American armament manufacturers. However, in response to national antiwar sentiment, widespread revulsion at the conduct of the war, and diplomatic pressure from Great Britain and the League of Nations, the U.S. government sought to terminate any developing arms trade.
On May 24, 1934, Congress approved a joint resolution providing the President authorization to proclaim an embargo on American arms shipments to the belligerents, with violators subject to a fine, imprisonment, or both:
if the President finds that the prohibition of the sale of arms and munitions of war in the United States to those countries engaged in conflict in the Chaco may contribute to the establishment of peace between those countries.”
The same day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the joint resolution and issued a proclamation reaffirming its language and establishing an embargo. On November 14, 1935, the proclamation was revoked.
Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. was indicted for violating both the joint resolution and the embargo by conspiring to sell aircraft machine guns to Bolivia. It demurred to the indictment, arguing that the embargo and proclamation were void, as Congress had unconstitutionally delegated legislative power to the executive branch, giving the President “unfettered discretion” to make what should be a legislative determination.
Curtiss-Wright Legal Questions and Answers
Q: In the Joint Resolution, did Congress unconstitutionally delegate legislative power to the President?
A: No. The President has broad power in foreign affairs and possesses plenary powers beyond those listed in Article II.
7-1 holding that while the Constitution does not explicitly say that all ability to conduct foreign policy is vested in the President, it is nonetheless given implicit in his constitutional role as Commander-In-Chief and by the fact that the executive, by its very nature, is empowered to conduct foreign affairs, due to their vast and complex nature, in a way that Congress cannot and should not. The President, as the nation’s “sole organ” in international relations, is innately vested with significant powers over foreign affairs, far exceeding the powers permitted in domestic matters or accorded to the U.S. Congress.
Curtiss-Wright was the first decision to establish that the President’s plenary power was independent of Congressional permission, and consequently it is credited with providing the legal precedent for further expansions of executive power in the foreign sphere. It allowed FDR the discretion to determine what impact a certain policy might have on foreign affairs and make decisions accordingly, even had Congress not authorized him.
Curtiss-Wright is among the Supreme Court’s most influential decisions. Most cases involving conflicts between the executive and legislative branches involve political questions that the courts refuse to adjudicate. Therefore, the sweeping language of Curtiss-Wright is regularly cited to support executive branch claims of power to act without congressional authorization in foreign affairs, especially if there is no judicial intervention to interpret the meaning of that text.
Next Foreign Policy Case:
Previous Foreign Policy Case: Worcester v. Georgia (1832)
Next Case: Carter v. Carter Coal (1936)
Previous Case: U.S. v. Butler (1936)