Since the 1990s, Congress has maintained that Jerusalem should be recognized as Israel’s capital. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, presidents have stated that Jerusalem’s status can only be decided as part of a broader peace settlement. On Monday this dispute again reached the Supreme Court, and it offers the justices a unique opportunity to elucidate the proper way to resolve separation-of-power disputes between Congress and the executive.
Zivotofsky v. Kerry involves Menachem Zivotofsky, a 12-year-old Jerusalem-born American citizen. His parents want Israel identified as his birthplace on his passport. Section 214(d) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2003, permits this choice, but the secretary of state refused to comply, listing Jerusalem alone as his place of birth. The secretary argues that the law violates established U.S. foreign policy and interferes with the president’s exclusive power to recognize foreign states and their territorial extent.
In the first round of this litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia concluded that this contest presented a political question that the courts could not answer. The Supreme Court reversed that decision, explaining that however “political” the circumstances, the question was a straightforward one of constitutional law suitable for judicial resolution.
The D.C. Circuit reheard the case last year and concluded that section 214(d) is unconstitutional because the president has the exclusive authority to determine the territorial boundaries of foreign states, their capitals and their governments—at least for purposes of U.S. diplomatic intercourse.
This authority is based in clear constitutional text that gives the president the power “to receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers.” Although the court found this language ambiguous (relying instead on historical practice and Supreme Court statements that the president alone has the power to recognize a foreign state as sovereign), the framers used this language precisely and to a purpose.