United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp.

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United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp.
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued November 19–20, 1936
Decided December 21, 1936
Full case nameUnited States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation et al.
Citations299 U.S. 304 (more)
57 S. Ct. 216; 81 L. Ed. 255; 1936 U.S. LEXIS 968
Prior historyJudgment sustaining a demurrer to the indictment, 14 F. Supp. 230 (D. D.C. 1932)
While the Constitution does not explicitly say that all ability to conduct foreign policy is vested in the President, 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 that Congress cannot and should not.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Charles E. Hughes
Associate Justices
Willis Van Devanter · James C. McReynolds
Louis Brandeis · George Sutherland
Pierce Butler · Harlan F. Stone
Owen Roberts · Benjamin N. Cardozo
Case opinions
MajoritySutherland, joined by Hughes, Van Devanter, Brandeis, Butler, Roberts, Cardozo
Stone took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304 (1936),[1] was a United States Supreme Court case involving principles of both governmental regulation of business and the supremacy of the executive branch of the federal government to conduct foreign affairs. The Supreme Court concluded not only that foreign affairs power was vested in the national government as a whole but also that the President of the United States had "plenary" powers in the foreign affairs field that were not dependent upon congressional delegation.


Congress, acting by joint resolution, had authorized the President to place an embargo on arms shipments to the South American countries that were engaged in the Chaco War, between Bolivia and Paraguay. Pursuant to the resolution, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed such an embargo.[2] When Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. was indicted for violating the embargo through the sale of machine guns to Bolivia, it defended itself on the grounds that the embargo and the proclamation were void, as Congress had improperly delegated legislative power to the executive branch by leaving what was essentially a legislative determination to the President's "unfettered discretion."

In 1936, the defendant, Curtiss-Wright Corporation, was charged with illegally sending arms of war to Bolivia prior to the revocation of the first proclamation.[1]

Issues raised[edit]

The defendant raised several issues for consideration by the Court:

  1. Did the joint resolution passed by Congress grant unconstitutional authority (and legislative power) to the President, in violation of the non-delegation doctrine?
  2. Was the President required by considerations of due process to make findings of fact in support of the proclamation?
  3. Did the revocation of the May 1934 proclamation eliminate the penalty for its violation?


The Court ruled 7 to 1 in favor of the United States. Justice Sutherland wrote the majority opinion:

The ["powers of the federal government in respect of foreign or external affairs and those in respect of domestic or internal affairs"] are different, both in respect of their origin and their nature. The broad statement that the federal government can exercise no powers except those specifically enumerated in the Constitution, and such implied powers as are necessary and proper to carry into effect the enumerated powers, is categorically true only in respect of our internal affairs.

He added:

It is important to bear in mind that we are here dealing not alone with an authority vested in the President by an exertion of legislative power, but with such an authority plus the very delicate, plenary and exclusive power of the President as the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations–a power which does not require as a basis for its exercise an act of Congress, but which, of course, like every other governmental power, must be exercised in subordination to the applicable provisions of the Constitution.

While the Constitution does not explicitly say that all ability to conduct foreign policy is vested in the President, 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 that Congress neither can nor should. The Court stated that "there is sufficient warrant for the broad discretion vested in the President to determine whether the enforcement of the statute will have a beneficial effect upon the reestablishment of peace in the affected countries."[1]

The ruling not only upheld export limitations on the grounds of national security (similar ones still exist today) but also established the broader principle of executive supremacy in national security and foreign affairs, one of the reasons advanced in the 1950s for the near success of the attempt to add the Bricker Amendment to the US Constitution.

The Court has not recognized the full scope of executive power suggested by Justice Sutherland's sweeping language. The Supreme Court sometimes thuspresented contradictory rulings about foreign policy powers between the President and Congress.

Congressional authorization may be necessary to legitimize many executive acts. In Regan v. Wald (1984), for example, the Supreme Court cited Curtiss-Wright in upholding the constitutionality of the president's regulations restricting travel to Cuba, expressly on the ground that they had been authorized by Congress. On the other hand, in Federal Energy Administration v. Algonquin SNG, Inc. (1976), the Court validated presidential restrictions on oil imports, based on very broad congressional language delegating apparently unlimited regulatory authority to the executive branch.

Despite its controversy, 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304 (1936).
  2. ^ Lofgren, Charles A. (1973). "United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation: An Historical Reassessment". Yale Law Journal. 83 (1): 1–32. JSTOR 795317.


  • Divine, Robert A. (1987). "The Case of the Smuggled Bombers". In Garraty, John A. Quarrels That Have Shaped the Constitution. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-055062-7.

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