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
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
Case history
PriorJudgment sustaining a demurrer to the indictment, 14 F. Supp. 230 (D. D.C. 1932); probable jurisdiction noted, 57 S. Ct. 14 (1936).
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), was a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the foreign affairs powers of the President of the United States.

In its majority opinion, the Court held that 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.[1] The Court reasoned that while the Constitution does not explicitly provide for such authority, these powers are implicit in the President's constitutional role as commander-in-chief and head of the executive branch.

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.[2]


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.

To that end, on May 24, 1934, Congress approved a joint resolution providing that "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," he is authorized to proclaim an embargo on American arms shipments to the belligerents, with violators subject to a fine, imprisonment, or both.[3][1] 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..[4]

Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. was indicted for violating both the joint resolution and the embargo by conspiring to sell aircraft machine guns to Bolivia.[1] 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.

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 nondelegation 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?


In a 7–1 decision authored by Justice George Sutherland, the Court ruled that the U.S. government, through the President, is categorically allowed great foreign affairs powers independent of the U.S. Constitution:

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.

While the Constitution does not explicitly state that all ability to conduct foreign policy is vested in the President, the Court concluded that such power is nonetheless given implicitly, since the executive of a sovereign nation is, by its very nature, empowered to conduct foreign affairs. The Court found "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] In other words, the President was better suited for determining which actions and policies best serve the nation's interests abroad.

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.

By contrast, Congress lacked such an inherent role under the Constitution, and thus this broad discretion was accorded to the President alone, due to vastness and complexity of international relations.


The ruling not only upheld export limitations on the grounds of national security, 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 thus presented contradictory rulings about foreign policy powers between the President and Congress.

Congressional authorization may be necessary to legitimize many executive acts. In Reagan 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 d United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304 (1936).
  2. ^ "Ask the author: The imperial presidency and the Supreme Court". SCOTUSblog. 2018-10-18. Retrieved 2019-08-19.
  3. ^ Lofgren, Charles A. “United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation: An Historical Reassessment.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 83, no. 1, 1973, pp. 1–32. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/795317.
  4. ^ Lofgren, Charles A. (1973). "United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation: An Historical Reassessment". Yale Law Journal. 83 (1): 1–32. JSTOR 795317.

Further reading[edit]

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