Foreign Commerce Authority for Universal Jurisdiction over Terrorists

The government is prosecuting three foreigners for the participating in “combat operations” in a foreign civil war.

The indictment apparently alleges no connection to America, or even foreign commerce (unlike a similar 2011 case that lacked an apparent connection to the U.S.) The defendants are Somalis who fought in Somalia. In a previous post, I discussed why the prosecution exceeds’s Congress’s Define & Punish powers; here we’ll consider other possible Art. I grounds. Today – the Foreign Commerce Clause; later today, War and Treaties. Tomorrow: additional thoughts about American exceptionalism in universal jurisdiction.

Foreign Commerce Clause
My previous post focussed on the Define & Punish Clause as the basis for the MST law; today, we will examine some other suggestions. I addressed the Define & Punish clause first because it is the first Art. I power Congress cited in its “findings” in support of the section. (sec. 301(a)(2) of the public law). Later, the findings do suggest the Commerce powers as a tertiary rationale: terrorism discourages travel from the U.S. to affected country, and vice versa. It also mentions general harm to “market stability.” This sounds a lot like the arguments rejected by the Supreme Court in U.S. v Morrison . Surely Congress’s can’t regulate any crime anywhere in the world just because it upsets things. The commerce argument is even weaker here: if someone moves out of their state because of violence against women, they presumably move to another U.S. state. But if they move from Somalia, they do not presumably move to the U.S.

The connection to U.S. commerce would have to be shown. In the one prior universal jurisdiction “material support” case, Ahmed , the government claimed in the indictment, without providing specifics, that it could show real links to commerce. The district judge accepted that as sufficient for starters [in an unpublished opinion, 2011 WL 5041456]. The present indictment says nothing about foreign commerce.

The Supreme Court has said little about the scope of the power. As a textual matter, the foreign commerce power does not allow Congress to simply regulate “foreign commerce,” but rather that part of it which is “with” the United States. It is not clear that the same kind of “foot-bone-is-connected to the ankle bone” games can be played with the Foreign Commerce clause as with the domestic on. Andrew Colangelo, in the leading article on the subject, argues that it requires a substantial U.S. nexus. Indeed, without that, the Constitution would have incorporated broad universal jurisdiction, without anyone knowing about it until now!

If the Foreign Commerce clause is enough here, it would mean several recent federal cases finding no universal jurisdiction over drug trafficking and piracy conspiracy case were wrongly decided: surely those things are linked to foreign commerce in the most general sense.

One can imagine a broader argument that the terrorist group designation is a regulation of foreign commerce, and the material support statute “necessary and proper” to that. And that would turn on the particular group and executive finding…

Some have suggested that the Foreign Commerce Clause should, on the contrary, be broader than the Interstate clause, because there is no background principle of federalism to protect. I see the point, but am hesitant for two reasons.

First, Congress is a government of limited and delegated powers. It can only have powers to regulate conduct anywhere in the world with no demostrable nexus if these were either preexisting powers of states, or somehow a natural emergent power of national sovereignty. I think neither is the case. The latter point can be seen from the fact that no other country exercises universal jurisdiction over this kind of thing…

Second, while Foreign Commerce authority is not concurrent with states, it is shared with other countries, whose existence and sovereign competency the Framers were aware of. Consider Hamilton’s discussion of the Foreign Commerce power (Camillus XXXVI):

Congress (to pursue still the case of regulating trade) may regulate, by law, our own trade and that which foreigners come to carry on with us; but they cannot regulate the trade which we may go to carry on in foreign countries; they can give to us no rights, no privileges, there. This must depend on the will and regulations of those countries; and, consequently, it is the province of the power of treaty to establish the rules of commercial intercourse between foreign nations and the United States. The
legislative may regulate our own trade, but treaty only can regulate the national trade between our own and another country

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