Why should foreign law ever be applied in American courts?, some people ask. Why should foreigners get the benefit of this law when they come to America? There are many answers to this, but I thought I’d offer a helpful illustration.
The broad point is that, when American courts apply foreign law, they apply it because American law calls for the application of foreign law. It’s not that American courts are somehow using foreign law to trump American law; rather, they are trying to follow American law. But why would American law consider foreign law? Here’s one example.
Say that Mahmoud (age 30) and Wafa (age 16) come on a visit to California, and have sex here. Having sex with an under-18-year-old is generally a crime in California:
Unlawful sexual intercourse is an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a person who is not the spouse of the perpetrator, if the person is [under the age of 18 years].
If Mahmoud raises the defense, “I’m from France and it’s OK to have sex with under-18-year-olds there,” his defense will go nowhere. Likewise if his defense is “I’m from Washington State and it’s OK to have sex with under-18-year-olds there.” Foreign law, and out-of-state law, is in that context irrelevant.
But say Mahmoud raises the defense, “I’m from Pakistan, and Wafa and I were married there.” Then under California law Mahmoud wouldn’t be guilty (since the law refers to sex “with a person who is not the spouse of the perpetrator”), assuming his marriage is valid. Convicting him would be a denial of his rights under California law.
Now as it happens, in California, under-18-year-olds may not marry without a court order (and, generally, parental consent). But California law only says that these items are required to marry, and [...]