The Supreme Court sidestepped a constitutional challenge to White House power to negotiate trade pacts and other international deals.
Justices were being pressed to strike down the North American Free Trade Agreement because it was not endorsed by a two-thirds vote of the Senate, a constitutional requirement for treaties.
The court declined yesterday, without comment, to review the case that could have jeopardized the standing of other agreements and made it harder for presidents to negotiate future pacts.
The United Steelworkers of America argued that presidents should not be allowed to handle international deals like congressional-executive agreements to get around the Senate vote requirement for treaties.
“Whether we are right or wrong, our submission and the question we raise is one that goes to the heart of the Constitution’s structural framework for making international agreements,” the union’s attorneys said in urging justices to review the case.
Winning congressional approval can be difficult, as it was with NAFTA. The agreement, which had been signed by President Clinton, was approved by Congress in 1993 by votes of 234-200 in the House and 61-38 in the Senate.
Michael Ramsey, a professor at the University of San Diego Law School, said if the court had agreed to review the case, “it would have raised very serious questions about foreign-affairs law.”
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said the Constitution “clearly granted the political branches an enormous amount of authority in the area of foreign affairs and commerce.” The court, in ruling against the union, also said the lawsuit raised a political question inappropriate for the courts to decide.
“A judicial declaration invalidating NAFTA would clearly risk international embarrassment of both the executive and legislative branches,” Bush administration lawyers told the court.
NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, eliminates trade barriers between America, Mexico and Canada gradually over 15 years. There have been widespread disagreements over which nations have benefited, or been hurt, the most.
The lawsuit challenging NAFTA had been filed in 1998 by the union’s chapter in Gadsden, Ala., and the Made in the USA Foundation.
“The steelworkers have a reasonable argument. It’s been thought of before. It’s been rejected for a long time,” said Ronald D. Rotunda, a law professor at the University of Illinois.