United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp.,
299 U.S. 304 (1936)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 U.S. 304 (1936)

United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp.

No. 98

Argued November 19, 20, 1936

Decided December 21, 1936

299 U.S. 304


1. A Joint Resolution of May 28, 1934, provided:

"That if the President finds that the prohibition of the sale of arms and munitions of war in the United States to those countries now engaged in armed conflict in the Chaco may contribute to the reestablishment of peace between those countries, and if, after consultation with the governments of other American Republics and with their cooperation, as well as that of such other governments as he may deem necessary, he makes proclamation to that effect, it shall be unlawful to sell, except under such limitations and exceptions as the President prescribes, any arms or munitions of war in any place in the United States to the countries now engaged in that armed conflict, or to any person, company, or association acting in the interest of either country, until otherwise ordered by the President or by Congress."

Violation was made punishable as a

Page 310 U. S. 305

crime. The President issued two proclamations, one on the date of the Resolution, putting it into operation, the other on November 14, 1935, revoking the first proclamation.


(1) The Joint Resolution is not an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power to the Executive. Pp. 299 U. S. 314, 299 U. S. 329.

(2) The powers of the Federal Government over foreign or external affairs differ in nature and origin from those over domestic or internal affairs. P. 299 U. S. 315.

(3) 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. In that field, the primary purpose of the Constitution was to carve from the general mass of legislative powers then possessed by the States such portions as it was thought desirable to vest in the Federal Government, leaving those not included in the enumeration still in the States. Id.

(4) The States severally never possessed international powers. P. 299 U. S. 316.

(5) As a result of the separation from Great Britain by the Colonies, acting as a unit, the powers of external sovereignty passed from the Crown not to the Colonies severally, but to the Colonies in their collective and corporate capacity as the United States of America. Id.

(6) The Constitution was ordained and established, among other things, to form "a more perfect Union." Prior to that event, the Union, declared by the Articles of Confederation to be "perpetual," was the sole possessor of external sovereignty, and in the Union it remained without change save insofar as the Constitution, in express terms, qualified its exercise. Though the States were several, their people, in respect of foreign affairs, were one. P. 299 U. S. 317.

(7) The investment of the Federal Government with the powers of external sovereignty did not depend upon the affirmative grants of the Constitution. P. 299 U. S. 318.

(8) In the international field, the sovereignty of the United States is complete. Id.

(9) In international relations, the President is the sole organ of the Federal Government. P. 299 U. S. 319.

(10) In view of the delicacy of foreign relations and of the power peculiar to the President in this regard, Congressional legislation which is to be made effective in the international field must

Page 299 U. S. 306

often accord to him a degree of discretion and freedom which would not be admissible were domestic affairs alone involved. P. 299 U. S. 319.

(11) The marked difference between foreign and domestic affairs in this respect is recognized in the dealings of the houses of Congress with executive departments. P. 299 U. S. 321.

(12) Unbroken legislative practice from the inception almost of the national government supports the conclusion that the Joint Resolution, supra, is not an unconstitutional delegation of power. P. 299 U. S. 322.

(13) Findings of jurisdictional facts in the first proclamation, following the language of the Joint Resolution, were sufficient. P. 299 U. S. 330.

(14) The revocation of the first proclamation by the second did not have the effect of abrogating the Resolution or of precluding its enforcement by prosecution and punishment of offenses committed during the life of the first proclamation. P. 299 U. S. 331.

2. Upon an appeal by the United States under the Criminal Appeals Act from a decision holding an indictment bad on demurrer, this Court has jurisdiction of questions involving the validity of the statute on which the indictment was founded which were decided by the District Court in favor of the United States. P. 299 U. S. 329.

14 F.Supp. 230, reversed.

APPEAL, under the Criminal Appeals Act, from a judgment quashing an indictment for conspiracy.

Page 299 U. S. 311

Primary Holding

The President has exclusive power over foreign policy and does not need Congress to delegate power to the executive branch in this area.


The Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation, a weapons manufacturer, sold fighter planes and bombers to Bolivia during the Chaco War, during which Paraguay and Bolivia contested control of a semi-arid region. These actions ostensibly violated a proclamation by President Franklin Roosevelt banning U.S. weapons manufacturers from aiding either side in the war. Roosevelt had acted in response to a joint resolution by Congress giving him this authority.

Challenging its indictment, Curtiss-Wright argued that neither the congressional action nor the presidential proclamation giving rise to the embargo was legitimate. It based this claim on the theory that Congress had violated the non-delegation doctrine in allowing the executive branch to make decisions that were properly left to the legislature.

Procedural History

US District Court for the District of Columbia - 14 F.Supp. 230 (D. D.C. 1932)

Demurrer to the indictment sustained. The indictment should be dismissed because the government actions giving rise to it are an invalid delegation of legislative authority to the President.



  • George Sutherland (Author)
  • Willis Van Devanter
  • Louis Dembitz Brandeis
  • Pierce Butler
  • Owen Josephus Roberts
  • Benjamin Nathan Cardozo
  • Charles Evans Hughes

Contrasting internal issues with foreign affairs, Sutherland found that the federal government could not exceed its enumerated powers in the former area but had a much broader scope of discretion in the latter area. The combination of Congressional with Presidential authority meant that courts should be especially deferential in reviewing this decision. He pointed out that the President has plenary power over international relations and is free to act in that area without Congressional oversight. Roosevelt thus had the discretion to determine what impact a certain policy might have on foreign affairs and make decisions accordingly, even had Congress not authorized him. Sutherland's language almost suggested that this decision might fall within the political question doctrine, given his reluctance to examine the details of the case on the merits.


  • James Clark McReynolds (Author)


  • Harlan Fiske Stone (Author)

Case Commentary

The federal government has considerably more authority to act in foreign affairs than domestic affairs, and it has unchallenged authority over the former. This means that the President also has extensive powers to assess what measures are appropriate with regard to international relations, since he can rely on confidential materials and specialized experts that may not be available to other branches of government. For example, it is widely accepted that the executive branch can use justifications of national security to control exports.

Retreating somewhat from the expansive statements in the majority opinion, the Court has grown less willing over time to give the executive branch a completely blank check in foreign affairs. Justices often look to Congressional authorization when examining challenges to these actions. However, the non-delegation doctrine is all but irrelevant at this stage, since the Court has upheld sweeping, vaguely defined grants of power from Congress to the President and administrative agencies.

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