Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council

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530 U.S. 363, argued 22 March 2000, decided 19 June 2000 by vote of 9 to 0; Souter for the Court, Scalia and Thomas, concurring in the judgment. Crosby held that federal law preempted a Massachusetts law prohibiting companies doing business with Burma from contracting with the state. Massachusetts enacted its law to protest Burma's human rights record. Three months later, Congress imposed its own sanctions. Congress also delegated authority to the president to impose further sanctions or lift sanctions, as warranted, and instructed the president to pursue a multilateral strategy to democratize Burma.

The Supreme Court concluded that Massachusetts’ law stood as an obstacle to the goals of the federal statute, and was preempted, despite the latter's lack of an express preemption clause. Specifically, the Court found that the Massachusetts act's rigidity conflicted with the flexibility to impose or lift sanctions that Congress granted the president. In addition, the state law applied to parties and activities that Congress exempted, undermining the limited nature of congressional sanctions. Finally, the Massachusetts law hindered the pursuit of a multilateral strategy to democratize Burma by penalizing countries whose aid was needed for that effort. The Court rejected arguments that the lack of express preemption implicitly authorized the state law.

By deciding Crosby on narrow preemption grounds, the Court avoided important questions concerning the constitutional limits on state action affecting foreign affairs or foreign commerce. The willingness to find preemption absent clear statutory language, and the refusal to presume (as it has in other cases) that a clear statement from Congress is required to preempt states’ exercise of their police powers implies that the Court is sympathetic to claims of federal priority in foreign affairs.

Brannon P. Denning

Subjects: Law.

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