453 U.S. 654 (1981), argued 24 June 1981, decided 2 July 1981 by vote of 9 to 0; Rehnquist for the Court, Stevens concurring in part, Powell concurring in part and dissenting in part. This decision upheld certain actions taken by President Jimmy Carter in January 1981 to settle the controversy resulting from the seizure of American personnel as hostages at the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979. To secure the hostages’ release, the United States agreed with Iran to terminate legal proceedings in U.S. courts involving claims by U.S. nationals against Iran, to nullify attachments against Iranian property entered by U.S. courts to secure any judgments against Iran, and to transfer such claims from U.S. courts to a newly created arbitration tribunal. These agreements were implemented by executive orders.
The Court upheld these presidential actions against challenges that they were unauthorized by law. The Court concluded that the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) authorized the president to nullify the attachments and to transfer Iranian assets. It also approved the suspension of claims filed in U.S. courts even though no specific statutory provision authorized that step. In so doing the Court relied on inferences drawn from related legislation, a history of congressional acquiescence in executive claims settlement practices, and past decisions recognizing broad executive authority.
This decision has been criticized for applying a too-undemanding standard to the question of presidential power, in particular by relying on inferences from statutes that do not directly deal with certain subjects at hand and, especially, on legislative acquiescence in executive activity. On any view, this decision is an important recognition of broad presidential power in foreign relations.
Thomas O. Sargentich