Fortunately, a friend flipped me the decision of the appeals court in the case of Hartzell and Lin v. US over whether the US has some kind of sovereignty over Taiwan (previous blogpost with plenty o'links). Lin et al have lost their case, on the grounds I noted in the earlier post, that the question of sovereignty over Taiwan is a political question to be decided by the other branches of government. The Court makes its point (my emphasis):
Appellants argue this is a straightforward question of treaty and statutory interpretation and well within the Article III powers of the court. It is and it isn’t. The political question doctrine deprives federal courts of jurisdiction, based on prudential concerns, over cases which would normally fall within their purview. National Treasury Employees Union v. United States, 101 F.3d 1423, 1427 (D.C. Cir. 1996). We do not disagree with Appellants’ assertion that we could resolve this case through treaty analysis and statutory construction, see Japan Whaling Ass’n v. American Cetacean Soc’y, 478 U.S. 221, 230 (1986) (“[T]he courts have the authority to construe treaties and executive agreements, and it goes without saying that interpreting congressional legislation is a recurring and accepted task for the federal courts.”); we merely decline to do so as this case presents a political question which strips us of jurisdiction to undertake that otherwise familiar task. See Gonzalez-Vera v. Kissinger, 449 F.3d 1260, 1264 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (“We need not quarrel with the plaintiffs’ assertion that certain claims for torture may be adjudicated in the federal courts as provided in the TVPA. We simply observe that such a claim, like any other, may not be heard if it presents a political question.”).The Court's decision is not without a certain wry humor:
Identifying Taiwan’s sovereign is an antecedent question to Appellants’ claims. This leaves the Court with few options. We could jettison the United States’ long-standing foreign policy regarding Taiwan—that of strategic ambiguity—in favor of declaring a sovereign. But that seems imprudent. Since no war powers have been delegated to the judiciary, judicial modesty as well as doctrine cautions us to abjure so provocative a course....and the final paragraph:
Addressing Appellants’ claims would require identification of Taiwan’s sovereign. The Executive Branch has deliberately remained silent on this issue and we cannot intrude on its decision. Therefore, as the district court correctly concluded, consideration of Appellants’ claims is barred by the political question doctrine. Accordingly, we affirm.Good job, judges.
UPDATE: PDF of decision is online.
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