Supreme Court To Consider Case On Passports Of Jerusalem-Born Citizens For the second time, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in a case that combines Middle East policy with the dueling foreign policy roles of the president and Congress.
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Supreme Court To Consider Case On Passports Of Jerusalem-Born Citizens

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Supreme Court To Consider Case On Passports Of Jerusalem-Born Citizens

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Supreme Court To Consider Case On Passports Of Jerusalem-Born Citizens

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It is a return Supreme Court engagement today for a case that combines the messiness of Middle East politics with the ongoing power struggle between the White House and Congress. Simply put, the case asks what U.S. passports should say about the birthplace of American citizens born in Jerusalem. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Ever since the founding of Israel in 1948, the U.S. has taken the position that no country has sovereignty over Jerusalem until its status is negotiated in a Middle East peace deal. Israel's supporters in Congress, however, have tried to force a different policy seeking to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and requiring the State Department to allow U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their place of birth on their passports.

The Bush administration and the Obama administration both refused to comply with the passport mandate, contending that it unconstitutionally infringes on the president's foreign policy powers. Enter Menachem Zivotofsky, born in Jerusalem 12 years ago to American parents who immigrated to Israel and now maintain dual citizenship. The Zivotofskys want their son's place of birth on his passport to say Israel, not just Jerusalem, and they sued to force the State Department to do that. Three years ago, when the case first went to the Supreme Court, the justices did not issue a definitive ruling, sending the case back to the lower court for further action.

But now, it's back, and listening to the archival tape from 2011 provides clues about the justices' thinking. The Zivotofskys' lawyer, Nathan Lewin, opened the argument back then by telling the court that under the Constitution, foreign policy is a power shared by the president and Congress but that Congress has the final say when it passes a statute as it did here. That touched off a barrage of skeptical questions. Justice Sotomayor...

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIVOTOFSKY v. CLINTON TRIAL)

JUSTICE SONIA MARIA SOTOMAYOR: What entitles Congress to trench on a presidential power that's been exercised, virtually, since the beginning of the country?

TOTENBERG: ...Justice Ginsburg...

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIVOTOFSKY v. CLINTON TRIAL)

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: If it is a shared power, why does Congress trump the executive?

TOTENBERG: ...Justice Kennedy called Lewin's view, a narrow and crabbed interpretation of the president's foreign affairs power. And Justice Scalia had this observation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIVOTOFSKY v. CLINTON TRIAL)

JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA: It seems to me, you're not arguing for a co-equal congressional power; you're arguing for a superior congressional power. You're saying whatever Congress says, the president has to comply with.

TOTENBERG: Chief Justice Roberts noted that listing Israel as the place of birth for someone born in Jerusalem could, according to the president, present serious foreign-policy problems. But Lewin rejected that premise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIVOTOFSKY v. CLINTON TRIAL)

NATHAN LEWIN: Congress has decided that saying Israel alone does not present a foreign-policy issue.

TOTENBERG: The chief justice didn't seem to buy that argument.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIVOTOFSKY v. CLINTON TRIAL)

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: An American citizen born in Northern Ireland doesn't have this option because he thinks it's part of Ireland.

TOTENBERG: Arguing for the president, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli contended that the Constitution gives the nation's chief executive exclusive power in this area and that Congress cannot supersede that power. Justice Breyer, however, questioned that proposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIVOTOFSKY v. CLINTON TRIAL)

JUSTICE STEPHEN BREYER: There are very, very few cases I can ever think of where the court has said the president can act contrary to a statute.

TOTENBERG: Verrilli replied that as far back as President Washington, this has been one of his areas of exclusive presidential authority. The court, he argued, should give great deference to the president's judgment on a matter like this, with such serious foreign policy implications. A passport, he observed, is not a communication by the passport holder; it's an official document that communicates the position of the United States. Pressed by Justice Kagan, Verrlli said the source for the president's power is the provision of the Constitution giving the chief executive the power to receive and recognize foreign diplomats, a power used since the founding to recognize foreign governments. Justice Scalia didn't think much of that provision as an authority for exclusive presidential power over passports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIVOTOFSKY v. CLINTON TRIAL)

SCALIA: I mean, if you've got to cast about for something, I suppose - I don't know what else you'd land upon. It is there.

TOTENBERG: It is there, acknowledged Scalia. But it doesn't say a whole lot. The case is to be reargued today. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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