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Public Law & Legal Theory


A number of judge-made doctrines attempt to promote international comity by reducing possible tensions between the United States and foreign sovereigns. For example, ambiguous statutes are usually interpreted to conform to international law, and statutes are usually not understood to apply outside of the nation’s territorial boundaries. The international comity doctrines are best understood as a product of a judicial judgment that in various settings, the costs of American deference to foreign interests are less than the benefits to American interests. Sometimes Congress balances these considerations and incorporates its judgment in a statute, but usually it does not. In such cases, executive interpretations should be permitted to trump the comity doctrines. This conclusion is supported both by considerations of institutional competence and by the distinctive position of the President in the domain of foreign affairs. It follows that if the executive wants to interpret ambiguous statutes so as to apply extraterritorially, or so as to conflict with international law, it should be permitted to do so. The analysis of the interpretive power of the executive follows by reference to the Chevron doctrine in administrative law, which similarly calls for deference to executive interpretation of statutory ambiguities. Sometimes the Chevron doctrine literally applies to executive interpretations; sometimes it operates as a valuable analogy.



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