The Obviously Extraterritorial Constitution

As noted in earlier posts, there are open questions about which provisions of the Constitution apply abroad.  However, there are some provisions that quite clearly do - most notably the "Define and Punish Clause" in Article I, Section 8.

This provision provides that Congress shall have the power "To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations[.]"  By its definition, this power applies outside the territorial boundaries of the United States, at least in part.  Congress has used this power, almost since it first met, to punish piracy, among other international crimes.

Today, this clause is used to combat hijacking of aircraft and is the basis for the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, which is the major basis for Coast Guard actions interdicting drugs making their way to the United States, so long as the vessels are captured on the high seas.

Another clause that, on its face, calls for extraterritorial application, is somewhat related - the juries clause of Article III, Section 2.  This clause holds that "The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Inpeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed."

This clause plainly contemplates that crimes over which the United States has jurisdiction may well be committed outside the boundaries of the States themselves.  At the time of the Founding, there was very little in the way of territory over which the U.S. exercised sovereign control that was not within the boundaries of a state.  The Northwest Territories were the prime example.  However, historical evidence demonstrates that this language applied to those crimes committed on the high seas as well.  Pirates were subject to the jurisdiction of the first district court into which they found themselves brought.

Although not demonstrated by the text itself, it seems self evident that the limits in Article I, Section 9 would apply to the extraterritorial exercises of jurisdiction allowed by Article I, Section 8.  Thus, it seems to me unremarkable to say that the power to "Define and Punish piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas" is constrained by the Constitution's prohibitions on Bills of Attainder and ex post facto laws.  In other words, the drug runner who was caught on the high seas on October 5, 2006 (the day before the MDLEA went into effect) would have a valid constitutional defense to charges brought under Act.  Likewise, a bill which targeted an individual for punishment by name, even though that individual was living abroad, would be able to successfully argue that the bill contravened Article I, Section 9.

Given this, it seems that the Court's claim in Johnson v. Eisentrager, that the application of the Constitution abroad was so novel that it would have excited debate, does not withstand scrutiny.  Certainly, the idea that enemy aliens captured and held abroad could claim the protection of the Constitution, which was the core question in Eisentrager, might have raised eyebrows in Philadelphia.  But the idea that the Constitution empowered Congress to act outside the United States was self-evident.  And just as self evident, I argue, is the fact that the limits on Congress's power would travel abroad as well.

Recent scholarship, which I will examine in depth in a future blog post, appears to bear this out.  See Professor Nathan Chapman's excellent article, "Due Process Abroad," for more on this historical practice.