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Goldwater v. Carter

Goldwater v. Carter
Decided December 13, 1979
Full case name Barry Goldwater, et al. v. James Earl Carter, President of the United States, et al.
Citations 444 U.S. 996 (more)
100 S. Ct. 533; 62 L. Ed. 2d 428; 1979 U.S. LEXIS 4144
Prior history Judgment for defendants, District Court for the District of Columbia
Whether President Carter could unilaterally break a defense treaty with the Republic of China without Senate approval was a political question and could not be reviewed by the court, as Congress had not issued a formal opposition. The case was dismissed.
Court membership
Case opinions
Concurrence Marshall
Concurrence Powell
Concurrence Rehnquist, joined by Burger, Stewart, Stevens
Dissent Blackmun (in part), joined by White
Dissent Brennan
Laws applied
U.S. Const. art. II, sct. II

Goldwater v. Carter, 444 U.S. 996 (1979), [1] was a United States Supreme Court case which was the result of a lawsuit filed by Senator Barry Goldwater and other members of the United States Congress challenging the right of President Jimmy Carter to unilaterally nullify the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, which the United States had signed with the Republic of China, so that relations could instead be established with the People's Republic of China. Goldwater and his co-filers claimed that the President required Senate approval to take such an action, under Article II, Section II of the U.S. Constitution, and that, by not doing so, President Carter had acted beyond the powers of his office.

Granting a petition for certiorari but without hearing oral arguments, the court vacated a court of appeals ruling and remanded the case to a federal district court with directions to dismiss the complaint. A majority of six Justices ruled that the case should be dismissed without hearing an oral argument. Justices Lewis Powell and William Rehnquist issued two separate concurring opinions on the case. Rehnquist claimed that the issue concerned how foreign affairs were conducted between Congress and the President, and was essentially political, not judicial; therefore, it was not eligible to be heard by the court. Powell, while agreeing that the case did not merit judicial review, believed that the issue itself, the powers of the President to break treaties without congressional approval, would have been arguable had Congress issued a formal opposition through a resolution to the termination of the treaty. (The Senate had drafted such a resolution, but not voted upon it).[2] This would have turned the case into a constitutional debate between the executive powers granted to the President and the legislative powers granted to Congress. As the case stood, however, it was simply a dispute among unsettled, competing political forces within the legislative and executive branches of government, and hence still political in nature due to the lack of majority or supermajority vote in the Senate speaking officially as a constitutional institution. Today, the case is considered a textbook example of the political question doctrine in U.S. constitutional law.


  • Quotes 1
  • Conclusion 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


Prudential considerations persuade me that a dispute between Congress and the President is not ready for judicial review unless and until each branch has taken action asserting its constitutional authority.... The Judicial Branch should not decide issues affecting the allocation of power between the President and Congress until the political branches reach a constitutional impasse. Otherwise, we would encourage small groups or even individual Members of Congress to seek judicial resolution of issues before the normal political process has the opportunity to resolve the conflict. If the Congress, by appropriate formal action, had challenged the President’s authority to terminate the treaty with Taiwan, the resulting uncertainty could have serious consequences for our country. In that situation, it would be the duty of this Court to resolve the issue.
— Justice Powell in his opinion
I am of the view that the basic question presented by the petitioners in this case is "political" and therefore nonjusticiable because it involves the authority of the President in the conduct of our country's foreign relations and the extent to which the Senate or the Congress is authorized to negate the action of the President.
— Justice Rehnquist in his opinion
The issue of decisionmaking authority must be resolved as a matter of constitutional law, not political discretion; accordingly, it falls within the competence of the courts
— Justice Brennan in his dissenting opinion


While dismissing the case of Goldwater v. Carter, the Supreme Court left the question of the constitutionality of the President Carter's action open. Powell and Rehnquist merely questioned the judicial merit of the case itself; they did not explicitly approve Carter's action.[3] Moreover, Powell even stated that this could be a valid constitutional issue.[2] Article II, Section II of the Constitution merely states that the President cannot make treaties without a Senate majority two-thirds vote. As it stands now, there is no official ruling on whether the President has the power to break a treaty without the approval of Congress.

See also


  1. ^ Goldwater v. Carter, 444 U.S. 996 (Supreme Court of the United States December 13, 1979).
  2. ^ a b Powell's opinion, Section III, Paragraph 1
  3. ^ Powell's opinion, Section I, Paragraph 1; Rehnquist's opinion, Section I, Paragraph 1

External links

  • ^ [ 444 U.S. 996] Full text of the opinion courtesy of
  • "Goldwater v. Carter." [3]
  • "Goldwater v. Carter." Oyez: U.S. Supreme Court Multimedia. [4]
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