International Adjudication and Custom Breaking by Domestic Courts

By Katzenstein, Suzanne | Duke Law Journal, December 2012 | Go to article overview

International Adjudication and Custom Breaking by Domestic Courts


Katzenstein, Suzanne, Duke Law Journal


ABSTRACT

This Essay identifies a fundamental but overlooked tension between international adjudication and the evolution of customary international law (CIL). According to the traditional understanding, the evolution of CIL requires one or more states to deviate from existing customary rules and engage in new conduct--a concept that I refer to as "custom breaking." A deviation's legal status is determined over time, as other states respond by deciding whether to follow the proposed break or adhere to the existing rule. Therefore, the deviation cannot be classified definitively as either legal or illegal at the time it occurs. During the period of state response, CIL necessarily contains some legal ambiguity and inconsistency. Because an important function of international adjudication involves resolving ambiguities in the law, a central tension emerges: international courts may be called upon to adjudicate a break with CIL before other states have had the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to follow the break. Given that most international courts will invalidate deviations from the status quo, international adjudication risks impeding the traditional process by which CIL evolves. More specifically, international adjudication of cases that involve custom breaking may have both a procedural and a substantive effect: procedurally, it may short-circuit state responses to the break with CIL, and substantively, it may deter states from following the custom breaker, even when the other states are not formally bound by the international judicial decision. To illustrate these constraining effects, this Essay discusses three departures by domestic courts from the foreign sovereign immunity rule. It concludes by proposing that in cases involving custom breaking, international courts should adopt, as Professor Cass Sunstein has argued for U.S. courts, a minimalist approach that produces narrow and shallow decisions. This judicial strategy would give states, including their domestic courts, the opportunity to determine for themselves whether a break with international custom is the beginning of a new legal rule.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction

I.   A Central Tension: The Evolution of Customary International
       Law and the Role of International Adjudication
       A. The Traditional Customary International Law Process
       B. The Functions of International Adjudication
       C. The Constraining Effect of International Adjudication
          on the Evolution of Customary International Law
II.  Custom Breaking by Domestic Courts: The Foreign
     Sovereign Immunity Rule
     A. Congo v. Belgium
     B. Germany v. Italy
     C. The Pinochet Case
III. International Judicial Minimalism
     A. Judicial Minimalism in the International Context
     B. Elephants in the Room: The Power Critique
Conclusion

INTRODUCTION

In certain cases, international adjudication and the evolution of customary international law (CIL) are in profound tension. This tension stems from the role of international courts in resolving ambiguities in international law and the manner--widely recognized as paradoxical--by which CIL evolves. CIL is formed by general and consistent state practice that is followed out of a "sense of legal duty," which is referred to as opinio juris. (1) In the traditional conception of CIL, which emphasizes state practice over opinio juris, (2) a state initiates a change in CIL by deviating from the existing widespread practice and engaging in new conduct. In this sense, the evolution of CIL requires its own breaking. (3) At the time it occurs, the legal status of the break with CIL is uncertain. (4) It is unclear whether the custom-breaking state is violating CIL or changing it. (5) The legality of the deviation is determined by how other states respond--whether they decide to accept the proposed break with CIL or to adhere to the existing rules. At its heart, then, the evolutionary process of CIL requires not only a break from custom but also a period of uncertainty during which other states decide whether to follow course. …

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