Goldwater v. Carter

444 U.S. 996 (1979)

Quick Summary

Senator Barry Goldwater (plaintiff) and others brought a suit against President Jimmy Carter (defendant), challenging his unilateral termination of a defense treaty with Taiwan. The core dispute was over the constitutional authority of the President to rescind treaties without legislative approval.

The Supreme Court held that in this specific case, President Carter had the authority to terminate the treaty without Senate or congressional consent, considering his broad powers in foreign affairs and the absence of a clear constitutional mandate for legislative involvement in treaty termination.

Facts of the Case

President Jimmy Carter (defendant) decided to unilaterally terminate a defense treaty with Taiwan in favor of establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Senator Barry Goldwater and other members of Congress (plaintiffs) challenged this action, arguing that since the Senate is required to approve treaties by a two-thirds majority, it should also have a say in their termination.

The dispute arose over the constitutional interpretation of the President’s power to rescind treaties without Senate approval.

The lower courts had conflicting views, with the district court initially requiring congressional approval for treaty termination, while the court of appeals reversed this decision, supporting the President’s unilateral authority. The Supreme Court was then asked to resolve this constitutional question.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. A group of senators led by Barry Goldwater filed a suit challenging the President’s unilateral action to terminate a treaty with Taiwan.
  2. The district court initially ruled that congressional approval was necessary to terminate a treaty.
  3. The court of appeals reversed the district court’s decision, affirming the President’s authority to terminate the treaty unilaterally.
  4. The case was brought before the United States Supreme Court for a final decision.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the President of the United States has the constitutional authority to unilaterally terminate a treaty without the approval of the Senate or Congress.

Rule of Law

The Constitution does not explicitly grant the power of treaty termination to either Congress or the Executive. However, the President is recognized as having broad authority in foreign affairs and as the constitutional representative of the United States with respect to external affairs.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court emphasized that treaties contain provisions for their own termination and that the Senate, when ratifying such treaties, does not reserve a role for itself in their potential termination. Furthermore, historical precedents showed variability in congressional involvement in treaty termination, with no clear constitutional mandate for congressional approval in all cases.

The Court highlighted the practical implications of requiring Senate consent for treaty termination, which could unduly constrain the President’s ability to manage foreign relations effectively. The reasoning was grounded in the principle that the President, as Chief Executive and representative in international relations, has inherent authority to determine treaty obligations and respond to changing circumstances.


The Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the court of appeals and dismissed the case, concluding that it did not present a justiciable controversy that warranted judicial intervention. The President’s notice of termination of the Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan was deemed effective without Senate or congressional approval.

Key Takeaways

  1. The President has broad authority in foreign affairs and is considered the constitutional representative for external relations.
  2. Treaty termination does not necessarily require congressional approval unless explicitly stated within the treaty or mandated by subsequent legislation.
  3. The Supreme Court avoids making decisions on political questions that do not present a justiciable controversy.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What are the limitations on the President's power in foreign policy without Congressional approval?

The President may exercise wide discretion in conducting foreign affairs but requires Congressional approval when making commitments that significantly alter U.S. domestic law or entangle the nation in binding international commitments. The War Powers Resolution is an example where Congressional consent is requisite for prolonged military engagement.

  • For example: The President cannot declare war without the authorization of Congress, demonstrating a limitation on presidential power in foreign policy.

Can Congress override an executive agreement made by the President with a foreign nation?

Congress has the authority to pass legislation that could override an executive agreement, provided it does not breach existing treaty obligations under international law.

  • For example: If the President enters into an executive agreement to lease military equipment to another country, Congress could pass a law barring the allocation of funds for such a purpose.

What is the role of the judiciary in disputes between Congress and the President over foreign policy decisions?

The judiciary typically refrains from intervening in political questions or disputes between the legislative and executive branches over foreign policy, respecting the separation of powers and political question doctrine.

  • For example: If Congress challenges the President’s decision to recognize a foreign government, courts would likely consider it a non-justiciable political question outside their purview.


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