A joint resolution of Congress doesn’t empower the United States to acquire another country. Only a treaty can do that.
Professor Williamson Chang of the University of Hawai’i Williams S. Richardson School of Law as a contributor previously published this article in Civil Beat. Professor Chang has allowed this piece to be posted on this blog. Williamson Chang is a professor of Law and member of the faculty senate at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Professor Chang has been teaching at the University of Hawai‘i School of Law for 37 years. He specializes in water rights, Native Hawaiian rights, the legal history of Hawai‘i and conflict of laws.
In Civil Beat recently, Justice Antonin Scalia, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, made two critical points on the annexation of Hawaii: First, he stated that a joint resolution of the United States could acquire the territory of Hawai‘i — a foreign, sovereign and independent nation state. Second, he stated that the Constitution permitted the use of a joint resolution instead of a treaty.
He was wrong on both points.
First, a joint resolution is merely a law, an act of Congress. It has no power to acquire the territory of a foreign, sovereign state. If such a thing were possible, Hawai‘i itself could have, by an act of its Legislature, acquired the United States. Second, the only mode by which the United States could acquire Hawai‘i, an independent and sovereign nation like the United States, would be by treaty.
Second, the acquisition of Hawai‘i by a joint resolution of Congress would undermine the Constitution. The use of a joint resolution in place of a treaty would be an “end run” around an enumerated power — the power over foreign affairs that is delegated solely to the president and the Senate. The House has no power as to foreign affairs and does not vote on or ratify treaties.
Moreover, the use of joint resolution to accomplish a treaty with a foreign sovereign undermines the super-majority required of the Senate as to the ratification of treaties. The Senate must ratify such measures by a two-thirds majority of those Senators present.
This is made clear in the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Clause 2: “[The President] shall have the Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur …”
The inability of President William McKinley to garner the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Annexation of 1897 led the administration to seek annexation by a mere act of Congress — a joint resolution. The administration could pass a joint resolution but not a treaty. This is precisely why McKinley attempted to annex by joint resolution.
Many are ignorant of or deceived about the joint resolution and the acquisition of Hawai‘i. Many do not know the specifics of the U.S. Constitution or the history of Hawai‘i. Yet, we expect more from Justice Scalia, for he has great power over the future of Native Hawaiians. His exchange with Jacob Bryan Aki, as published in Civil Beat, showed a surprising lack of constitutional knowledge. Aki, a Hawaiian student at George Washington University, asked Justice Scalia the following question during a class visit to the Supreme Court on Feb. 11:
“Does the Constitution provide Congress the power to annex a foreign nation through a joint resolution rather than a treaty?”
Scalia answered by first turning the question back at Aki. “Why would a treaty be needed,” he asked. “There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits Congress from annexing a foreign state through the means of a joint resolution. If the joint resolution is passed through both the U.S. House and Senate, then signed by the president, it went through a ‘process.’ ”
Let us pretend that Scalia was on the floor of the U.S. Senate in the summer of 1898. Sen. William V. Allen of Nebraska and others would have reminded him that a joint resolution is only an act of Congress. It has no power to reach out and acquire foreign territory or a foreign country.
“A joint resolution if passed becomes a statute law. It has no other or greater force. It is the same as if it were entitled ‘an act.’ That is its legal classification,” said Allen. “It is therefore impossible for the government of the United States to reach across its boundaries into the dominion of another government and annex that government or the persons or property therein.
“But the United States may do so under the treaty making power, which I shall hereafter consider.”
In addition, Allen said, “Mr. President, how can a joint resolution such as this be operative? What is the legislative jurisdiction of Congress? Does it extend over Hawai‘i? May we in this anticipatory manner reach out beyond the sea and assert our authority under a resolution of Congress within the confines of that independent nation? Where is our right, our grant of power, to do this? Where do we find it?
“The joint resolution itself, it is admitted, amounts to nothing so far as carrying any effective force is concerned. It does not bring that country within our boundaries. It does not consummate itself.”
“It is admitted that if the Joint Resolution is adopted, the Republic of Hawai‘i can determine whether or not it will accept the provisions contained in the joint resolution. In other words, the adoption of the resolution does not consummate the transaction.
“The Republic of Hawai‘i does not become a part or the territory of the United States by the adoption of the joint resolution …”
Sen. A.O. Bacon of Georgia made the same point: “Under the law of the equal sovereignty of states, one independent and sovereign nation such as the United States cannot take another nation, such as Hawai‘i, by means or its own legislative act.”
Bacon noted that if the United States could take Hawai‘i by joint resolution, it could so take Jamaica. If that were true, any nation could acquire any other. Hawai‘i could annex the United States. “If the President of the United States can do it in the case of Hawai‘i, he can with equal propriety and legality do it in the case of Jamaica …”
Sen. Stephen White of California noted annexation by joint resolution was unprecedented: in American history: “… there is no instance where by a joint resolution it has been attempted not only to annex a foreign land far remote from our shores, but also to annihilate a nation, to withdraw it from the sovereign societies of the world as a government.”
On the issue of the constitutionality of the use of a joint resolution, Bacon made it clear: Hawai‘i could only be acquired by a Treaty. “If Hawai‘i is to be annexed, it ought certainly to be annexed by a constitutional method; and if by a constitutional method, it cannot be annexed, no Senator ought to desire its annexation.”
Finally, Bacon — one of the most senior members of the Senate — predicted that the annexation of Hawai‘i by joint resolution would do great damage to the Constitution and the Union.
“If we pass the joint resolution, we enter upon a revolution which shall convert this country from a peaceful country into a warlike country. If we pass the resolution, we transform this country from one engaged in its own concerns into one which shall immediately proceed to intermeddle with the concerns of all the world.
“If we pass the joint resolution, we inaugurate a revolution which shall convert this country from one designed for the advancement and the prosperity and the happiness of our citizens into one which shall seek its gratification in dominion and domination and foreign acquisition.”
Native Hawaiians have forgotten that many Americans stood with them in 1898. After all, the Treaty of 1897, the only legal means for taking Hawai‘i, failed not because the Senate of the Republic of Hawai‘i failed to ratify the Treaty. It was the United States Senate that did not ratify the Treaty.
In conclusion, the joint resolution could not acquire Hawai‘i. Moreover, it was unconstitutional. Justice Scalia’s comments are evidence of the pervasive and widespread falsehoods as to annexation that have spread to the highest political and judicial offices in the United States. The myth of annexation is a deliberate deception that has oppressed the people of Hawai‘i for 122 years.
Historic quotes above are from Volume 31 of the Congressional Record pages 6142 to 6712, the verbatim record of the Senate debate in 1898.