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decided*fn*: June 30, 1986.



White, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Powell, Stevens, and O'connor, JJ., joined. Marshall, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Brennan, Blackmun, and Rehnquist, JJ., joined, post, p. 241.

Author: White

[ 478 U.S. Page 223]

 JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

In these cases, we address the question whether, under what are referred to in these cases as the Pelly and Packwood Amendments, 85 Stat. 786, as amended, 22 U. S. C. § 1978; 90 Stat. 337, as amended, 16 U. S. C. § 1821 (1982 ed. and Supp. III), the Secretary of Commerce is required to certify that Japan's whaling practices "diminish the effectiveness" of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling because that country's annual harvest exceeds quotas established under the Convention.


[ 478 U.S. Page 224]

     For centuries, men have hunted whales in order to obtain both food and oil, which, in turn, can be processed into a myriad of other products. Although at one time a harrowing and perilous profession, modern technological innovations have transformed whaling into a routine form of commercial fishing, and have allowed for a multifold increase in whale harvests worldwide.

Based on concern over the effects of excessive whaling, 15 nations formed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), Dec. 2, 1946, 62 Stat. 1716, T.I.A.S. No. 1849 (entered into force Nov. 10, 1948). The ICRW was designed to "provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry," id., at 1717, and today serves as the principal international mechanism for promoting the conservation and development of whale populations. See generally Smith, The International Whaling Commission: An Analysis of the Past and Reflections on the Future, 16 Nat. Resources Law. 543 (1984). The United States was a founding member of the ICRW; Japan joined in 1951.

To achieve its purposes, the ICRW included a Schedule which, inter alia, regulates harvesting practices and sets harvest limits for various whale species. Art. I, 62 Stat. 1717, 1723-1727. In addition, the ICRW established the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which implements portions of the Convention and is authorized to amend the Schedule and set new harvest quotas. See Art. III, 62 Stat. 1717-1718; Art. V, 62 Stat. 1718-1719. See generally Smith, supra, at 547-550. The quotas are binding on IWC members if accepted by a three-fourths' majority vote. Art. III, 62 Stat. 1717. Under the terms of the Convention, however, the IWC has no power to impose sanctions for quota violations. See Art. IX, 62 Stat. 1720. Moreover, any member country may file a timely objection to an IWC amendment of the Schedule and thereby exempt itself from any obligation

[ 478 U.S. Page 225]

     to comply with the limit unless and until the objection is withdrawn. Art. V, 62 Stat. 1718-1719. All non-objecting countries remain bound by the amendment.

Because of the IWC's inability to enforce its own quota and in an effort to promote enforcement of quotas set by other international fishery conservation programs, Congress passed the Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen's Protective Act of 1967. 22 U. S. C. § 1978. Principally intended to preserve and protect North American Atlantic salmon from depletion by Danish fishermen in violation of the ban imposed by the International Convention for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries, the Amendment protected whales as well. See 117 Cong. Rec. 34752 (1971) (remarks of Rep. Pelly); H. R. Rep. No. 92-468, p. 6 (1971). The Amendment directs the Secretary of Commerce to certify to the President if "nationals of a foreign country, directly or indirectly, are conducting fishing operations in a manner or under circumstances which diminish the effectiveness of an international fishery conservation program . . . ." 22 U. S. C. § 1978(a)(1). Upon certification, the President, in his discretion, may then direct the Secretary of the Treasury to prohibit the importation of fish products from the certified nation. § 1978(a)(4). The President may also decline to impose any sanctions or import prohibitions.

After enactment of the Pelly Amendment, the Secretary of Commerce five times certified different nations to the President as engaging in fishing operations which "[diminished] the effectiveness" of IWC quotas. H. R. Rep. No. 95-1029, p. 9 (1978); 125 Cong. Rec. 22084 (1979) (remarks of Rep. Oberstar). None of the certifications resulted in the imposition of sanctions by the President. After each certification, however, the President was able to use the threat of discretionary sanctions to obtain commitments of future compliance from the offending nations.

Although "the Pelly Amendment . . . served the useful function of quietly persuading nations to adhere to the decisions

[ 478 U.S. Page 226]

     of international fishery conservation bodies," H. R. Rep. No. 95-1029, supra, at 9, Congress grew impatient with the Executive's delay in making certification decisions and refusal to impose sanctions. See 125 Cong. Rec. 22083 (1979) (remarks of Rep. Murphy); id., at 22084 (remarks of Rep. Oberstar). As a result, Congress passed the Packwood Amendment to the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, 16 U. S. C. § 1801 et seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. III). This Amendment requires the Secretary of Commerce to "periodically monitor the activities of foreign nationals that may affect [international fishery conservation programs]," 22 U. S. C. § 1978(a)(3)(A); "promptly investigate any activity by foreign nationals that, in the opinion of the Secretary, may be cause for certification . . . ," § 1978(a)(3)(B); and "promptly conclude; and reach a decision with respect to; [that] investigation." § 1978(a)(3)(C).

To rectify the past failure of the President to impose the sanctions authorized -- but not required -- under the Pelly Amendment, the Packwood Amendment removes this element of discretion and mandates the imposition of economic sanctions against offending nations. Under the Amendment, if the Secretary of Commerce certifies that "nationals of a foreign country, directly or indirectly, are conducting fishing operations or engaging in trade or taking which diminishes the effectiveness of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling," 16 U. S. C. § 1821(e)(2)(A)(i), the Secretary of State must reduce, by at least 50%, the offending nation's fishery allocation within the United States' fishery conservation zone. § 1821(e)(2)(B). Although the Amendment requires the imposition of sanctions when the Secretary of Commerce certifies a nation, it did not alter the initial certification process, except for requiring expedition. It was also provided that a certificate under the Packwood Amendment also serves as a certification for the purposes of the Pelly Amendment. § 1821(e)(2)(A)(i).

[ 478 U.S. Page 227]

     In 1981, the IWC established a zero quota for the Western Division stock of Northern Pacific sperm whales. The next year, the IWC ordered a 5-year moratorium on commercial whaling to begin with the 1985-1986 whaling season and last until 1990. In 1982, the IWC acted to grant Japan's request for a 2-year respite -- for the 1982-1983 and 1983-1984 seasons -- from the IWC's earlier decision banning sperm whaling.

Because Japan filed timely objections to both the IWC's 1981 zero quota for Northern Pacific sperm whales and 1982 commercial whaling moratorium, under the terms of the ICRW, it was not bound to comply with either limitation. Nonetheless, as the 1984-1985 whaling season grew near, it was apparently recognized that under either the Pelly or Packwood Amendment, the United States could impose economic sanctions if Japan continued to exceed these whaling quotas.

Following extensive negotiations, on November 13, 1984, Japan and the United States concluded an executive agreement through an exchange of letters between the Charge d'Affaires of Japan and the Secretary of Commerce. See App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 85-955, pp. 102A-109A. Subject to implementation requirements,*fn1 Japan pledged to adhere

[ 478 U.S. Page 228]

     to certain harvest limits and to cease commercial whaling by 1988. Id., at 104A-106A. In return and after consulting with the United States Commissioner to the IWC, the Secretary determined that the short-term continuance of a specified level of limited whaling by Japan, coupled with its promise to discontinue all commercial whaling by 1988, "would not diminish the effectiveness of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, 1946, or its conservation program." Id., at 107A. Accordingly, the Secretary informed Japan that, so long as Japan complied with its pledges, the United States would not certify Japan under either Amendment. See id., at 104A.

Several days before consummation of the executive agreement, several wildlife conservation groups*fn2 filed suit in District Court seeking a writ of mandamus compelling the Secretary of Commerce to certify Japan.*fn3 Because in its view any taking of whales in excess of the IWC quotas diminishes the

[ 478 U.S. Page 229]

     effectiveness of the ICRW, the District Court granted summary judgment for respondents and ordered the Secretary of Commerce immediately to certify to the President that Japan was in violation of the IWC sperm whale quota. 604 F.Supp. 1398, 1411 (DC 1985). Thereafter, Japan's Minister for Foreign Affairs informed the Secretary of Commerce that Japan would perform the second condition of the agreement -- withdrawal of its objection to the IWC moratorium -- provided that the United States obtained reversal of the District Court's order. App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 85-955, pp. 116A-118A.

A divided Court of Appeals affirmed. 247 U. S. App. D.C. 309, 768 F.2d 426 (1985). Recognizing that the Pelly and Packwood-Magnuson Amendments did not define the specific activities which would "diminish the effectiveness" of the ICRW, the court looked to the Amendments' legislative history and concluded, as had the District Court, that the taking by Japanese nationals of whales in excess of quota automatically called for certification by the Secretary. We granted certiorari, 474 U.S. 1053 (1986), and now reverse.


We address first the Japanese petitioners' contention that the present actions are unsuitable for judicial review because they involve foreign relations and that a federal court, therefore, lacks the judicial power to command the Secretary of Commerce, an Executive Branch official, to dishonor and repudiate an international agreement. Relying on the political question doctrine, and quoting Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 217 (1969), the Japanese petitioners argue that the danger of "embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question" bars any judicial resolution of the instant controversy.

We disagree. Baker carefully pointed out that not every matter touching on politics is a political question, id., at 209, and more specifically, that it is "error to suppose that every

[ 478 U.S. Page 230]

     case or controversy which touches foreign relations lies beyond judicial cognizance." Id., at 211. The political question doctrine excludes from judicial review those controversies which revolve around policy choices and value determinations constitutionally committed for resolution to the halls of Congress or the confines of the Executive Branch. The Judiciary is particularly ill suited to make such decisions, as "courts are fundamentally underequipped to formulate national policies or develop standards for matters not legal in nature." United States ex rel. Joseph v. Cannon, 206 U. S. App. D.C. 405, 411, 642 F.2d 1373, 1379 (1981) (footnote omitted), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 999 (1982).

As Baker plainly held, however, the courts have the authority to construe treaties and executive agreements, and it goes without saying that interpreting congressional legislation is a recurring and accepted task for the federal courts. It is also evident that the challenge to the Secretary's decision not to certify Japan for harvesting whales in excess of IWC quotas presents a purely legal question of statutory interpretation. The Court must first determine the nature and scope of the duty imposed upon the Secretary by the Amendments, a decision which calls for applying no more than the traditional rules of statutory construction, and then applying this analysis to the particular set of facts presented below. We are cognizant of the interplay between these Amendments and the conduct of this Nation's foreign relations, and we recognize the premier role which both Congress and the Executive play in this field. But under the Constitution, one of the Judiciary's characteristic roles is to interpret ...

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