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U.S. Supreme Court

Japan Whaling Ass'n v. Cetacean Soc'y, 478 U.S. 221 (1986)

Japan Whaling Association v. American Cetacean Society

No. 85-954

Argued April 30, 1986

Decided June 30, 1986*

478 U.S. 221


The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) included a Schedule regulating whale harvesting practices of member nations (including the United States and Japan) and setting harvest limits for various whale species. It also established the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and authorized it to set harvest quotas. However, the IWC has no power to impose sanctions for quota violations, and any member country may file a timely objection to an IWC amendment of the Schedule and thereby exempt itself from any obligation to comply with the limit. 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 enacted the Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen's Protective Act of 1967, directing the Secretary of Commerce (Secretary) to certify to the President if nationals of a foreign country are conducting fishing operations in such a manner as to "diminish the effectiveness" of an international fishery conservation program. The President, in his discretion, may then direct the imposition of sanctions on the certified nation. Later, Congress passed the Packwood Amendment to the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, requiring expedition of the certification process and mandating that, if the Secretary certifies that nationals of a foreign country are conducting fishing operations in such a manner as to "diminish the effectiveness" of the ICRW, economic sanctions must be imposed by the Executive Branch against the offending nation. After the IWC established a zero quota for certain sperm whales and ordered a 5-year moratorium on commercial whaling to begin in 1985, Japan filed objections to both limitations, and thus was not bound thereby. However, in 1984, Japan and the United States concluded an executive agreement whereby Japan pledged to adhere to certain harvest limits and to cease commercial whaling by 1988, and the Secretary agreed that the United States would not certify Japan under either the Pelly Amendment or the Packwood Amendment if Japan complied with its pledges. Shortly before consummation chanrobles.com-red

Page 478 U. S. 222

of the executive agreement, several wildlife conservation groups filed suit in Federal District Court, seeking a writ of mandamus to compel the Secretary to certify Japan, and the court granted summary judgment for the groups, concluding that any taking of whales in excess of the IWC's quotas diminished the effectiveness of the ICRW. The court ordered the Secretary immediately to certify to the President that Japan was in violation of the sperm whale quota. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. The political question doctrine does not bar judicial resolution of the instant controversy. The courts have the authority to construe international treaties and executive agreements and to interpret congressional legislation. The challenge to the Secretary's decision not to certify Japan presents a purely legal question of statutory interpretation. The Judiciary's constitutional responsibility to interpret statutes cannot be shirked simply because a decision may have significant political overtones. Pp. 478 U. S. 229-230.

2. Neither the Pelly Amendment nor the Packwood Amendment required the Secretary to certify Japan for refusing to abide by the IWC whaling quotas. The Secretary's decision to secure the certainty of Japan's future compliance with the IWC's program through the 1984 executive agreement, rather than to rely on the possibility that certification and imposition of economic sanctions would produce the same or a better result, is a reasonable construction of the Amendments. Pp. 478 U. S. 231-241.

(a) Under the terms of the Amendments, certification is neither permitted nor required until the Secretary determines that nationals of a foreign country are conducting fishing operations in a manner that "diminishes the effectiveness" of the ICRW. Although the Secretary must promptly make a certification decision, there is no statutory definition of the words "diminish the effectiveness" or specification of the factors that the Secretary should consider in making the decision entrusted to him alone. The statutory language does not direct the Secretary automatically and regardless of the circumstances to certify a nation that fails to conform to the IWC whaling Schedule. Pp. 478 U. S. 231-234.

(b) Nothing in the legislative history of either Amendment addresses the nature of the Secretary's duty and requires him to certify every departure from the IWC's scheduled limits on whaling. The history of the Pelly Amendment and its subsequent amendment shows that Congress had no intention to require the Secretary to certify every departure from the limits set by an international conservation program, and that Congress used the phrase "diminish the effectiveness" to give the Secretary a range of certification discretion. Although the Packwood Amendment was designed to remove executive discretion in imposing chanrobles.com-red

Page 478 U. S. 223

sanctions once certification had been made, Congress specifically retained the identical certification standard of the Pelly Amendment, and the legislative history does not indicate that the certification standard requires the Secretary, regardless of the circumstances, to certify each and every departure from the IWC's whaling Schedules. Pp. 478 U. S. 234-241.

247 U.S.App.D.C. 309, 768 F.2d 426, reversed.

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. 478 U. S. 241.


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