If a migrant worker in a California avocado field is injured on the job due to employer negligence and decides to sue, should international labor standards play any part in the court proceedings or the judge’s decision?
Whether another nation’s laws or legal precedents should affect American jurisprudence remains a highly controversial question. It lay at the heart of “Navigating a New Era: An Experts' Dialogue on International Labor Standards and the U.S. Judiciary,” a one-day conference held at Catholic University’s law school on March 28th.
The program, co-sponsored by CUA Law and the International Labor Organization, was conceived by Karen Tramontano, chief executive officer at Blue Star Strategies, LLC and a 1982 alumna of the Columbus School of Law. It brought together leading scholars in the area of international labor law to address both the questions and criticisms surrounding the interpretation of international labor law and its application to domestic disputes.
The U.S. judiciary has been increasingly called upon to analyze labor and human rights issues referencing not only federal and state law but also international labor standards as relevant authority.
Yet it’s not an easy or comfortable process for many judges in the United States, acknowledged keynote speaker Peter J. Messitte, (top photo) U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Maryland.
“We want to tie it to some species of American law. Most judges will be cautious about openly embracing foreign law. We live in that environment,” said Messitte.
Unlike their colleagues overseas, American judges are bound by precedent, deciding cases on relatively narrow grounds, and trying to rule on facts alone, avoiding hypotheticals.
Still, “truth is where you find it,” said Messitte, who predicted that there will be a greater sensitivity to international law, labor and otherwise, in the future because it’s natural for judges to want to know where the rest of the world stands on a given issue.
Later speakers in the program dealt with issues such as how U.S. laws use core labor standards to address modern day slavery, illegal child labor, and human trafficking.
The application of foreign or international law to U.S. labor issues is an evolving process because, except for the establishment of diplomatic treaties, the Founding Fathers were mostly silent on the question.
“Unfortunately, the Constitution gives us no guidance at all about the incorporation of customary laws from other nations,” said Steven Schneebaum, a partner in the Washington, DC, office of Fox Rothschild, LLP.
Nonetheless, some panelists expect that today’s trans-border realities, such as the global supply chains that distribute consumer good everywhere, will necessitate a broader understanding of the application of law.
“You will see international labor standards creep back into American law,” predicted Earl V. Brown Jr., of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity.
Keynote address, U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte
Earl Brown, American Center for International Labor Solidarity
Michael Gadbaw, Georgetown University Law Center
Shelby Quast, visiting professor, Catholic University Columbus School of Law
Steven Schneebaum, partner, Fox Rothschild, LLP
Karen Tramontano, president of Global Fairness Initiative (moderator)
Plenary address by Janice Bellace, chair, Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department, Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania
Lance Compa, senior lecturer, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University
Stefan Marculewicz, Littler Mendelson P.C.
Judy Scott, general counsel, Service Employees International Union
John Higgins, Catholic University, Columbus School of Law (moderator)