Supreme Court Case Tests U.S. Passport Law

The U.S. Supreme Court recently began hearing arguments in a case that has implications for U.S. passport procedures and has a bearing on international diplomacy.

At issue is the passport of Menachem Zivotofsky, a 9-year-old with American citizenship who was born in Jerusalem. Because Jerusalem is disputed territory, the longstanding U.S. policy has been to simply name Jerusalem, without a country, as birthplace on the passports of individuals like Menachem.

This procedure was challenged in 2002, when Congress passed a law giving parents the right to have Israel listed as place of birth for their Jerusalem-born children. Citing the possibility of sparking an international incident, the State Department refused to comply with the law and denied the Zivotofskys’ request, leading to the current court case.

During arguments on November 7, the Supreme Court justices seemed to indicate they will rule against the Zivotofskys. According to The Associated Press, Chief Justice John Roberts said the family seemed to be asking the court to favor their amateur foreign policy judgment over the president’s, and Justice Elena Kagan stated that the Congressional law is questionable.

“It’s a passport statute that seems to have nothing to do with immigration functions that passport statutes usually serve,” the AP quoted Kagan as saying.

The Zivotofskys’ counsel argued that Congress had determined it would not hurt U.S. foreign policy to list Israel as place of birth in cases such as these.

Instructions on the U.S. Department of State website give some idea of the passport complexities that have resulted from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The site warns that U.S. citizens whose parents or grandparents were born in the West Bank or Gaza might be considered Palestinian by Israeli immigration officials, and will be barred from entering or exiting the country without a Palestinian Authority passport, except at a certain point of entry, where they will be granted passage if they have a Jordanian visa and a U.S. passport.