Supreme Court Topples Massachusetts Boycott Of Burma
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
The Supreme Court Monday ruled that state and local boycotts of foreign regimes labeled as abusers of human rights laws are unconstitutional.
In a unanimous decision, the court struck down a Massachusetts law that forbade the state government to purchase products from companies doing business with Myanmar, or Burma. It said the law usurped the foreign policy-making powers of the federal government.
"The state act is at odds with the president's intended authority to speak for the United States among the world's nations in developing a comprehensive, multilateral strategy to bring democracy to and improve human rights practices and the quality of life in Burma," Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court.
Massachusetts then-Governor William Weld signed the law in June 1996. Motorola, Hewlett-Packard and Apple Corp, among others, cited it as the reason they pulled up stakes in Burma.
Simon Billenness, a Massachusetts activist who lobbied for the law, said that the bill was a carbon copy of the South African boycott legislation that 25 states and 164 localities passed during apartheid in the 1980s. The authors just erased South Africa and wrote Burma in the its place, he said.
China, Northern Ireland and East Timor have been the targets of similar city and state resolutions and laws using selective purchasing to freeze companies out of government contracts if they deal with unpopular foreign governments.
Massachusetts was the only state to pass a law holding companies responsible for investing in Burma, but cities and counties had passed similar legislation since 1995. They include New York City, Madison, Wisc., Ann Arbor, Mich., Boulder, Colo., Portland, Ore., Newark, N.J., Oakland, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Berkeley, Palo Alto, San Francisco and Santa Cruz California, Takoma Park, MD, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, NC, and Alameda County, Calif.
Massachusetts argued that it had a constitutional right to choose whom it would buy products and services from and that it also had the right to apply a "moral standard" to these decisions.
The National Foreign Trade Council, a private lobbying group representing about 600 companies involved in foreign trade, argued that the law was in conflict with the constitutional role of the federal government to act on behalf of the United States in the international arena.
Massachusetts Representative Byron Rushing, a Democrat, who authored the Burma law said that he will introduce new legislation that complies with the Supreme Court's ruling. "The Court's decision does leave room for state and local governments to heed moral concerns in the way they do business in the global economy," Rushing said.