Supreme Court: Texas Law Trumps International Court of Justice and President Bush

Today the Supreme Court ruled in MEDELLIN v. TEXAS that Texas (and all the other states) do not need not provide new hearings to Mexican citizens on death row who were not told they could obtain consular help when arrested, as is required by the “Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (Vienna Convention or Convention).”

Here’s the background of the case:

No. 06-984. Argued October 10, 2007–Decided March 25, 2008

In the Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mex. v. U. S.), 2004 I. C. J. 12 (Avena), the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held that the United States had violated Article 36(1)(b) of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (Vienna Convention or Convention) by failing to inform 51 named Mexican nationals, including petitioner Medellín, of their Vienna Convention rights. The ICJ found that those named individuals were entitled to review and reconsideration of their U. S. state-court convictions and sentences regardless of their failure to comply with generally applicable state rules governing challenges to criminal convictions. In Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon, 548 U. S. 331–issued after Avena but involving individuals who were not named in the Avena judgment–this Court held, contrary to the ICJ’s determination, that the Convention did not preclude the application of state default rules. The President then issued a memorandum (President’s Memorandum or Memorandum) stating that the United States would “discharge its international obligations” under Avena “by having State courts give effect to the decision.” (Source:

So, this all came about by an appeal from José Ernesto Medellín, who was sentenced to death (TEXAS!) for the rape and strangling of two innocent teenage girls who walked in on a gang initiation in Texas on their way home from a friend’s house in 1993.

He appealed because the President Bush said that the state of Texas had to disregard their law (about not having to let him have another trial) and follow the ICJ ruling.

But Medellín brought up the subject of the Vienna Convention rights until after he was convicted and sentenced.  When he appealed, Texas judges said he was not allowed to bring it up in later appeals.  “The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had ruled most recently that neither the 2004 ICJ decision nor Bush’s memo was binding federal law that could override state rules.” (Source: USA Today)

Medellín’s lawyer, Donald Francis Donovan, said that he was disappointed, but offered a ray of hope to Medellín in that the Congress could still pass a law that would require the ICJ ruling to be upheld (this was also said by the Supreme Court in the ruling).

Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, with Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito joined, saying:

No one disputes that the Avena decision–a decision that flows from the treaties through which the United States submitted to ICJ jurisdiction with respect to Vienna Convention disputes–constitutes an international law obligation on the part of the United States. But not all international law obligations automatically constitute binding federal law enforceable in United States courts. The question we confront here is whether the Avena judgment has automatic domestic legal effect such that the judgment of its own force applies in state and federal courts.

Justice John Paul Stevens concurred, saying:

The decision in Avena merely obligates the United States “to provide, by means of its own choosing, review and reconsideration of the convictions and sentences of the [affected] Mexican nationals,” 2004 I. C. J., at 72, ¶153(9), “with a view to ascertaining” whether the failure to provide proper notice to consular officials “caused actual prejudice to the defendant in the process of administration of criminal justice,” id., at 60, ¶121. The cost to Texas of complying with Avena would be minimal, particularly given the remote likelihood that the violation of the Vienna Convention actually prejudiced José Ernesto Medellín. See ante, at 4-6, and n. 1. It is a cost that the State of Oklahoma unhesitatingly assumed.4

On the other hand, the costs of refusing to respect the ICJ’s judgment are significant. The entire Court and the President agree that breach will jeopardize the United States’ “plainly compelling” interests in “ensuring the reciprocal observance of the Vienna Convention, protecting relations with foreign governments, and demonstrating commitment to the role of international law.” Ante, at 28. When the honor of the Nation is balanced against the modest cost of compliance, Texas would do well to recognize that more is at stake than whether judgments of the ICJ, and the principled admonitions of the President of the United States, trump state procedural rules in the absence of implementing legislation.

Justice Stephen Breyer issued the dissent, with Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joining, saying:

In sum, a strong line of precedent, likely reflecting the views of the Founders, indicates that the treaty provisions before us and the judgment of the International Court of Justice address themselves to the Judicial Branch and consequently are self-executing. In reaching a contrary conclusion, the Court has failed to take proper account of that precedent and, as a result, the Nation may well break its word even though the President seeks to live up to that word and Congress has done nothing to suggest the contrary.

I would join the opinion of the court here – without Congress passing a Federal law, states don’t have to abide by the treaty, and to force them to not only destroys the sovereignty of the states and the Federalist system, but also the sovereignty of the country as a whole.  Who cares what some international court decided – this guy raped and murdered 2 teenage girls, and he deserves to die.

I commend the court for its decision here.  God bless Texas!

Done Ranting,

Ranting Republican
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