Yesterday SCOTUS decided MEDELLIN v. TEXAS. This was one of the most important cases of the term with huge implications for American sovereignty. At stake was whether the International Court of Justice could command state and federal courts to alter PCR procedural default rules. President Bush and the ICJ said yes, but thankfully, SCOTUS said no. The decision is a blow to unchecked executive power, which the Bush Administration is so fond of, and a blow to efforts of international courts to erode American sovereignty.
Here's a synopsis of the case:
Jose Ernesto Medellin is a Mexican national who has lived in the United States since pre-school. Medellin was also a member of a Texas street gang. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Texas after his significant participation in the gang rape and killings of two Houston teenagers. After a trial and a direct appeal, Medellin raised a claim under the Vienna Convention when he filed an application for post-conviction relief in state court. The state court held that the Vienna Convention claim was procedurally defaulted because Medellin had failed to raise the claim at trial or on direct appeal. At base, Medellin argued that as a Mexican national he was entitled to have the Mexican authorities notified of his arrest and that the failure to do so affected the validity of his conviction and punishment.
Medellin turned to the federal courts and filed a 2254 petition. While the federal courts litigated this matter, the International Court of Justice held that the United States had violated Article 36(1)(b) of the Vienna Convention by failing to inform Medellin and 50 other Mexican nationals of their rights under the Vienna Convention. The ICJ held that the United States was obligated to review these convictions and that procedural default rules of the state and federal courts should not be a barrier.
President George Bush entered the mix after receiving the ICJ decision. Bush ordered state courts to give affect to the ICJ’s decision.
In considering the claims of Medellin, the Supreme Court first considered whether the ICJ judgment constituted a binding obligation on the federal courts and the state courts of the United States. Medellin invoked the supremacy clause to argue that the Vienna Convention was a supreme law of the land and that state law or federal rules preempting certain post-conviction relief matters must yield.
The supreme court recognized that treaties may comprise international commitments, but they are not binding domestic law unless Congress has enacted implementing statutes or the treaty conveys an intention that it is self-executing. The court observed that there is no self-executing language and that the signatories of the Convention understood that if a state failed to perform an obligation under a judgment of the ICJ, then the other parties to the action could petition the United Nations Security Council for assistance. This was the understanding at the time of ratification.
The court next turned to the contention that the ICJ judgment was binding on state courts by virtue of George Bush’s declaration that it was. The court observed that the President has a number of political and diplomatic means available to enforce international obligations, but unilaterally converting a non-self-executing treaty into a self-executing one is not among them. Congress has the responsibility of passing legislation if it desires to transform a non-self-executing treaty into a self-executing treaty. The President cannot assume legislative power under our Constitution.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and its refusal to re-exam Medellin’s claims based on the directives of the ICJ and President Bush.