by James Oliphant
Texas has wanted to put Jose Medellin to death for a long time. It looks like the state is going to get its way.
The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday sided with Texas against the Bush administration in a highly charged dispute over whether international treaty obligations can affect state criminal proceedings.
In a 6-3 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court rejected the administration's claim that Texas should abide by a ruling from a world court that Medellin merited a new trial. Medellin is a Mexican native who has lived most of his life in the United States.
In 1993, Medellin and a gang of boys in Houston attacked, raped and murdered two teenage girls walking home. He was arrested, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death.
After Medellin was convicted, Mexico brought suit in the International Court of Justice, the judicial body of the United Nations, charging that the U.S. had violated the Vienna Convention. That treaty requires that foreign nationals arrested in a signatory country be allowed to meet with a consular official from their home country. It's a tool treasured by diplomats, American and otherwise, worldwide.
Mexico brought suit because is critical of capital punishment in the United States. Mexico claimed that Medellin and 50 other Mexican nationals on Death Row in the U.S. had been denied their right to consult with its consulate, where they would have received legal assistance in an effort to avoid a death sentence.
The international court found for Mexico in 2004 and told the U.S. to review the convictions and death sentences of the 51 Mexican nationals.
The White House criticized the ruling, but in 2005 it startled Texas officials and others by saying it would comply. President Bush ordered the Texas courts to allow Medellin's habeas corpus claim challenging his conviction to go forward.
Texas state courts have found repeatedly that under state law, Medellin has no right to challenge his conviction and sentence, even if the Vienna treaty was violated. There is no dispute that Medellin wasn't notified of his treaty rights when he was arrested, but the state has argued he failed to raise that objection at trial, forfeiting the claim.
The Bush administration claimed a memo signed by Bush had the force of federal law on the state, ordering it to set aside Medellin's conviction. In the opinion released today, it's clear the majority of the court didn't buy that. Moreover, the court seems to suggest that the United States' international treaty obligations don't obligate the country to do very much.
The six-justice majority held that the treaties involved were not "self-executing," meaning they required an act of Congress to implement its obligations and give them the force of federal law. Bush's memorandum, the court held, exceeded his executive branch authority.
The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a California-based group which filed a friend-of-the-Court brief on behalf of the family of one of the two teen-aged girls Medellin murdered, had argued in support of today’s decision. The organization said Tuesday it expects Medillin to be executed as soon as the Supreme Court rules in the pending case involving the protocol used to put prisoners to death.
“The controversy over a treaty signed 45 years ago has delayed justice in this case which involves a brutal, remorseless murderer,” said Kent Scheidegger, the foundation’s legal director. “As soon as the lethal injection controversy is resolved, which we expect to happen this year, justice can finally be carried out in this case,” he added.
"We are disappointed in the Supreme Court's decision, " said Donald Francis Donovan, the New York lawyer who argued the case on behalf of Medeillin, "which is a departure from the original intent of the framers of the Constitution and over 200 years of enforcement of treaties by U.S. courts." Donovan called on the White House and Congress to work to implement the obligations of the Vienna treaty to give international court judgments some force of law. "Having given its word, the United States should keep its word," Donovan said.
You can read the Supreme Court's decision here.