International Law v. Domestic Law
Thursday, March 27, 2008
On March 25, in a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that, in cases where an international treaty is non-self-executing, whether the treaty has domestic effect in the U.S. depends upon implementing legislation passed by Congress. The Court rejected the position set forth in the dissenting opinion that it should be left to the judiciary to determine the domestic effect of such a treaty.
The case under consideration was Medellín v. Texas, which concerned José Ernesto Medellín, a Mexican national who was sentenced to death in Texas for the 1993 murder of two teenage girls. Medellín appealed his sentence, however, on the grounds that he was not informed of his right under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (the “Vienna Convention”) to access the Mexican consulate before confessing to the murders. The Mexican government then sued the United States in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). According to the Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute:
"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...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 [George W. Bush] then issued a [Memorandum to the Attorney General (Feb. 28, 2005)] stating that the United States would "discharge its international obligations" under Avena "by having State courts give effect to the decision."
Relying on Avena and the President's Memorandum, Medellín filed a second Texas state-court habeas application challenging his state capital murder conviction and death sentence on the ground that he had not been informed of his Vienna Convention rights. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed Medellín's application as an abuse of the writ, concluding that neither Avena nor the President's Memorandum was binding federal law that could displace the State's limitations on filing successive habeas applications."
On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court held that neither Avena nor the President’s Memorandum constitutes directly enforceable federal law that pre-empts state limitations on the filing of success habeas petitions.
According to the Court, the state of Texas is not legally bound to carry out the ICJ’s ruling, as treaties are diplomatic agreements that are made between national governments, and not those of individual states. Furthermore, the treaty under question is not self-executing, meaning that it does not by itself give rise to domestically enforceable federal law. Whether such a treaty has domestic effect depends upon implementing legislation passed by Congress. Since Congress has not passed such legislation in regards to the Vienna Convention, the decentralized political system of the United States means that this and other non self-executing international agreements made by the federal government cannot constitutionally encroach upon state judicial systems.
To access an audio analysis of the case made by Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz (who argued the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of the state of Texas), click here.
Jim Kelly is the President of Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, P.C., a public interest civil and human rights law firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. The opinions expressed herein are his own.