A Court Loss for the Administration

One might have expected more news coverage of a particular decision handed down by the US Supreme Court this week in Medellín v. Texas. The Bush Administration had exerted executive authority and was rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Such a decision would surely play into the main stream media’s conventional wisdom about the Bush Administration trampling over individual liberties. The case was not trumpeted in the news, because Administration was attempting to use an executive order to compel state compliance with a decision of the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Using executive authority to compel states to comply with international decisions is to some appropriate use of executive power.

This story begins with the case of Sanchez-Llama v. Oregon. Moise Sanchez-Llama of Mexico was convicted of attempted murder in Oregon and Mario Bustille, a citizen of Honduras, was convicted of murder by a Virginia court.  According to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations a consulate needs to be informed when “within its consular district, a national of that State is arrested or committed to prison.” Unfortunately, in these cases, the appropriate consular officials were not notified in a timely manner. The defendants sought to have the evidence introduce in their trials before notification of the consul excluded from the case.

The local state supreme courts ruled against the defendants. In such cases according state procedural rules, the claim to exclude evidence must be made during trial. The International Court of Justice ruled against the states and the case wound up in the US Supreme Court. The Court re-affirmed the authority of the states in this matter. Although treaties carry the force of law, the Supreme Court noted that compliance with treaties is usually codified by Congressional legislation, not enforced by order of an extra-territorial court. Specifically, the court ruled that, “While a treaty may constitute an international commitment,it is not binding domestic law unless Congress has enacted statutes implementing it.”

Moreover, the US had withdrawn from the protocol specifying that “disputes arising out of the . . . Convention shall lie within the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.” This specifically remove the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.

Medillin v. Texas is a similar case revolving around a citizen of Mexico who was convicted without proper notification of the Mexican consulate. The International Court of Justice ruled that the rights of a number of foreign nationals had been violated and that the states should reconsider the convictions.  The President wrote an memorandum directing such reconsideration. As the branch of government that negotiates with foreign powers, the President has an important interest in the faithful application of reciprocal foreign agreements. Nonetheless, the Court ruled that direction of the application of state law to foreign nationals is outside the Presidential authority.

Sometimes freedom, federalism, and sovereignty are maintained by heroic and conspicuous actions. Other times this service is performed deliberately and quietly in considered judicial opinions. Medillin v. Texas is such case.

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