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International Law Experts Question Supreme Court Decision in Medellin Case

Notable international law experts cited in a recent article in the Washington Lawyer criticized the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision on whether an international treaty was binding on Texas in the case of death row inmate Jose Medellin. Carolyn Lamm, an attorney at White & Case specializing in international dispute resolution, stated that "[T]he failure to compel our state court organs to comply with the decision of the ICJ [International Court of Justice] is regrettable, and the dissenting opinion that the language was self-executing is correct.” In August 2008, Texas executed Medellin despite the judgment of the ICJ that his rights and those of 50 other foreign nationals on death row were violated under the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations due to a failure to inform the inmates of their right to contact their country’s consulate for assistance upon arrest.


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Execution of Foreign Nationals Raises Legal Concerns

In a 5-4 vote on August 5, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a stay of execution for Jose Medellin, a Mexican citizen, who was then executed in Texas that night. On August 7, Heliberto Chi, an Honduran citizen, was also executed in Texas. Medellin's case had come before the Supreme Court on two previous occasions because the International Court of Justice had ruled that the U.S. had violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations by not informing him and other foreign nationals of their rights under that treaty. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, without further action by Congress, Texas was not bound to hold up the execution, despite the treaty violation. In the most recent majority opinion rejecting Medellin's stay, the Court said that the prospect of Congress acting soon on this issue was remote. The four Justices who dissented from the denial of the stay each wrote separately about their concerns. Excerpts from some of their opinions follow:


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NEW VOICES: Request for Texas to Honor Treaty for Safety of U.S. Citizens Abroad

An op-ed by Texas state Senator Rodney Ellis and law professor Craig Jackson argues that Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons should follow the International Court of Justice’s order to stay the executions of Mexican citizens in Texas. They believe the World Court’s decision was the “right thing to do” and Gov. Perry “would do well to consider how defiance of the World Court ruling will affect the safety of Americans abroad who rely on the same treaty protections that Texas violated in these cases.” The World Court held that the U.S. was in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which states that law enforcement officials should ensure that arrests of foreigners be quickly reported to their nations’ consulates. The reason the U.S. entered into that treaty was to ensure that American citizens would have access to American consular officials if arrested abroad.


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International Court of Justice Orders US to Stay 5 executions

World Court

The International Court of Justice has granted Mexico’s request for an order to stay the execution of five Mexican citizens on death row in the U.S. Mexico had requested the U.N.'s highest court, commonly referred to as the World Court, to intervene because the United States has failed to comply with an earlier ICJ judgment ordering a hearing to review the trials of the Mexican citizens. The World Court ruled in 2004 that the U.S. violated the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations because it had not provided the Mexican inmates access to their home country’s consular officials prior to their trials.

The ICJ held that the convictions and death sentences of 51 death row inmates required further review. President Bush acknowledged the judgment of the ICJ and ordered state courts to review the cases. Texas, however, refused, and the issue of the President's power went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Jose Medellin, one of the death row inmates in Texas and a Mexican citizen, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to enforce the ICJ's ruling and the President's memorandum. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal on March 25, 2008, stating that Bush had overstepped his authority. The majority opinion stated that the Constitution, “allows the President to execute the laws, not make them.”


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Mexico Asks World Court to Stay U.S. Executions of Foreign Nationals

Mexico has returned to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in seeking a stay of execution for Mexican-born inmates in the U.S.  Mexico requested the U.N.'s highest court, commonly referred to as the World Court, to intervene because the United States has failed to comply with an earlier ICJ judgment ordering a review of the trials of the Mexican citizens. The World Court ruled in 2004 that the U.S. violated the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations because it had not provided the Mexican inmates access to their home country’s consular officials prior to their trials. 

The ICJ held that the convictions and death sentences of these death row inmates required further review.  President Bush acknowledged the judgment of the ICJ and ordered state courts to review the cases. Texas, however, refused, and the issue of the President's power went to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Jose Medellin, a death row inmate and Mexican citizen, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to enforce the ICJ's ruling. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal on March 25, stating that Bush had overstepped his authority. The majority opinion stated that the Constitution, “allows the President to execute the laws, not make them.” The World Court will soon convene to weigh Mexico’s request to halt the executions.


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U.S. Supreme Court Exempts Texas Courts from World Court Ruling

On March 25, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Medellin v. Texas (No. 06-984) that the President does not have the authority to order states to bypass their procedural rules and comply with a ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The case arose from an appeal by Jose Medellin, a Mexican citizen on Texas' death row who, along with 50 other Mexican death row inmates, filed suit in the ICJ alleging a violation of their rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The Vienna Convention is an international treaty, ratified by the U.S., that gives foreign nationals who are accused of a crime the right to contact the consulate of their home country. Medellin and the other Mexicans were not informed of this right, and the ICJ ruled in their favor, ordering U.S. courts to review their cases, regardless of any procedural rules that stood in the way. (Avena and Other Mexican Nationals - Mexico v. U.S. (2004)).


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