March 25, 2008 -- In a defeat for the Bush administration, the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 Tuesday that President George W. Bush does not have the authority to force a state to reconsider a death penalty case, even if the conviction in that case violates an international court's ruling.
Jose Medellin, a Mexican national, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1994 for raping and killing two teenage girls in Houston.
However, the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands ruled that his conviction was in violation of international treaties, which ordered that the home country of any defendant had to be notified upon the arrest of a foreign national.
Article 36 of the Vienna Convention requires authorities to notify "without delay" a detained foreign national of his right to request assistance from the consul of his own state. At the time of Medellin's arrest, the United States was a signatory to the treaty, but Mexico was never notified of his arrest.
Medellin, a Mexican citizen who had lived in the United States most of his life, claimed that had he known that he could inform Mexican consular officers of his detention they could have potentially assisted him by providing funding for experts or investigators or ensuring that he was represented by a competent defense counsel. Currently, there are 50 other Mexican nationals on death row in America.
Taking the side of Medellin, Bush had issued a statement admitting that the United States had breached the applicable article of the Vienna Convention, and determined that state courts had to abide by the treaty. This meant they had to then review and reconsider the sentences and convictions of the death row inmates.
Bush claimed that his determination to have the states reconsider the cases came from his "authorized power to effectuate" treaty obligations.
The Bush administration ordered the Texas state court to reopen Medellin's case in order to comply with the treaty.
Tuesday, the Supreme Court rebuked the President.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "Indeed, the Government has not identified a single instance in which the President has attempted (or Congress has acquiesced in) a Presidential directive issued to state courts, much less one that reaches deep into the heart of the State's police powers and compels state courts to reopen final criminal judgments and set aside neutrally applicable state laws."
Roberts wrote, "not all international law obligations automatically constitute binding federal law enforceable in United States courts."
Writing in dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said that the Court's decision fails to take precedent into "proper account" and "as a result, the Nation may well break its word."
Roberts was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and John Paul Stevens, who filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.
Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Breyer in dissent.
Texas had argued that the president's actions in the case were intrusive on the sovereignty of the states. Greg Abbott, attorney general of Texas, argued that Texas could not be forced to reopen the cases because "the presidential memorandum transgresses the authority of Congress, of the judiciary and of the states."
Abbott used strong language to outline Medellin's crimes, which include participating in the gang rape and strangulation of two young teenage girls, Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Pena.
"Medellin was tried and convicted of murder during the course of a sexual assault," Abbott wrote. "A jury unanimously recommended a death sentence."
Texas had asked the high court to consider the presidential memorandum to be a "request," not a "command."
Government lawyers wrote in legal papers supporting Medellin that the president "has recognized authority to resolve disputes with foreign nations over individual claims, and to establish binding rules of decision that preempt contrary state law."
The government lawyers said that the "compelling national interests served by the president's determination outweigh the relatively modest intrusion on state interests."