High Court Rejects Case of Mexican Death Row Inmate

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A complex dispute over international law in U.S. death-penalty cases headed back to the state courts yesterday, as the Supreme Court dismissed the case of a Mexican death row inmate who says Texas violated his rights under a U.S.-ratified treaty by trying and sentencing him without first giving him access to diplomats from his home country.

In a brief, unsigned opinion, the court said it would be "unwise" for it to resolve the case now -- both because new procedural issues have cropped up and because President Bush has instructed state courts to hold new hearings for the Mexican, Jose Ernesto Medellin, and 50 others, as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had ordered last year.

It was a victory of sorts for the Bush administration, which had been eager to prevent the matter from coming to a head at the Supreme Court.

The issue of U.S. compliance with the ICJ had attracted worldwide attention, much of it unfavorable, to the Bush administration's perceived unilateralism in world affairs. It also had irritated President Vicente Fox of Mexico and had sparked disputes within the administration between supporters and opponents of international law.

The Justice Department finessed the situation with the unusual proposal for a presidential instruction to the states -- just a month before the March 28 oral argument in the case.

To avoid such cases in the future, the administration then said the United States would no longer be bound by the ICJ's rulings on its compliance with the Vienna Conventions, the consular access treaty that Medellin contends was violated in his case.

Medellin's lawyers have already filed papers in Texas seeking to enforce the president's determination, which was issued on Feb. 28. The case will now go forward, with the possibility of Supreme Court review once Texas litigation concludes.

The court's decision yesterday has the effect of giving Texas's courts first crack at a major question of constitutional law: whether Bush had the power to issue his Feb. 28 determination.

Texas has already said no. It argued in a Supreme Court brief that its former governor is attempting to impose on a sovereign state not only his will but also the will of a foreign court.

The ICJ ruled last year that the United States had violated Medellin's rights and should provide him with a new sentencing hearing.

A ruling by the Supreme Court enforcing the ICJ's decision would have laid an important precedent in favor of the authority of international law generally. But Texas noted that Medellin forfeited his right to invoke the Vienna Conventions by not asserting it until 1998, rather than at his trial in 1994.

In February, however, Bush intervened in this looming clash between global law and Texas law, issuing a determination that he alone, as the country's chief diplomat, has the power to decide how the country should react to the international court's rulings. He instructed state courts to give the Mexicans new hearings, as the ICJ had proposed, and told the Supreme Court it should bow out.

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