Habeas for the Rest of Us
Because habeas cases are generally only of interest to a small natural constituency – most typically, inmates, jailers and lawyers with a genuine civil libertarian bent – I cautiously include some description of yesterday's U.S. Supreme Court decision in Medellin v. Texas on these pages here. Yet, because of the truly profound separation of powers and federalism questions that were raised in this case, the Court's analysis (and divisions) should be of broader interest.
José Ernesto Medellín, a Mexican national, was convicted of capital murder in Texas district court and sentenced to death for his participation in the rape and murder of two teenage girls. After his arrest, Medellín was not advised of his rights, under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to contact a Mexican consular official. Under Texas law, Medellín waived his rights by not asserting them at trial. In the Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations by failing to inform 51 named Mexican nationals, including Medellín, of their rights under the Vienna Convention. 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 state rules governing challenges to criminal convictions.
In Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon, a decision that was issued after the decision in Avena, but involving individuals who were not named in the Avena judgment, the U.S Supreme Court held, contrary to the ICJ's determination, that the Vienna Convention did not preclude the application of state default rules.
President George W. Bush then issued a memorandum stating that the United States would "discharge its international obligations" under Avena "by having State courts give effect to the decision."
The High Court later concluded that neither the IJC decision in Avena nor the President's Memorandum to the Texas courts constituted enforceable federal law that pre-empted the state rules of procedure.
As Chief Justice Roberts wrote for himself and four others:
Similarly, the Court's majority dispatched the Government's argument that the President could direct the state courts, by way of a memo, to apply the ILJ decision under the Executive's claim settlement powers.
The United States maintains that the President's Memorandum is authorized by the Optional Protocol and the U. N. Charter. That is, because the relevant treaties "create an obligation to comply with Avena," they "implicitly give the President authority to implement that treaty-based obligation"....
We disagree. The President has an array of political and diplomatic means available to enforce international obligations, but unilaterally converting a non-self-executing treaty into a self-executing one is not among them. The responsibility for transforming an international obligation arising from a non-self-executing treaty into domestic law falls to Congress.
[T]he 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. The Executive's narrow and strictly limited authority to settle international claims disputes pursuant to an executive agreement cannot stretch so far as to support the current Presidential Memorandum.The Court's complete analysis, as well as the interesting separate opinions of Justices Stevens and Breyer, is accessible here.