Wednesday, March 26, 2008

International Courts and Texas Justice

Freedom dodged yet another bullet yesterday, through the opinion of the Supreme Court opinion in Medellin v. Texas. The case, like Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon, involved a Mexican national who was not informed of his right to a visit by a Mexican diplomat after being arrested. The argument here concerns whether Mr. Medellin (convicted of raping and murdering two teenage girls) has an automatic claim, simply by virtue of the US ratification itself of the Vienna Convention, to a violation of his legal rights – not under statutory or common law, but under international law. Such a claim would presumably merit the invalidation of his death sentence or even a retrial. While it is generally wise for courts to err on the side of failing to punish some of the guilty if it is necessary to keep it from punishing the innocent, the reason Medellin was said to have a claim – because an international court said so – is unacceptable.

The Court, getting five outs out of nine (Justice Stevens agreed with the result but not all of the reasoning, leaving three Justices to dissent), ruled that Mr. Medellin does not have grounds for redress. The key finding is that a treaty does not in and of itself overrule longstanding criminal rules and procedures of US states (and presumably the US federal government) absent further implementing legislation by Congress and the President. In this case, state courts in Texas ruled that Mr. Medellin’s filing for a writ of habeas corpus was invalid because it was filed so late, and because the issue of lack of consular notification had never been raised before despite many opportunities. Mr. Medellin’s attorneys contended that a finding of the International Court of Justice that his rights had been violated automatically entitled him to a writ of habeas corpus, since everyone agrees that he was not notified.

Chief Justice Roberts said, no it doesn’t:

Moreover, the consequences of Medelln’s (sic) argument give pause. An ICJ judgment, the argument goes, is not only binding domestic law but is also unassailable. As a result, neither Texas nor this Court may look behind a judgment and quarrel with its reasoning or result. (We already know, from Sanchez-Llamas, that this Court disagrees with both the reasoning and result in Avena.) Medelln’s interpretation would allow ICJ judgments to override otherwise binding state law; there is nothing in his logic that would exempt contrary federal law from the same fate. See, e.g., Cook v. United States, 288 U. S. 102, 119 (1933) (later-in-time self-executing treaty supersedes a federal statue if there is a conflict). And there is nothing to prevent the ICJ from ordering state courts to annul criminal convictions and sentences, for any reason deemed sufficient by the ICJ. Indeed, that is precisely the relief Mexico requested. Avena, 2004 I. C. J., at 58–59.

The ICJ, like all international courts and bodies, is animated by a variety of legal traditions. Ours – emphasizing liberty, the importance of federalism in supporting that liberty, and consent of the governed – is but one view of many to be found there. It is fundamentally unaccountable to the American people, and granting the notion that its findings were automatically binding on American courts at all levels, absent a specific passage of legislation to that effect for a particular treaty or issue, would have been a catastrophe. Because of the movement to create international agreements and bodies on global warming and the like, the backdoor of the intrusion of alien notions of the proper bounds of the reach of the state threatens to be opened much wider by international legal rulings. (The New York Times, for example, has a drearily predictable series on how the US has many unusual features of its criminal-justice system, with the implication that it should defer to global wisdom.) Can one imagine the consequences if the ICJ, ruling on some successor to the Kyoto Protocol, ruled (for example) that nations had a binding right to be free of carbon emissions from other nations, and that nations were thus obligated to become zero net emitters of carbon in 10 years? In that sense, it is more than a little disturbing that three justices signed on to Justice Breyer’s much more expansive notion in his dissent of the self-enforcing nature of ICJ judgments. When Justice Alito was being questioned by the Senate during his confirmation, he was asked specifically about the strength of international court rulings in the US legal system, and gave an answer indicating that he thought their reach was limited. I am glad that someone was paying attention; this should be a major issue in all future Supreme Court confirmation hearings.



Post a Comment

<< Home