Medellin v. Texas

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Oral argument: 
October 10, 2007

Oral argument: Oct. 10, 2007

Appealed from: Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (Nov. 15, 2006)


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. Medellín was not advised after his arrest 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. Pursuant to the Avena decision of the International Court of Justice and a memorandum issued by the President directing state courts to give effect to it, Medellín argues that Texas courts must review and reconsider his sentence. On the other hand, the State of Texas contends that the President lacks the authority to unilaterally transform an international obligation into domestic law. The State of Texas also argues that the President's memorandum infringes on the sovereignty of the states and that Medellín has already received the judicial review prescribed by the Avena decision. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to give effect to the President's memorandum on the grounds that it exceeds his constitutional powers. How the Supreme Court decides this case will reflect its views on the separation of powers between the three branches of government, and whether individuals may enforce the Vienna Convention in court. This decision will clarify the President's authority in foreign affairs and may adversely impact the willingness of foreign nations to enter into future treaties with the United States.

Questions presented

1. Did the President of the United States act within his constitutional and statutory foreign affairs authority when he determined that the states must comply with the United States' treaty obligation to give effect to the Avena judgment in the cases of the 51 Mexican nationals named in the judgment?

2. Are state courts bound by the U.S. Constitution to honor the undisputed international obligation of the United States, under treaties duly ratified by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, to give effect to the Avena judgment in the cases that the judgment addressed?



1. Does the U.S. President's authority over foreign affairs permit him to compel a state court to comply with the International Court of Justice's decision that the United States must reconsider the criminal cases of certain foreign nationals who were not notified of their right to contact their nation's consulate when they were accused of a crime?

2. Does the U.S. Constitution compel state courts to comply with the International Court of Justice's decision that the United States must reconsider the criminal cases of certain foreign nationals who were not notified of their right to contact their nation's consulate when they were accused of a crime?



José Ernesto Medellín, a Mexican citizen, was convicted of capital murder in Texas for his role in the rape and murder of two teenage girls in Houston. The murders took place on June 24, 1993. Medellín confessed to participating. He was convicted on September 16, 1994, and sentenced to death on October 11, 1994. On March 16, 1997, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld his conviction on direct appeal.

On April 29, 1997, the Mexican consulate first learned of the proceedings against Medellín when he wrote them from death row. Once notified, the Mexican consulate began to assist him. Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 21 U.S.T. 77 (Apr. 24, 1963), to which the United States and Mexico are parties, provides that when authorities accuse a foreign national of a crime they must inform him of his right to contact his nation's consulate. Alleging that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention rights of Medellín and 51 other Mexican nationals on death row, Mexico brought a legal action, Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mex. v. U.S.), 2004 I.C.J. 12 (March 31) ( "Avena"), against the United States in the International Court of Justice ( "ICJ").

Medellín challenged his conviction by filing a habeas corpus petition in Texas state court, claiming for the first time that Texas had violated his Vienna Convention rights. On January 22, 2001, the trial court denied his petition, finding that the Vienna Convention does not grant privately enforceable rights to individuals. On October 3, 2001, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals adopted the trial court's findings and denied Medellín's petition. Medellín then unsuccessfully sought a writ of habeas corpus in federal court on Vienna Convention (and other) grounds.

Meanwhile, the ICJ decided in Avena that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention rights of Medellín and others by failing to notify them of their right to contact the Mexican consulate. The ICJ directed the United States to reconsider the criminal cases of the wronged individuals to determine whether these violations caused actual harm. President Bush declared in a statement attached as an exhibit to the United States amicus brief in this case that the United States would implement the Avena decision by "having State courts give effect to the [] decision in accordance with general principles of comity." The Supreme Court agreed to hear Medellín's case and granted a writ of certiorari on Dec 10, 2004, but later denied review pending a reaction by Texas courts to Avena and the President's declaration.

While his Supreme Court case was pending, Medellín again sought habeas corpus relief in Texas state court. The Texas court denied Medellín's petition. Medellín appealed this denial to the United States Supreme Court, which granted a writ of certiorari to review the Texas court's decision.



Are the judgments of the International Court of Justice ("ICJ") binding on United States state courts pursuant to federal treaty obligations? If not, does the President have constitutional authority to make them binding? The case of Jose Medellín, a convicted murderer and rapist on death row in Texas, has brought each of these questions before the United States Supreme Court. The Court's ruling will likely clarify the balance of power among the branches of the federal government and between the federal government and the states.

Should Medellín prevail, foreign nationals seeking relief from the "vexing problem" of state noncompliance with the Vienna Convention will enjoy a small victory. The Avena decision found violations of the Vienna Convention rights of 51 Mexican nationals sentenced to death. Because foreign nationals constitute more than 10 percent of the prison population in California, New York, and Arizona, the issues raised by Medellín's case likely will recur.

The Supreme Court addressed whether ICJ decisions are binding on U.S. courts in Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon, 126 S.Ct. 2669, 2684-85 (2006). In Sanchez-Llamas, the Court concluded that they are not because U.S. courts have final authority over the interpretation of U.S. law. However, Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon is arguably inapplicable to this case because ICJ decisions are only binding on named parties. at 21–22. While Sanchez-Llamas was not a named party, Medellín is a named party in Avena.

The United States maintains that, despite deferring to Avena, submitting to the judgments of international tribunals may not be in the best interests of the United States. Senior officials of the Department of Justice agree with the Administration, and add that ICJ authority would undermine the Supreme Court's power to interpret federal law. . In the aftermath of the Avena decision, the United States withdrew from its Optional Protocol commitment to respect ICJ decisions. Furthermore, the United States officially disagrees with the ICJ's analysis of the Vienna Convention in Avena. In light of these circumstances, a decision in Medellín's favor may offer little assistance to similarly-situated individuals in the future.

Nevertheless, the United States argues that states should respect the Vienna Convention. State violations of the Vienna Convention, the United States reasons, hamper attempts to protect U.S. citizens detained abroad. The United States further declares that exclusively federal authority over foreign relations will prevent problems that would otherwise result from uncoordinated international actions by individual states. Texas counters that the United States could protect U.S. nationals by seeking the voluntary cooperation of the states or working with Congress to develop targeted federal legislation.

The Court's decision concerning whether the President acted within his constitutional authority in directing state courts to follow the Avena decision could influence the power balance between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Like Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 126 S.Ct. 2749 (2006), the recent high-profile decision in which the Supreme Court denied Presidential authority to unilaterally establish military commissions to try military detainees, this case adds fodder to the ongoing controversy over the scope of the President's powers as commander-in-chief. If the President may unilaterally declare that an ICJ decision is binding on the courts, he could possibly convert the provisions of any otherwise non-self-executing treaty into new domestic law.



At issue in this case is the authority of the President of the United States to require state courts to comply with federal treaty obligations. According to Article II of the United States Constitution, the President shall ensure that the laws, including treaties, are faithfully executed. The President's power and duty includes the authority to take such steps as he deems necessary to carry into effect "the rights, duties and obligations growing out of the constitution itself, our international relations, and all the protection implied by the nature of the government under the constitution." Whether the President exceeded his authority by directing state courts to comply with the Avena judgment depends on the interpretation of the President's authority in executing laws and treaties. Furthermore, whether the state courts must give effect to the Avena judgment depends on the nature of the obligations created by the Vienna Convention, itself.

Did the President Exceed His Foreign Affairs Authority?

Medellín: The President Did Not Exceed His Foreign Affairs Authority

Medellín argues that the President has independent authority to conduct the nation's foreign affairs. In addition to the power to enter into treaties with the advice of the Senate, the Constitution grants the President independent authority to formulate and execute the Nation's foreign policy. The President, the argument goes, recognized that the United States had agreed to submit the dispute to the ICJ for resolution, and that it has an obligation under the United Nations Charter to comply with the ICJ's decision in the matter. Discharge of that obligation will to protect the interests of U.S. citizens detained abroad, smooth foreign relations, and demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the rule of law.

Medellín contends that the President has clearly established authority to settle international disputes. The President need not enter into a bilateral executive agreement with Mexico in order to trigger his constitutional authority to choose the means by which the United States will comply with its treaty obligation. Id.Medellín alternatively argues that such an agreement can be found in the United Nations Charter, the ICJ Statute, and the Optional Protocol: each of these treaties mandates compliance with the Avena judgment. The treaties are instruments expressly provided for in the Constitution and have been approved by the Senate as well as the President.

Texas: The President Did Exceed His Foreign Affairs Authority

The State of Texas argues that the President does not have authority to create domestic law. A treaty only creates domestic law if its text reflects an agreement between the President and the Senate to do so.The President is bound by the reservations, understandings, or other conditions imposed by the Senate upon granting its consent to a treaty. Texas claims that it is important to maintain constitutional limits on the President's authority. Particularly, the President's powers must be curbed where his unilateral actions directly infringe upon the states' traditional authority as sovereigns to order their own judicial departments and criminal-justice systems.

The State of Texas further argues that the Presidential Memorandum is contrary to the will of Congress. Firstthe memorandum contravenes the Senate's express understanding, manifested when it ratified the Vienna Convention, that the treaty created no individual rights. Second, the memorandum contradicts the Senate's express understanding, manifest when it ratified the United Nations Charter and the Optional Protocol, that ICJ decisions can only be enforced through diplomatic or political means. While there exists in principle an international law obligation to respect the ICJ's judgments, the power to enforce them is vested exclusively in the United Nations Security Council. This permits the United States to use its veto power in the Security Counsel to prevent enforcement of an ICJ judgment exceeding the ICJ's jurisdiction. Third, the memorandum conflicts with the Senate's express understanding that the United States' obligations under the Vienna Convention did not include any changes in domestic law. Fourth, the memorandum is incompatible with the deference to state court criminal procedures required by Congress in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA").

Finally, the State of Texas argues that the Presidential Memorandum infringes upon the powers of the state judiciary. The memorandum provides that the Texas court must reconsider a claim it has already rejected, this time without relying on its previous grounds for decision. Even the federal government acting as a whole, Texas urges, may not alter the structure of state government or commandeer the state judiciary in order to implement federal policy.

Texas concludes that if the United States were to prevail with its broad theories in support of the "unprecedented" Presidential Memorandum, that precedent could justify Constitutional overreaching by future Presidents. In the context of this case, Texas urges as illustration, little would prevent a President from: ordering federal district courts to "review and reconsider" final federal habeas determinations; ordering state or federal courts to annul all 51 convictions and sentences addressed in Avena; or ordering the governors of the respective states to grant full pardons to all 51 convicted murderers.

Are State Courts Are Bound To Give Effect To The Avena Judgment And The Vienna Convention?

Medellín: State Courts Are Bound To Give Effect To The Avena Judgment And The Vienna Convention

Medellín claims that as a matter of both international and U.S. law, the Avena judgment is binding on state courts. By ratifying the ICJ statute and the Optional Protocol, Medellín claims that the United States agreed that a decision of the ICJ in a case to which the United States was a party would have "binding force . between the parties and in respect of that particular case" and be "final and without appeal." Medellín is a national of Mexico whose case was specifically adjudicated in Avena, Medellín points out, and the United States is undisputedly bound "in respect of his particular case."

Medellín further argues that under Article VI, Clause 2 of the Constitution, once the United States ratified the Optional Protocol, the United Nations Charter, and the ICJ Statute, "the Judges [of Texas were] bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of that State to the Contrary notwithstanding.". In order to enable the United States to negotiate treaties with foreign powers as a single nation, the argument goes, the Constitution places the treaty-making power in the hands of the federal government by including it among the Article II powers of the executive branch. Article VI, Clause 2 of the Constitution explicitly stipulates that treaties bind the Nation as a whole and are not left to the various different policies of the individual states. Otherwise, Medellín urges, foreign nations would be hesitant to conclude further treaties with the United States, recognizing the futility of obliging the federal government.

Texas: State Courts Are Not Bound To Give Effect To The Avena Judgment And The Vienna Convention

The State of Texas responds that the Supreme Court concluded in Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon, 126 S.Ct. at 2683-85 (2006), that the Court alone had final authority to interpret treaties to which the United States is a party. Accordingly, Texas argues, the Vienna Convention does not confer individual rights enforceable in court. According to Texas, Medellín is not entitled to a different result merely because (unlike Sanchez-Llamas) he was mentioned by name in Avena, since only nations may bring cases in the ICJ and only nations are bound by its decisions.. Moreover, Texas argues, the ICJ's purpose is solely to resolve disputes between nations under international law, as evidenced by the fact that the sole enforcement mechanism is Security Council action.

Texas further argues that Medellín has already received the reconsideration Avena calls for. Avena requires that the United States determine whether, in violating Medellín's Vienna Convention rights, the United States actually prejudiced Medellín In denying Medellín's first state petition for habeas corpus, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that any violation of Medellín's Vienna Convention rights was not prejudicial. Hence, Texas maintains that it has already "given effect" to Avena in Medellín's case. Id.



In Medellín v. Texas,the President's authority over foreign affairs and the binding effect of international treaties on state courts are at issue. The outcome of this case will clarify the balance of power among the federal branches as well as the federal government's future dealings with foreign nations. A decision for Medellín may authorize the President to set aside state laws and final judicial determinations which are contrary to the United States' international obligations. On the other hand, a decision for the State of Texas will maintain state sovereignty and judicial independence but potentially discourage foreign nations from entering into treaties with the United States.


Prepared by: Tiffany Sepulveda, Bryan Hall

Edited by: Ferve Ozturk

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