Over the past few years many Americans have become deeply concerned that judges have begun relying more and more on foreign law to decide questions of U.S. constitutional law. One doesn’t have to be a constitutional scholar to object to foreign laws and foreign courts — laws that are not enacted by our democratic government and judges who are not selected as our Constitution provides — ruling on Americans’ rights and the powers of American government. These concerns are largely well founded, and reflect the increasing degree to which modern constitutional adjudication has become altogether unmoored from the text and original understanding of the Framers.
Yet an even bigger issue was before the Supreme Court this Term. In MedellĂ?Ân v. Texas, the issue was not simply whether U.S. judges should consult foreign law to guide their decision-making; instead, the central question before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether the United Nations’ World Court has the legal authority to bind the courts of the United States. In other words, the issue was whether decisions of the World Court are superior to those of the Supreme Court, and whether Americans will be governed by the decisions of foreign judges in The Hague.
Thankfully, by a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court got this one right.
The case began fifteen years ago, when two teenage girls were brutally gang-raped and murdered in northwest Houston, just a few blocks from where I attended church as a child. All six gang members were caught, convicted, and unanimously sentenced to death (except for one who was too young to be eligible for capital punishment). Now approaching two decades after this horrific crime, only one gang member has so far had his sentence carried out.
Another of the gang members, Jose Ernesto MedellĂ?Ân, has seen his case become an international cause célèbre, making it all the way to the World Court and twice to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Last week, in a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected all of MedellĂ?Ân’s claims and paved the way for the victims’ grieving families to finally see justice. But the issues in MedellĂ?Ân v. Texas extend well beyond this one confessed murderer.
Medellin argued that the U.S. Supreme Court was bound by the World Court, and that the World Court had already decided he deserved a new trial. By a vote of 6-3, the U.S. Supreme Court emphatically concluded that the World Court has no such authority. That decision was correct because the Constitution doesn’t grant foreign courts any authority over U.S. courts, and it was critical to preserving our Nation’s fundamental sovereignty.
How on earth did this Texas murder case get to the World Court? Well, in 2003, the nation of Mexico sued the United States in the International Court of Justice (the formal name of the World Court), which is the judicial arm of the United Nations. And, in 2004, the World Court ruled for Mexico.
Mexico’s suit was filed on behalf of 51 Mexican nationals, including MedellĂ?Ân, all of whom were convicted murderers on death row throughout the United States. Our southern neighbor argued, correctly, that these Mexican nationals had a right under the Vienna Convention on Consular Affairs (a treaty ratified by the United States in 1969) to contact their local Mexican consulates for assistance. As a result — even though the suit raised no questions concerning the proven guilt of these 51 murderers — Mexico sought to have all of their convictions annulled.
The problem was that most of the 51, including MedellĂ?Ân, had failed to raise any Vienna Convention claims at trial, and the usual rule in American criminal law is that if you fail to raise a claim at trial, that claim is forfeited.
Not overly concerned with the usual rules of criminal law in the United States, the World Court agreed with Mexico across the board and issued a remarkable ruling: it “ordered” the United States to reconsider the convictions and death sentences of all 51 convicted murderers.
The World Court ruling was unprecedented. In over 200 years of our Nation’s history, no foreign tribunal has ever before asserted the authority to bind U.S. courts, much less to reopen final criminal convictions. And, armed with the decision of the World Court, MedellĂ?Ân argued that American courts had no option but to obey.
Fortunately, the United States Supreme Court disagreed. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court held that the World Court decision cannot be enforced in U.S. courts.
The Supreme Court’s decision was a victory for the State of Texas, but, even more importantly, it was a victory for the American people. MedellĂ?Ân’s argument — which three Justices on the Court would have largely adopted — would fundamentally undermine the sovereignty of our Nation.
The United States Constitution vests sovereignty in the Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the President, the fifty States, and ultimately, in We the People. Had MedellĂ?Ân prevailed, American sovereignty and independence would have been gravely undermined.
If MedellĂ?Ân had prevailed, it would have elevated the World Court above the Supreme Court of the United States, given that foreign court binding authority, and made its far-away judges the final arbiters of the law that governs American citizens.
Nobody disputes that the United States should comply with treaty obligations, and both the federal and state governments have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure foreign nationals are notified of their rights under the Vienna Convention. But that is not a reason to disturb the convictions of unquestionably guilty murderers.
Jose Ernesto MedellĂ?Ân voluntarily confessed, in writing, and bragged about raping and killing these young girls as they pleaded for their lives. A jury of his peers unanimously sentenced him to death, and the families of the girls he murdered have waited far too long to see that sentence carried out.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that the victims’ families won’t have to wait much longer for justice to be served.
And, just as importantly, the Court resoundingly concluded that, under our Constitution, the World Court lacks the authority to bind our state and federal courts. That ruling will protect our Nation’s sovereignty and independence for generations to come.
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