"Supreme Court Overrules Bush, OKs Texas Execution.” This was the Supreme Court headline that sent this political junkie scrambling to click the hyperlink as quickly as he could. The cognitive dissonance was just overwhelming: On the one hand, the Supreme Court was overruling President Bush, but on the other hand, it was allowing an execution to go forward. Had the liberal justices suddenly lurched to the right and accepted a death penalty President Bush could not accept? Was the Court’s right wing so enamored with President Bush that they were willing to stop an execution because of their fealty to the President? And why was President Bush opposing an execution in the first place?
After reading the article, then going to the always-excellent scotusblog.com, and then reading the actual opinion, it became clear that this was nothing more than another example of the MSM trying to gin up readership through misleading, sensationalist headlines. You see, the case in question, Medellin v. Texas, is a death penalty case in the same way that Roe v. Wade was a case about the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship: sure, the subject matter was impacted by the ultimate decision, but it isn’t really what the case was about. Instead, Medellin is a case about the United States’ obligations to comply with a World Court (a/k/a/ the International Court of Justice) decision mandating that foreign nationals charged with crimes be advised of their right to discuss the matter with their consulate, and the President’s powers to compel a state to comply.
The facts of the case are truly appalling. In 1993, Jose Medellin, a foreign national, and the street gang of which he was a member captured two girls in their early teens, and then raped them for over an hour. Realizing that the girls could later identify the members to police, the gang members then murdered them. Medellin strangled one of the girls with her own shoelaces. Medellin was arrested and read his Miranda warnings. He was not, however, advised of his right to consult with the Mexican consulate. He was sentenced to death.
Medellin did not raise his failure to be advised of his right to confer with his consulate until after his conviction. Under American law, it is well-established that (with few specific exceptions) matters not raised in trial courts are procedurally defaulted and cannot be raised later. While Medellin was pursuing his appeal, the ICJ ruled that American courts had violated the Vienna Conventions by not allowing Medellin (and other similarly-situated defendants) to raise this defense.
To make matters more complex, even though the US had withdrawn from the Vienna Conventions, the Bush Administration ordered the state courts to comply with the World Court’s ruling. To make matters even more complex, this was in contravention of the Supreme Court’s earlier ruling that the Vienna Convention was subject to American procedural default rules. So the Supreme Court was left with a thorny set of issues: whether the World Court’s interpretation of the Vienna Convention binding, whether the President could direct states to adhere to the ICJ’s ruling, and what the effect of the ICJ’s Avena decision was on the United States.
The Court’s decision becomes fairly technical. The Court ruled in essence that while some aspects of the Vienna Convention may be self-executing, the judgment of the ICJ was not self-executing. In other words, the ICJ could not automatically overrule an American domestic court’s judgment. This should provide some comfort to conservatives who worried that Justice Kennedy had seemingly wandered so far off the reservation with his citations to international law. It is worrisome, however, that the case was a 5-1-3 decision, with Justice Stevens concurring, against what seemed to be his desire, in the outcome of the decision only. Justice Breyer’s opinion seemed to be a vote shy of taking a major step toward subverting United States’ courts to the opinions of supranational courts, even in the absence of direct action by Congress.
The Court also slapped a shackle on the President’s executive powers. This will likely excite those conservatives who had feared that the President had gone too far in his expansion of wartime powers, while causing concern among those who applauded such moves. To simplify greatly, the Court ruled that because the operative Convention provision was not self-executing, the President had no legal authority to force states to follow ICJ rulings. This represented some skepticism on the part of the conservative members of the Court as to the President’s inherent powers to make policy. Whether this skepticism will manifest itself in upcoming cases involving the War on Terror remains to be seen, but there are at least some signals that the Court’s conservative members are not entirely enthusiastic about broad grants of power to the executive.
And the ultimate moral of the story is: Never trust the media’s recitation of legal issues. As you can see, it is true that the Supreme Court allowed a death sentence to go forward, in contravention of Bush’s wishes. Medellin will pay the ultimate price for his heinous crimes. But the coverage of the case has little to do with what the case is about and much to do with how CNN will cause readers to click on its website.