In January 2005, CJA filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Medellin v. Dretke. The appellant, José Medellín was a citizen of Mexico convicted of murder in Texas and sentenced to death. Mr. Medellín was never advised by local officials of his right as a detained foreign national to seek consular assistance, as required under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
Mexico sued the U.S. before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on behalf of Medellín and other Mexican citizens on death row, arguing that the U.S. had violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. In March 2004, the ICJ ruled in Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mexico v. United States) that
the Vienna Convention does provide individual rights and that the Mexican citizens on death row should be granted new hearings.
Mr. Medellín filed a habeas petition in federal district court, but was denied. He appealed to the Fifth Circuit, arguing that the state had violated his Vienna Convention rights. Disregarding the ICJ’s 2004 decision, the Fifth Circuit ruled that Mr. Medellín had no individual rights under the Vienna Convention that could be enforced in court. Mr. Medellín then brought the question to the Supreme Court.
CJA’s Amicus Brief with the Supreme Court
Our amicus brief argued that Article 36 of the Vienna Conventions does create individual rights and that the U.S. is legally obligated to recognize these rights in its courts. Furthermore, we argued that a judicial failure to recognize the consular rights of foreign nationals could jeopardize reciprocal Vienna Convention protections for U.S. citizens arrested overseas.
After the Supreme Court decided to hear the case, President Bush issued a statement that the U.S. would comply with the ICJ decision. As a result, the Supreme Court returned the case to the state courts.
Still, the State of Texas strenuously opposed the president’s determination and refused to recognize any individual rights created under the Vienna Convention. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed Mr. Medellín’s petition, holding that the rulings of the ICJ are not binding on state courts.
Mr. Medellín again petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review. This time, the Court sided with the State of Texas. In March 2008, a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court held that the Vienna Convention is not a self-executing treaty per its Protocol; therefore the treaty could only be made binding upon state courts pending an act of congress. A presidential memorandum did not have sufficient authority to bind the state court.
In July, 2008, the International Court of Justice called on the United States to take all necessary measures to halt the planned execution of Mr. Medellín. Nonetheless, he was put to death by the State of Texas in August 2008.
In a January 2009 ruling, the ICJ held that the execution of Medellin was a breach of the United States’ obligations under international law.