Justices Rule Against Bush on Death Penalty Case
WASHINGTON — In a death-penalty case that has become an international issue, the Supreme Court declared on Tuesday that President Bush had no power to tell the State of Texas to reopen the case of a Mexican who has been condemned for murder and rape.
By 6 to 3, the court ruled that the president went too far in 2005, when he decreed that the states had to abide by a 2004 decision by the World Court. That decision found that several dozen Mexican citizens who had been sentenced to death in the United States had not been given the assistance from Mexican diplomats that they were entitled to receive under an international treaty.
The center of the dispute is Jose E. Medellin, now 33, a onetime gang member in Houston who took part in the rape and slaying of two teenaged girls on June 24, 1993. The victims were abused for an hour, then killed to prevent them from identifying their tormentors. Mr. Medellin strangled one girl with her shoelaces, the trial revealed.
He was arrested five days later, and signed a confession after being given his Miranda rights. Crucially, however, the law enforcement authorities neglected to tell him of his right under the Vienna Convention to notify Mexican diplomats of his detention.
Mr. Medellin’s conviction and sentence were upheld in the Texas courts despite the 2004 finding by the World Court, and the Supreme Court concluded on Tuesday that President Bush had no authority to order the state courts to reverse themselves, no matter what the World Court said.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that neither the defendant nor his supporters “have identified a single nation that treats I.C.J. judgments as binding in domestic courts.” (The World Court is formally known as the International Court of Justice.)
The Supreme Court ruling acknowledged that President Bush, in pressing Texas to take another look at the Medellin case, was acting on behalf of the “plainly compelling interests” of fostering observance of the Vienna Convention and trying to maintain good relations with other countries.
However, the ruling added, “The president’s authority to act, as with the exercise of any governmental power, ‘must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself.’ ” The language cited was from a 1952 ruling in which the high court found that President Harry S. Truman did not have the authority to have the federal government seize and run steel mills.
The issue of capital punishment has divided the United States from many other countries, including long-time allies, who have outlawed the death penalty. The Medellin case has the potential to be a particularly divisive issue between the United States and Mexico.
It is not entirely clear what will happen next, although Roe Wilson, a prosecutor in Houston, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that her office would seek an execution date. Texas has executed far more prisoners in recent decades than any other state.
“It was a heinous murder of two young girls who were only 14 and 16,” Ms. Wilson said. “It’s certainly time the case be resolved and the sentence be carried out.”
A sixth justice, John Paul Stevens, concurred in the overall judgment, but wrote separately to strongly urge the Texas authorities to review Mr. Medellin’s case anyway, acting on their own authority rather than at the president’s behest. “Texas’s duty in this respect is all the greater since it was Texas that — by failing to provide consular notice in accordance with the Vienna Convention — ensnared the United States in the current controversy,” Justice Stevens wrote.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote a dissent that was joined by Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Congress has done nothing to suggest that it disagreed with President Bush’s stand, the dissent asserted.
The majority’s conclusion, the dissenters said, “erects legalistic hurdles that can threaten the application of provisions in many existing commercial and other treaties and make it more difficult to negotiate new ones.”
The case has put President Bush in an odd position. As governor of Texas in the 1990’s, he declined to intervene in dozens of executions. As president, Mr. Bush initially objected to the lawsuit Mexico filed before the World Court that led to that tribunal’s 2004 decision.
But in 2005, the White House announced that it would abide by the World Court’s ruling and would instruct the states to reconsider the convictions and sentences of Mexican nationals on death row. The Texas courts refused to go along, however.
When the case was argued before the Supreme Court on Oct. 10, R. Ted Cruz, the Texas solicitor general, argued that the president had gone beyond his authority, and that if he wanted to enforce the World Court’s judgment, he should have asked Congress for authorization to do so.
“In over 200 years of our nation’s history, I’m not aware of any other directive from the president directly to the state courts and state judges,” Mr. Cruz said, in a presentation that the majority found persuasive.
The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a California-based organization that lobbies for victims’ rights and had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the family of one of the murdered girls, was pleased by the Supreme Court decision. “This brutal murderer had already received all the process he is due,” said the organization’s legal director, Kent Scheidegger. “It is high time that justice was carried out in this case.”
But the People for the American Way Foundation had an opposite reaction. “This deeply troubling opinion is a reminder of how much the Supreme Court has changed during the Bush administration, and how important future nominations to the Court will be,” said the group’s president, Kathryn Kolbert. “Our individual rights and respect on the world stage depend on the future makeup of the court.”