WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court (search) on Monday turned aside an appeal by a Mexican citizen on death row in Texas who contended he and 51 other Mexicans should have their death sentences overturned because they were improperly denied legal help from their consulates in violation of international law.
In an unsigned decision, justices dismissed as premature the case of Jose Medellin (search), who argued he was entitled to a federal court hearing on whether his rights were violated when a Texas court tried and sentenced him to death in 1994 on rape and murder charges without consular access.
The court cited a last-minute maneuver by President Bush ordering state courts to revisit the issue, making Supreme Court intervention unnecessary at this time. It reserved the right to hear the appeal again once the case had run its full course in state court.
"In light of the possibility that the Texas courts will provide Medellin with the review he seeks," the opinion stated, "we think it would be unwise to reach and resolve the multiple hindrances to dispositive answers to the questions here presented."
The case, which attracted worldwide attention, was seen as a test of how much weight the Supreme Court would give in domestic death penalty cases to the International Court of Justice (search), or ICJ, in The Hague, which ruled last year that the 51 convictions violated the 1963 Vienna Convention (search).
In 1969, the Senate ratified the Vienna Convention, which requires consular access for Americans detained abroad and foreigners arrested in the United States. The Constitution states that U.S. treaties "shall be the supreme law of the land," but does not make clear who interprets them.
The case, however, took an unexpected turn in February when Bush ordered states to comply with the ICJ ruling and hold new hearings. At the same time, the administration made clear it was Bush's decision — not the judiciary branch's — decision whether to comply with international law.
To avoid future questions about the role of international tribunals in domestic death penalty cases, the administration also announced it was withdrawing from the portion of the Vienna Convention that gave the ICJ authority to hear U.S. disputes.
After that decision, lawyers for Medellin urged justices to hold the case without dismissing it so that they could pursue relief in state court first. Texas, meanwhile, asked the high court to rule that Medellin had no right to a federal court hearing because he failed to raise objections about consular access at his state trial.
With the court's move to dismiss the case, Medellin retains the option to raise his claims in federal court later should he lose again in the new state hearing. Texas has already said it believes Bush has no authority to order states to hold new hearings, raising questions as to whether states will choose to comply.