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Supreme Court rules against Bush in death-row case

A 6-to-3 majority said the president can't order a state court to abide by an international court ruling.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2008


The US Supreme Court on Tuesday delivered a setback to President Bush's expansive vision of presidential power, ruling that a unilateral attempt by Mr. Bush to order state courts to comply with an international treaty violated "first principles" of constitutional government.

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"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," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion.

The court ruled 6 to 3 that the president overstepped his authority when he ordered the Texas judiciary to abide by a 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) mandating a new hearing for a Texas death row inmate and 50 other Mexican nationals.

At issue was whether Jose Medellin, a Mexican citizen on death row in Texas, should receive a special hearing to determine whether his right to a fair trial had been violated because he was unable to consult with Mexican consular officials after his 1993 arrest.

The Texas courts determined that Mr. Medellin had received all the fair process he was due during his trial and appeals. But Bush, citing the ICJ ruling, issued a presidential memorandum directing the Texas courts to give Medellin a new hearing. The Texas judges refused.

The Supreme Court sided with the Texas judiciary. Specifically, the majority justices found that the ICJ ruling was not automatically enforceable within the United States because Congress had never passed such an authorization.

"While the ICJ's judgment ... creates an international law obligation on the part of the United States, it does not of its own force constitute binding federal law that pre-empts state restrictions," Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

Roberts noted that even the basic rights of the Constitution do not have the effect of displacing state procedural rules.

"Nothing in the text, background, negotiating and drafting history, or practice among signatory nations suggests that the President or Senate intended the improbable result of giving the judgments of an international tribunal a higher status than that employed by many of our fundamental constitutional protections," Roberts wrote.

But the high court didn't stop there. The majority justices also took issue with Bush's assertion of unilateral presidential power to trump state-court objections.

"The President has an array of political and diplomatic means available to enforce international obligations," Roberts wrote, "but unilaterally converting a non-self-executing treaty into a self-executing treaty is not among them."

In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said in his view the ICJ judgment is enforceable across the nation as the supreme law of the land. "I would send this case back to the Texas courts, which must then apply the [ICJ] judgment as binding law," he wrote.

Justice Breyer's dissent was joined by Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.