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.
"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.
The issue before the ICJ was whether Medellin and 50 other Mexican nationals had been granted access to the Mexican consulate after being arrested in the US.
Such access is required under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, an international treaty. It mandates that foreign nationals – including American citizens – arrested overseas be entitled to meet with diplomats from their home country. It also requires the detaining country to notify consular officials when one of their nationals is arrested.
Because American authorities had violated the treaty provision, the ICJ ordered new hearings to determine whether the violation prejudiced the underlying criminal cases.
The Medellin case took on larger importance after the president issued his controversial memorandum. The case was being closely watched by constitutional scholars because it raised a host of thorny issues touching on the scope of presidential power, the separation of powers, federalism, and the authority of international rulings to trump state-court proceedings.
In an opinion concurring in the judgment, Justice John Paul Stevens encouraged the Texas judiciary to voluntarily reverse its position and comply with the international ruling.
"The fact that the President cannot legislate unilaterally does not absolve the United States from its promise to take action necessary to comply with the ICJ's judgment," Justice Stevens wrote.
"One consequence of our form of government is that sometimes States must shoulder the primary responsibility for protecting the honor and integrity of the Nation," he wrote. "Texas' 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."
Stevens added: "Having already put the Nation in breach of one treaty, it is now up to Texas to prevent the breach of another."
The Medellin case and the related international dispute stem from the 1993 gang rape and murder of two teenage girls in Texas. The girls were walking home when Medellin and his friends chased, raped, and killed them.
Medellin was 18 and had spent most of his life in the US. He could read, write, and speak English. But because he was born in Mexico and had never become a US citizen, he had a right under the treaty to consult Mexican consular officials upon his arrest.
Medellin was represented by court-appointed counsel during his trial, but he did not learn of his right to discuss the case with Mexican officials until after he was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of the two girls.
Lawyers for Medellin raised the issue on appeal but lost. Then the Mexican government filed suit in the ICJ against the US for failing to provide consular notification and access as required by the treaty.
The ICJ ruled against the US. It ordered that Medellin and the 50 other convicted Mexican nationals be given special hearings to determine if the treaty violation undercut their ability to receive a fair trial.
Although the Bush administration objected to the ICJ ruling, the president later wrote a memorandum ordering the Texas courts to give Medellin a new hearing on the issue. The Texas courts refused, saying Medellin had already received a fair trial.