Medellín Case Has Huge Implications Abroad
April 9, 2008; Page A13
Your March 26 editorial "International Law, and Domestic Order," correctly recognizes that the importance of the recent Supreme Court decision in Medellín v. Texas is not related to the death penalty, but instead on the relationship between U.S. law and international law. However, far from being a "modest and limited ruling," Medellín represents a significant departure from established precedent, which will have far-reaching consequences both for the image of the U.S. as a country that keeps its promises to abide by international law, and for the ability of American businesses to operate abroad.
The supremacy clause of the Constitution states "all Treaties. . . which shall be made. . . under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby." (Art. VI, cl. 2). The Court's decision acknowledges that "a decision [of the International Court of Justice] that flows from the treaties for which the United States submitted to ICJ jurisdiction with respect to Vienna Convention disputes -- constitutes an international law obligation on the part of the U.S." Nevertheless, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, concludes that the international court's decision is not binding because, while the U.S. agreed to submit the dispute to the ICJ, it did not agree to be bound by the ICJ's decision. With all respect to the Court, this is an absurd distinction; a party, even the U.S., cannot agree to litigate a matter before a tribunal and then disregard a result that it does not like.
President Bush issued a memorandum that the U.S. would fulfill its obligations under the ICJ ruling "by having state courts give effect to the decision." However, after the Texas courts refused to grant the convicted criminal a new hearing in accordance with the international ruling, the Court, in Medellín, also held that even presidential power was insufficient to pre-empt state law.
As Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out in his dissent, the U.S.'s obligations to submit disputes under the Vienna Convention are similar to its obligations under many treaties, including economic cooperation agreements, commerce and navigation treaties, and copyright conventions. The Court, for the first time, and contrary to well-established precedent, has now stated that U.S. obligations under those agreements will not be enforced in the U.S. This sends a strong message that we consider ourselves above the rule of international law.
Of perhaps greater importance: If the obligations of U.S. companies under international law will not be enforced here, these companies will be adversely affected because the host countries and local businesses will not be able to rely upon the commitments that the U.S. has negotiated pursuant to treaties. Countries like China, which are not democratic and do not have a tradition of an independent judiciary, have had to attempt to develop court systems. Let's hope U.S. interests can be treated fairly.
If the U.S., with its proud traditions of accepting the rule of law, wants to have the rights of its citizens respected abroad, it must begin by acknowledging the mandates of international law.