International Law Experts Question Supreme Court Decision in Medellin Case

Notable international law experts cited in a recent article in the Washington Lawyer criticized the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision on whether an international treaty was binding on Texas in the case of death row inmate Jose Medellin. Carolyn Lamm, an attorney at White & Case specializing in international dispute resolution, stated that "[T]he failure to compel our state court organs to comply with the decision of the ICJ [International Court of Justice] is regrettable, and the dissenting opinion that the language was self-executing is correct.” In August 2008, Texas executed Medellin despite the judgment of the ICJ that his rights and those of 50 other foreign nationals on death row were violated under the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations due to a failure to inform the inmates of their right to contact their country’s consulate for assistance upon arrest.


In March 2008, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that although the United States had an obligation to honor the treaty, Texas was not required to comply. In making its decision, the Court determined that the protocol on enforcing the Vienna Convention through the ICJ was not self-executing, and thus, in the absence of Congressional legislation compelling the state of Texas to comply with the ICJ ruling, Texas was not required to hold a hearing for Medellin as ordered in the ruling. Even an order from President George Bush was insufficient to require Texas courts to asses whether the treaty violation had impinged on Medellin's trial and sentencing.  Michael Socarras, head of the international dispute resolution practice at McDermott Will & Emery, said the Court should have recognized that "Texas is a sovereign state, and that all sovereign states are bound by the universal practice followed among nations, and that ICJ decisions and the Vienna Convention are helpful authorities on universal practice. Texas had a duty to follow universal consular practice."

The United States was not only a signatory to the Vienna Convention, but also the main force behind the creation of the Optional Protocol in question here. In addition, the United States was the first country to call on the protections of the protocol during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979.

(S. Stauffer, "Texas v. World," Washington Lawyer, October 2008.) See Foreign Nationals, International, and Supreme Court.