- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2005


The Supreme Court turned away an appeal yesterday that contended 51 Mexicans on U.S. death row were improperly denied legal help, avoiding a dispute over whether international law is binding on American courts.

The 5-4 decision dismissed the case of Jose Medellin, 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.

The high court also ruled it is unconstitutional to force capital-murder defendants to appear before juries in shackles during the penalty phase of their trials, brushing aside warnings by two justices about courthouse safety.

In a 7-2 decision, the high court threw out the death sentence of Carman Deck, a convicted murderer who was shackled in leg irons and handcuffed to a chain around his belly when he faced a Missouri jury that considered his fate.

The Medellin ruling means the case, which has stirred tensions with foreign countries over convictions of their citizens in violation of international law, will be hashed out in state courts. President Bush in February ordered new state court hearings for the 51 Mexicans, and the court cited that order yesterday.

Texas prosecutors pledged to challenge Mr. Bush’s authority in the matter. ?Jose Medellin voluntarily confessed to the brutal gang rape and murder of two teenage girls,? Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz said.

Sandra Babcock, an attorney representing the Mexican government, said she remained hopeful that Medellin’s international rights would ultimately be recognized in state court.

In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court dismissed Medellin’s case as premature because of Mr. Bush’s unexpected order, which came one month before justices heard arguments in the case.

?This state-court proceeding may provide Medellin with the very reconsideration of his Vienna Convention claim that he now seeks in the present proceeding,? stated the opinion, which was backed by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, as well as Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia.

At issue is how much weight U.S. courts should give to decisions of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which ruled last year that the 51 convictions violated the 1963 Vienna Convention.

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.

In a dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said she would have ordered the federal courts to review whether international law should be binding on the U.S. courts. Justices should not refrain from intervening because of Bush’s last-minute action that may or may not resolve the case, she said.

?It seems to me unsound to avoid questions of national importance when they are bound to recur,? Justice O’Connor wrote in an opinion joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer, adding that the court remains ?rightfully agnostic? on whether Mr. Bush’s action was valid.

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