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Supreme Court Refuses to Address Vienna Convention Issue

On May 23, 2005, the U. S. Supreme Court dismissed the case of a Mexican citizen claiming denial of his Vienna Convention right to consular notification and seeking to enforce a recent World Court decision against the United States on the issue. [PLN Sept. 2004, p. 12].

The unsigned plurality opinion dismissing the petition for a writ of certiorari (a request to have the Supreme Court review the case) as improvidently granted, included a concurring opinion by Justice Ginsberg, joined in part by Justice Scalia and dissenting opinions by Justices Bryer, Souter and O'Connor, joined by Justices Stevens.

Jose Ernesto Medellin, a Texas state prisoner, is one of the fifty-one Mexican nationals on death row in the United States whose consular notification rights were violated according to an opinion by the World Court issued March 31; 2004. The World Court opinion instructed the United States

to grant the Mexican nationals hearings on whether the failure of the U S. to

notify them of their consular rights and notify their consulates that they were being held prejudiced their criminal cases.

The Supreme Court had agreed to review the case on two issues: whether a federal court is bound by the World Court's judgment without regard to procedural default doctrines and whether a federal should give effect to the judgment as a matter of judicial comity and uniform treaty interpretation. Over two months after the Supreme Court agreed to review the case, President Bush issued a memorandum stating that the U.S. would honor the World Court judgment by having state courts grant the 51 Mexican nationals hearings on the denial of consular rights issue. Medellin then filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals based upon the Bush memorandum. The Supreme Court held that, because the state habeas corpus proceeding could result in the same relief Medellin was requesting in the Supreme Court, it should wait until the state concludes its proceedings before it decided whether it should hear the case.

The Supreme Court also noted that Medellin faces several other procedural hurdles should he return to federal court following the state court hearing.

Principle dissenter O'Connor protested that it was unsound of the Supreme Court "to avoid questions of national importance when they are bound to recur." She noted that state prisons in the U.S. currently hold over 56,000 non-citizens (including 119 on death row) and that the states often confess having violated the Vienna Convention. She also noted that, although Medellin told arresting officers that he had been born in Mexico, he was arrested, detained, tried, convicted and sentenced without having been informed of his Vienna Convention rights and without Mexico having been notified of his arrest, both clear violations of the treaty. See: Medellin v. Dretke, No. 04-5928 (U.S.S.Ct. 5-23-05).

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Related legal case

Medellin v. Dretke