Medellín v. Texas

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Medellín v. Texas
Argued October 10, 2007
Decided March 25, 2008
Full case nameJosé Ernesto Medellín v. Texas
Docket no.06-984
Citations552 U.S. 491 (more)
128 S. Ct. 1346; 170 L. Ed. 2d 190; 2008 U.S. LEXIS 2912; 76 U.S.L.W. 4143; 2008-1 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) ¶ 50,242; 21 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 126
ArgumentOral argument
Case history
PriorMedellín v. State, No. 71,997 (Tex. Crim. App., May 16, 1997); petition denied, S.D. Tex.; certificate of appealability denied, 371 F.3d 270 (5th Cir. 2004); cert. granted, 543 U.S. 1032 (2005); cert. dismissed, 544 U.S. 660 (2005) (per curiam) (Medellín I); Ex parte Medellín, 223 S.W. 3d 315 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006); cert. granted Ex parte Medellín, 550 U.S. 917 (2007).
SubsequentStay and petition denied, 554 U.S. 759 (2008) (Medellín III)
Neither Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mex. v. U.S.), 2004 I.C.J. 12 (Judgment of Mar. 31) nor the President's Memorandum to the Attorney General (Feb. 28, 2005) constitutes an enforceable federal law that pre-empts state limitations on the filing of habeas corpus petitions.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Antonin Scalia
Anthony Kennedy · David Souter
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Case opinions
MajorityRoberts, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito
ConcurrenceStevens (in judgment)
DissentBreyer, joined by Souter, Ginsburg
Laws applied
Optional Protocol Concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes to the Vienna Convention, April 24, 1963, (1970) 21 U.S.T. 325, T.I.A.S. No. 6820; Article 36(1)(b) of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations; Article 94 of the United Nations Charter; U.S. Const., Art. II, §3

Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008), was a United States Supreme Court decision that held that even when a treaty constitutes an international commitment, it is not binding domestic law unless either the United States Congress has enacted statutes implementing it or the treaty is explicitly "self-executing".[1] The Court also held that decisions of the International Court of Justice are not binding domestic law and, like treaties, cannot be enforced by the President of the United States without authority from Congress or the United States Constitution.[1]


The United States ratified the United Nations Charter on October 24, 1945.[2] Article 92 of the Charter established the International Court of Justice.[3] The ICJ Statute, which sets forth the procedures and jurisdiction of the ICJ, and was attached to the UN Charter, delineates two ways in which a nation may consent to ICJ jurisdiction. It may consent generally to jurisdiction on any question arising under a treaty or general international law, or it may consent specifically to jurisdiction over a particular category of cases or disputes pursuant to a separate treaty.[4]

In 1969, the United States ratified the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of April 24, 1963,[5] and the Optional Protocol Concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes to the Vienna Convention of April 24, 1963.[6] Article 36 of the Vienna Convention requires for foreign nationals who are arrested or detained be given notice "without delay" of their right to have their embassy or consulate notified of that arrest. The Optional Protocol provides that disputes arising out of the interpretation or application of the Vienna Convention "shall lie within the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice."[7]

The United States withdrew from general ICJ jurisdiction on October 7, 1985.[8]

On June 24, 1993, José Ernesto Medellín, an 18-year-old Mexican citizen, and several other gang members participated in the murders of Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Peña, which involved their rape of a 14-year-old and 16-year-old girl for an hour in Houston, Texas. Both girls were killed to prevent them from identifying their assailants. Medellín strangled one of the girls with her own shoelaces.[9][10]

Hours after Medellin's arrest, he admitted to his part in the crime and boasted of having "virgin blood" on his underpants.[11]

Medellín was arrested five days later and signed a confession after he had been given his Miranda warning. Texas authorities did not, however, advise him of his right to contact his consulate under the terms of the Vienna Convention.[9][10] Medellín was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death in 1997. He raised the issue of his Vienna Convention rights during his appeal, but his conviction was upheld by the trial court and by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.[12]

In 2003, Medellín filed a petition for habeas corpus in United States district court. The district court denied relief, holding that Medellín's Vienna Convention claim should have been raised at trial, not on appeal, and that he had failed to show prejudice against his case arising from the Vienna Convention violation.[13]

Also in 2003, Mexico brought suit against the United States in the ICJ and claimed that the United States had failed to notify 51 defendants (all Mexican citizens having been accused in state courts of committing crimes in the US) of their Vienna Convention right to notify their consulate. Medellín was one of these. The following year, the ICJ ruled in Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mex. v. U. S.), 2004 I.C.J. 12 (Judgment of March 31) (Avena) that the 51 Mexican nationals were entitled to review and reconsideration of their convictions and sentences.[14]

Medellín's appeal now found its way to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Medellín raised the ICJ's ruling in Avena before the Fifth Circuit, but the federal appellate court denied relief.[15]

On March 7, 2005, after the ICJ judgment in Avena, the United States withdrew from the Optional Protocol.[16][17]

Medellín appealed to the US Supreme Court, which granted a writ of certiorari.[18]

Before the Supreme Court could hear the case, however, President George W. Bush issued a Memorandum to the United States Attorney General.[19] In the Memorandum, Bush asserted authority under the Constitution and the various laws of the United States to order states to review the convictions and sentences of foreign nationals who had not been advised of their Vienna Convention rights. Because of the Memorandum, Medellín filed a second case in state court for habeas corpus.[20] The US Supreme Court then dismissed Medellín's first petition for certiorari in a per curiam decision, Medellín v. Dretke, 544 U.S. 660 (2005) (Medellín I).[21]

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed Medellín's second appeal,[20] and the US Supreme Court granted certiorari a second time.[22]

As Medellín's second appeal was under consideration in Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon.[23] Although the decision did not involve the individuals named in the Avena judgment, the Court held the ICJ's ruling in Avena to have been in error. Absent a clear and express statement to the contrary in either the Vienna Convention or the Optional Protocol, the Court held in Sanchez-Llamas that the procedural rules of each nation govern the implementation of the treaty. Since Sanchez-Llamas' rights had been observed under both state and federal law as well as various rulings of the Supreme Court, the High Court upheld his conviction.[23] The ruling in Sanchez-Llamas did not control Medellín's case, however, since his claim was based on the rights accorded him as one of the individuals in the ICJ's judgment, rather than on the Vienna Convention. Since the ICJ had jurisdiction to render the decision in Avena at the time under the Optional Protocol, no one argued that Sanchez-Llamas alone foreclosed Medellín's claim.

The case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on October 9, 2007, with Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz appearing for the state and U.S Solicitor General Paul Clement appearing as a friend in support of Medellín.[24]

Opinion of the Court[edit]

On March 24, 2008, the Court affirmed 6–3, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts writing for a five-justice majority. The Court held that the Avena judgment is not enforceable as domestic law. A treaty is not binding domestic law, it said, unless Congress has enacted statutes implementing it or the treaty itself conveys an intention that it is "self-executing."[25] None of the relevant treaties – the Optional Protocol, the UN Charter, or the ICJ Statute – was self-executing, and no implementing legislation had been enacted, the Court found.[26]

The Court also rejected Medellín's claim that Article 94 of the UN Charter requires the United States to "undertake to comply" with the ICJ ruling. Chief Justice Roberts observed that Article 94(2) of the Charter provides for explicit enforcement for noncompliance by referral to the UN Security Council, and for appeals to be made by only the aggrieved state, not an individual such as Medellín.[27] Even so, the United States clearly reserved the right to veto any Security Council resolutions.[27] The majority also held that the ICJ statute contained in the Charter also forbade individuals from being parties to suits before the International Court. The ICJ statute is a pact between nations, Justice Roberts said, and only nations, not individuals, may seek its judgment.[28]

Relying on Sanchez-Llamas, the Supreme Court then held that absent a clear and express statement to the contrary in the relevant treaties, domestic procedural rules govern a treaty's implementation.[29]

The Court also rejected Medellín's argument that the President's February 28, 2005 Memorandum was binding on state courts. The Court relied on Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U. S. 579 (1952), recognizing that "plainly compelling interests" were at stake in the Medellín case, but noted:

Such considerations, however, do not allow us to set aside first principles. 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.'[30]

The majority concluded that neither condition had been met. Neither the government nor the defendant had cited any statutory authority which authorized the President to act. Instead, the President claimed that the Optional Protocol and UN Charter implicitly gave him the authority to act. The Court disagreed: "The President has an array of political and diplomatic means available to enforce international obligations, but unilaterally converting a non-self-executing treaty into a self-executing one is not among them."[31] The President also claimed that Congress had acquiesced in the exercise of presidential power by failing to act following the resolution of prior ICJ controversies. However, Roberts held, "A review of the Executive's actions in those prior cases, however, cannot support the claim that Congress acquiesced in this particular exercise of Presidential authority, for none of them remotely involved transforming an international obligation into domestic law and thereby displacing state law."[32] The President also founded his action on "related" statutory responsibilities and an "established role" in litigating foreign policy concerns, but none of the examples cited in the government's brief supported that conclusion, the majority ruled, and none of the examples remotely indicated that the President may pre-empt state law.[33]

The government had also claimed that the Memorandum was an exercise of the President's authority to resolve international claims under his executive authority. The Court recognized that it was a longstanding practice "never-before questioned."[34] But relying on Dames & Moore v. Regan, 453 U.S. 654 (1981), the Court observed, "Past practice does not, by itself, create power."[34] All prior uses of executive authority to settle international disputes all occurred in narrow circumstances and did not involve the complete setting aside of state law, as the defendant sought in the present case.[35]

Finally, Medellín argued that the President's Memorandum was a valid exercise of presidential power based on the president's authority to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed," as granted in the Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution. The majority observed that the government refused to rely on Article II, Section 3, which undercut Medellín's claim. Justice Roberts then concluded that since the ICJ decision in Avena was not domestic law, the "take care" clause did not apply.[36]

The judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was affirmed.

Justice Roberts' opinion was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito.

Justice Stevens' concurrence[edit]

Justice John Paul Stevens largely concurred with the majority's conclusion but thought the case "presents a closer question than the Court's opinion allows", as he agreed with much of the dissenting argument that the "history of the Supremacy Clause, as well as this Court’s treaty-related cases, do not support a presumption against self-execution".[37] Stevens argued that the Supreme Court could not enforce the ICJ opinion in Avena, as nothing in the U.N. Charter "incorporate[s] international judgments into domestic law"; however, he believed the ICJ's judgment still constituted an international commitment that both federal and state governments should "take action necessary" to comply with...".[37]


Justice Breyer's dissent that the majority misapplied the language of the ICJ treaty and failed to take into account long-established caselaw that found treaties to be binding absent additional Congressional action. His conclusion was that "treaty obligations, and hence the judgment [of the ICJ], resting as it does upon the consent of the United States to the ICJ's jurisdiction, bind the courts no less than would "an act of the [federal] legislature".[38]

Breyer cited the 1796 case Ware v. Hylton, which he considered illustrative of what "the Founders meant when they wrote [in the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution] that 'all Treaties... shall be the supreme Law of the Land.'" In Ware, the Supreme Court had agreed with a British creditor that a provision of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which had been ratified by Congress, overruled a conflicting Virginia law. Breyer noted that no further legislative act had implemented the treaty, but rather the Court found that its provisions were automatically incorporated as domestic law per the Supremacy Clause.[38]

Breyer's dissent was joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg.


Huntsville Unit, the site of executions in the State of Texas


Medellín was executed at 9:57 pm on August 5, 2008, after his last-minute appeals were rejected by the Supreme Court.[39] Governor Rick Perry rejected calls from Mexico and Washington, D.C., to delay the execution, citing the torture, rape and strangulation of two teenage girls in Houston as just cause for the death penalty.[40]

The Medellín decision has been criticized by scholars of international law on several grounds.[41] Some analysts echo the dissent's argument that the Court failed to address the Supremacy Clause in its decision,[42] essentially ruling that treaties are presumptively non-self-executing without an adequate legal basis.[43] Similarly, other critics contend that the Court departed from established caselaw by applying an analysis "never engaged in" by prior courts that had interpreted treaties.[44]

Kristofer Monson, who served as Assistant Solicitor General Texas, argues that much of the criticism of Medellin is rooted in principles of public international law rather than in U.S. domestic law, which gives courts the authority to interpret the scope and binding nature of a treaty no differently than a federal statute.[41] He notes that no justice challenged the Court's power and necessity to analyze even a presumably self-executing treaty, but rather disagreed on the proper analytical framework.

In his successful 2012 campaign for the United States Senate, as well as during his 2016 presidential candidacy, Republican Ted Cruz cited his work as Solicitor General of Texas in Medellin v. Texas as his proudest achievement,[45] describing it as "by far the biggest case of my tenure".[46]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008). Public domain This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  2. ^ United Nations Charter, 59 Stat. 1051, T.S. No. 993 (1945).
  3. ^ Statute of the International Court of Justice, 59 Stat. 1055, T.S. No. 993 (1945).
  4. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 4.
  5. ^ Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 21 U.S.T. 77, T.I.A.S. No. 6820 (1970).
  6. ^ Optional Protocol Concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes to the Vienna Convention, 21 U.S.T. 325, T.I.A.S. No. 6820 (1970).
  7. ^ Article I, Optional Protocol Concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes to the Vienna Convention, cited in Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 3.
  8. ^ U.S. Department of State Letter and Statement Concerning Termination of Acceptance of ICJ Compulsory Jurisdiction, October 7, 1985, cited in Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 4.
  9. ^ a b David Stout, "Justices Rule Against Bush on Death Penalty Case," The New York Times, March 25, 2008.
  10. ^ a b Mark Sherman, "Court Backs Texas in Dispute With Bush," Associated Press, March 25, 2008. Archived April 17, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Allen Turner, "Medellin executed for rape, murder of Houston teens," Houston Chronicle, August 6, 2008.
  12. ^ Medellín v. State, No. 71,997 (Tex. Crim. App., May 16, 1997); Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 5-6.
  13. ^ Medellín v. Cockrell, Civ. Action No. H–01–4078 (SD Tex., June 26, 2003).
  14. ^ In the Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mex. v. U. S.), 2004 I.C.J. 12 (Judgment of March 31).
  15. ^ Medellín v. Dretke, 371 F.3d 270 (5th Cir. 2004).
  16. ^ "Letter from Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State, to Kofi A. Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations" (PDF). Retrieved January 24, 2012. cited in Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 4.
  17. ^ Charles Lane, "U.S. Quits Pact Used in Capital Cases", The Washington Post, March 9, 2005.
  18. ^ Medellín v. Dretke, 544 U.S. 660 (2005) (per curiam) (Medellín I).
  19. ^ Memorandum to the Attorney General, February 28, 2005, cited in Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 7.
  20. ^ a b Ex parte Medellín, 223 S.W. 3d 315 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006).
  21. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 7.
  22. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 550 U. S. ___ (2007) (Medellín II).
  23. ^ a b Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon, 548 U.S. 331 (2006)
  24. ^ "Medellin v. Texas". Oyez.
  25. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 8.
  26. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 10.
  27. ^ a b Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 13.
  28. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 15.
  29. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 13, 21.
  30. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 28, quoting Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U. S. 579, at 582.
  31. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 30.
  32. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 33.
  33. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 34-35.
  34. ^ a b Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 36, quoting Dames & Moore v. Regan, 453 U.S. 654 (1981), at 686.
  35. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 36.
  36. ^ Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. 491 (2008) (No. 06-984), p. 37.
  37. ^ a b "Medellín v. Texas, 552 U.S. ____ (2008) - Concurrence: Stevens". Justia Law. Retrieved 2021-12-22. Unlike the text of some other treaties, the terms of the United Nations Charter do not necessarily incorporate international judgments into domestic law. Cf., e.g., United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Annex VI, Art. 39, Dec. 10, 1982, S. Treaty Doc. No. 103–39, 1833 U. N. T. S. 570 (“[D]ecisions of the [Seabed Disputes] Chamber shall be enforceable in the territories of the States Parties in the same manner as judgments or orders of the highest court of the State Party in whose territory the enforcement is sought”). Moreover, Congress has passed implementing legislation to ensure the enforcement of other international judgments, even when the operative treaty provisions use far more mandatory language than “undertakes to comply{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  38. ^ a b "BREYER, J., DISSENTING, MEDELLIN V. TEXAS 552 U. S. ____ (2008), NO. 06-984". Justia Law. Retrieved 2021-12-22.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  39. ^ Supreme Court of the United States (2008-08-05). "Jose Ernesto Medellin v. Texas (Per Curiam)" (PDF). SCOTUSblog. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
  40. ^ McKinley, James C. Jr. (2008-08-06). "Texas Executes Mexican Despite Objections". New York Times.
  41. ^ a b Kristofer Monson, Thoughts on Medellín v. Texas, 45 Case W. Res. J. Int'l L. 389, 399-400 (2012)
  42. ^ "Self-executing treaties and judgments". Retrieved 2021-12-22.
  43. ^ Carlos Manuel Vázquez, Treaties as Law of the Land: The Supremacy Clause and the Judicial Enforcement of Treaties, 122 HARV. L. REV. 599, 648 (2008) ("The Medellín majority did not attempt to square the view that non-self-executing treaties lack the force of domestic law with the text of the Supremacy Clause".)
  44. ^ Id. at 648–649 (arguing the Court had no legal basis for denying the force of domestic law to a treaty that imposes an obligation on the United States that is not beyond the treaty power and has not been superseded by a statute).
  45. ^ Zurcher, Anthony. "There's a Prospect on the Right", The Texas Observer, Austin, 24 April 2012. Retrieved on 17 August 2015.
  46. ^ Batheja, Aman (July 22, 2012). "NY Times".


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