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Law School Case Brief

Medellin v. Texas - 552 U.S. 491, 128 S. Ct. 1346 (2008)


Not all international law obligations automatically constitute binding federal law enforceable in United States courts. A distinction is recognized between treaties that automatically have effect as domestic law, and those that--while they constitute international law commitments--do not by themselves function as binding federal law. A treaty is equivalent to an act of the legislature, and hence self-executing, when it operates of itself without the aid of any legislative provision. When, in contrast, treaty stipulations are not self-executing they can only be enforced pursuant to legislation to carry them into effect. In sum, while treaties may comprise international commitments, they are not domestic law unless Congress has either enacted implementing statutes or the treaty itself conveys an intention that it be "self-executing" and is ratified on those terms. What is meant by "self-executing" is that the treaty has automatic domestic effect as federal law upon ratification. Conversely, a "non-self-executing" treaty does not by itself give rise to domestically enforceable federal law. Whether such a treaty has domestic effect depends upon implementing legislation passed by Congress.


In the Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mex. v. U. S.), the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held that the United States had violated Article 36(1)(b) of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (Vienna Convention or Convention) by failing to inform 51 named Mexican nationals, including petitioner Medellin, of their Vienna Convention rights. The ICJ found that those named individuals were entitled to review and reconsideration of their U.S. state-court convictions and sentences regardless of their failure to comply with generally applicable state rules governing challenges to criminal convictions. In Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon, which was issued after the Avena decision but involving individuals who were not named in the Avena judgment, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, contrary to the ICJ's determination, the Convention did not preclude the application of state default rules. The President then issued a memorandum (Memorandum) stating that the United States would "discharge its international obligations" under Avena "by having State courts give effect to the decision." Relying on Avena and the President's Memorandum, Medellin filed a second Texas state-court habeas application challenging his state capital murder conviction and death sentence on the ground that he had not been informed of his Vienna Convention rights. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed Medellin's application as an abuse of the writ, concluding that neither Avena nor the President's Memorandum were binding federal law that could displace the State's limitations on filing successive habeas applications.


Can the doctrine enunciated in Avena, and the Memorandum issued by the President regarding the discharge of the international obligations by the U.S. be considered binding federal law?




The Supreme Court held that neither the ICJ decision nor the President's Memorandum constituted directly enforceable federal law that would preempt state limitations on the filing of successive habeas petitions. According to the Court, the pertinent international agreements, including the Optional Protocol Concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes to the Vienna Convention, Apr. 24, 1963, 21 U.S.T. 325, T.I.A.S. No. 6820 and the United Nations Charter, did not provide for direct enforcement of ICJ judgments. Nor could the President unilaterally execute a non-self-executing treaty by giving it domestic effect, as the power to implement such a treaty fell to Congress.

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