Medellin v. Texas

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Medellin v. Texas

____ US____ (March 25, 2008)

Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), located in The Hague, is a tribunal established pursuant to the United Nations Charter to adjudicate disputes between member states. In the Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals, that tribunal considered a claim brought by Mexico against the United States. The ICJ held that, based on violations of the Vienna Convention, 51 named Mexican nationals were entitled to review and reconsideration of their state-court convictions and sentences in the United States . . . .

. . . . After the Avena decision, President George W. Bush determined [in his Memorandum to the United States Attorney General dated February 28, 2005] . . . that the United States would "discharge its international obligations" under Avena "by having State courts give effect to the decision."

Petitioner Jose Ernesto Medellin, who had been convicted and sentenced in Texas state court for murder, is one of the 51 Mexican nationals named in the Avena decision. Relying on the ICJ's decision and the President's Memorandum, Medellin filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus in state court. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed Medellin's application as an abuse of the writ under state law, given Medellin's failure to raise his Vienna Convention claim in a timely manner under state law. We granted certiorari to decide two questions. First, is the ICJ's judgment in Avena directly enforceable as domestic law in a state court in the United States? Second, does the President's Memorandum independently require the States to provide review and reconsideration of the claims of the 51 Mexican nationals named in Avena without regard to state procedural default rules? We conclude that neither Avena nor the President's Memorandum constitutes directly enforceable federal law that pre-empts state limitations on the filing of successive habeas petitions. We therefore affirm the decision below.

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Medellin first contends that the ICJ's judgment in Avena constitutes a "binding" obligation on the state and federal courts of the United States . . . .

No one disputes that the Avena decision . . . constitutes an international law obligation on the part of the United States. But not all international law obligations automatically constitute binding federal law enforceable in United States courts. The question we confront here is whether the Avena judgment has automatic domestic legal effect such that the judgment of its own force applies in state and federal courts.

. . . . [W]hile 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 these terms."

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. . . .[W]e conclude that the Avena judgment is not automatically binding domestic law.


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As a signatory to the Optional Protocol, the United States agreed to submit disputes arising out of the Vienna Convention to the ICJ . . . .

. . . [T]he Optional Protocol . . . . provides only that "[d]isputes arising out of the interpretation or application of the [Vienna] Convention shall lie within the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice" and "may accordingly be brought before the [ICJ] . . . by any party to the dispute being a Party to the present Protocol." The Protocol says nothing about the effect of an ICJ decision and does not itself commit signatories to comply with an ICJ judgment. The Protocol is similarly silent as to any enforcement mechanism.

The obligation on the part of signatory nations to comply with ICJ judgments derives not from the Optional Protocol, but rather from Article 94 of the United Nations Charter—the provision that specifically addresses the effect of ICJ decisions. Article 94(1) provides that "[e]ach Member of the United Nations undertakes to comply with the decision of the [ICJ] in any case to which it is a party" . . . .

. . . . [Article 94] is not a directive to domestic courts. It does not provide that the United States "shall" or "must" comply with an ICJ decision, nor indicate that the Senate that ratified the U. N. Charter intended to vest ICJ decisions with immediate legal effect in domestic courts . . . .

The remainder of Article 94 confirms that the U. N. Charter does not contemplate the automatic enforceability of ICJ decisions in domestic courts. Article 94(2)—the enforcement provision—provides the sole remedy for noncompliance: referral to the United Nations Security Council by an aggrieved state.

The U. N. Charter's provision of an express diplomatic—that is, nonjudicial—remedy is itself evidence that ICJ judgments were not meant to be enforceable in domestic courts . . . .

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The ICJ Statute, incorporated into the U. N. Charter, provides further evidence that the ICJ's judgment in Avena does not automatically constitute federal law judicially enforceable in United States courts . . . . [T]he ICJ can hear disputes only between nations, not individuals. More important, Article 59 of the statute provides that "[t]he decision of the [ICJ] has no binding force except between the parties and in respect of that particular case" . . . .

. . . . [O]nly nation-states may be parties before the ICJ, and . . . ICJ judgments are binding only between those parties.

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The pertinent international agreements, therefore, do not provide for implementation of ICJ judgments through direct enforcement in domestic courts, and "where a treaty does not provide a particular remedy, either expressly or implicitly, it is not for the federal courts to impose one on the States through lawmaking of their own."

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Our conclusion that Avena does not by itself constitute binding federal law is confirmed by the "postratification understanding" of signatory nations. There are currently 47 nations that are parties to the Optional Protocol and 171 nations that are parties to the Vienna Convention. Yet neither Medellin nor his amici have identified a single nation that treats ICJ judgments as binding in domestic courts . . . .

Our conclusion is further supported by general principles of interpretation . . . . "'[A]bsent a clear and express statement to the contrary, the procedural rules of the forum State govern the implementation of the treaty in that State'" . . . . Here there is no statement in the Optional Protocol, the U. N. Charter, or the ICJ Statute that supports the notion that ICJ judgments displace state procedural rules.

Moreover . . . . Medellin's interpretation would allow ICJ judgments to override otherwise binding state law; there is nothing in his logic that would exempt contrary federal law from the same fate. And there is nothing to prevent the ICJ from ordering state courts to annul criminal convictions and sentences, for any reason deemed sufficient by the ICJ. Indeed, that is precisely the relief Mexico requested.

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In short . . . "[n]othing in the structure or purpose of the ICJ suggests that its interpretations were intended to be conclusive on our courts” . . . .

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Our holding does not call into question the ordinary enforcement of foreign judgments or international arbitral agreements . . . . The point is that the particular treaty obligations on which Medellin relies do not of their own force create domestic law.

. . . . That the judgment of an international tribunal might not automatically become domestic law hardly means the underlying treaty is "useless." Such judgments would still constitute international obligations, the proper subject of political and diplomatic negotiations. And Congress could elect to give them wholesale effect (rather than the judgment-by-judgment approach hypothesized by the dissent) through implementing legislation, as it regularly has.

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In sum, while the ICJ's judgment in Avena creates an international law obligation on the part of the United States, it does not of its own force constitute binding federal law that pre-empts state restrictions on the filing of successive habeas petitions . . . . Nothing in the text, background, negotiating and drafting history, or practice among signatory nations suggests that the President or Senate intended the improbable result of giving the judgments of an international tribunal a higher status than that enjoyed by "many of our most fundamental constitutional protections."


Medellin next argues that the ICJ's judgment in Avena is binding on state courts by virtue of the President's February 28, 2005 Memorandum. The United States contends that while the Avena judgment does not of its own force require domestic courts to set aside ordinary rules of procedural default, that judgment became the law of the land with precisely that effect pursuant to the President's Memorandum and his power "to establish binding rules of decision that preempt contrary state law." Accordingly, we must decide whether the President's declaration alters our conclusion that the Avena judgment is not a rule of domestic law binding in state and federal courts.


. . . . In this case, the President seeks to vindicate United States interests in ensuring the reciprocal observance of the Vienna Convention, protecting relations with foreign governments, and demonstrating commitment to the role of international law . . . .

[H]owever . . . . 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."

Justice Jackson's familiar tripartite scheme [outlined in his concurrence in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952)] provides the accepted framework for evaluating executive action in this area. First, "[w]hen the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum, for it includes all that he possesses in his own right plus all that Congress can delegate." Second, "[w]hen the President acts in absence of either a congressional grant or denial of authority, he can only rely upon his own independent powers, but there is a zone of twilight in which he and Congress may have concurrent authority, or in which its distribution is uncertain." In this circumstance, Presidential authority can derive support from "congressional inertia, indifference or quiescence." Finally, "[w]hen the President takes measures incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress, his power is at its lowest ebb," and the Court can sustain his actions "only by disabling the Congress from acting upon the subject."


The United States marshals two principal arguments in favor of the President's authority "to establish binding rules of decision that preempt contrary state law." The Solicitor General first argues that the relevant treaties give the President the authority to implement the Avena judgment and that Congress has acquiesced in the exercise of such authority. The United States also relies upon an "independent" international dispute-resolution power wholly apart from the asserted authority based on the pertinent treaties. Medellin adds the additional argument that the President's Memorandum is a valid exercise of his power to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.


The United States maintains that the President's Memorandum is authorized by the Optional Protocol and the U. N. Charter. That is, because the relevant treaties "create an obligation to comply with Avena," they "implicitly give the President authority to implement that treaty-based obligation." As a result, the President's Memorandum is well grounded in the first category of the Youngstown framework.

We disagree. 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. The responsibility for transforming an international obligation arising from a non-self-executing treaty into domestic law falls to Congress . . . .

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A non-self-executing treaty, by definition, is one that was ratified with the understanding that it is not to have domestic effect of its own force . . . . We therefore conclude, given the absence of congressional legislation, that the non-self-executing treaties at issue here did not "express[ly] or implied[ly]" vest the President with the unilateral authority to make them self-executing. Accordingly, the President's Memorandum does not fall within the first category of the Youngstown framework.

. . . . When the President asserts the power to "enforce" a non-self-executing treaty by unilaterally creating domestic law, he acts in conflict with the implicit understanding of the ratifying Senate. His assertion of authority, insofar as it is based on the pertinent non-self-executing treaties, is therefore within Justice Jackson's third category, not the first or even the second.

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The United States nonetheless maintains that the President's Memorandum should be given effect as domestic law because "this case involves a valid Presidential action in the context of Congressional 'acquiescence'." Under the Youngstown tripartite framework, congressional acquiescence is pertinent when the President's action falls within the second category—that is, when he "acts in absence of either a congressional grant or denial of authority." Here, however, as we have explained, the President's effort to accord domestic effect to the Avena judgment does not meet that prerequisite.

In any event, even if we were persuaded that congressional acquiescence could support the President's asserted authority to create domestic law pursuant to a non-self-executing treaty, such acquiescence does not exist here . . . .

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None of this is to say, however, that the combination of a non-self-executing treaty and the lack of implementing legislation precludes the President from acting to comply with an international treaty obligation . . . . The President may comply with the treaty's obligations by some other means . . . .


We thus turn to the United States' claim that—independent of the United States' treaty obligations—the Memorandum is a valid exercise of the President's foreign affairs authority to resolve claims disputes with foreign nations. The United States relies on a series of cases in which this Court has upheld the authority of the President to settle foreign claims pursuant to an executive agreement. In these cases this Court has explained that, if pervasive enough, a history of congressional acquiescence can be treated as a "gloss on 'Executive Power' vested in the President by § 1 of Art. II."

[W]e find that our claims-settlement cases do not support the authority that the President asserts in this case. The claims-settlement cases involve a narrow set of circumstances: the making of executive agreements to settle civil claims between American citizens and foreign governments or foreign nationals. They are based on the view that "a systematic, unbroken, executive practice, long pursued to the knowledge of the Congress and never before questioned," can "raise a presumption that the [action] had been [taken] in pursuance of its consent" . . . . Even still, the limitations on this source of executive power are clearly set forth and the Court has been careful to note that "[p]ast practice does not, by itself, create power."

 The President's Memorandum is not supported by a "particularly longstanding practice" of congressional acquiescence, but rather is what the United States itself has described as "unprecedented action." Indeed, the Government has not identified a single instance in which the President has attempted (or Congress has acquiesced in) a Presidential directive issued to state courts, much less one that reaches deep into the heart of the State's police powers and compels state courts to reopen final criminal judgments and set aside neutrally applicable state laws. The Executive's narrow and strictly limited authority to settle international claims disputes pursuant to an executive agreement cannot stretch so far as to support the current Presidential Memorandum.


. . . . For the reasons we have stated, the Avena judgment is not domestic law; accordingly, the President cannot rely on his Take Care powers here.

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

It is so ordered.

Justice STEVENS, concurring in the judgment.

There is a great deal of wisdom in Justice BREYER's dissent. I agree that the text and history of the Supremacy Clause, as well as this Court's treaty-related cases, do not support a presumption against self-execution. I also endorse the proposition that the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations "is itself self-executing and judicially enforceable." Moreover, I think this case presents a closer question than the Court's opinion allows. In the end, however, I am persuaded that the relevant treaties do not authorize this Court to enforce the judgment of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals.

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Justice BREYER, with whom Justice SOUTER and Justice GINSBURG join, dissenting.

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The United States has signed and ratified a series of treaties obliging it to comply with ICJ judgments in cases in which it has given its consent to the exercise of the ICJ's adjudicatory authority . . . . President Bush has determined that domestic courts should enforce this particular ICJ judgment. And Congress has done nothing to suggest the contrary. Under these circumstances, I believe the treaty obligations, and hence the judgment, 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."

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Certiorari Grant

Supreme Court Opinion