Image: Jose Ernesto Medellin
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Mexican national Jose Ernesto Medellin was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a Texas court in 1994. The U.S. government argues Medellin should receive a new hearing.
updated 10/10/2007 8:34:40 PM ET 2007-10-11T00:34:40

Neither the president nor an international court can tell Texas how to treat criminal defendants, the state's top Supreme Court advocate told the justices in a lively argument Wednesday over the fate of a Mexican citizen on death row.

Texas Solicitor General R. Ted Cruz said Jose Ernesto Medellin received a fair trial and adequate representation even though he was not notified of his right under an international treaty to request help from Mexican diplomats when he was arrested on suspicion of raping and killing two teenagers in Houston.

"Both state and federal courts concluded there was no prejudice," from the violation of the 1963 Vienna Convention, Cruz said.

The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that U.S. courts should review the convictions and sentences for Medellin and 50 other Mexican-born prisoners because of the treaty violation. President Bush has ordered that the ICJ ruling be enforced through new hearings in state courts.

Bush at odds with state he governed
The argument Wednesday, for which an hour was allotted, stretched to nearly 90 minutes as the justices threw question after question at lawyers for Medellin, the U.S. government and Texas in a case that mixes Bush administration claims of executive power with the role of international law in state court proceedings.

Several justices suggested that U.S. ratification of an agreement promising to abide by the international court's decisions is a sufficient basis for ruling in Medellin's favor. "The United States gave its promise. It voluntarily complied," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.

The administration's position is that the president's declaration that the ruling should be enforced is reason enough for Texas to grant Medellin a new hearing. "Obviously, we feel the president's determination here is a critical element," U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement said.

But Justice Antonin Scalia reacted skeptically to that idea. "You're telling us we don't need Congress. The president can make it domestic law" on his own, Scalia said.

Texas courts have said the international court ruling has no weight in Texas and that Bush has no power to order its enforcement.

Sentenced to death in 1994
Medellin was arrested a few days after the killings of Jennifer Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Pena, 16, in June 1993. He was told he had a right to remain silent and have a lawyer present, but the police did not tell him that he could request assistance from the Mexican consulate under the 1963 treaty.

Medellin, who speaks, reads and writes English, gave a written confession. He was convicted of murder in the course of a sexual assault, a capital offense in Texas. A judge sentenced him to death in October 1994.

Texas acknowledges that Medellin was not told he could ask for help from Mexican diplomats, but argues that he forfeited the right because he never raised the issue at trial or sentencing. In any case, the state argues, the diplomats' intercession would not have made any difference in the outcome of the case.

At this point, 14 years after the killings, the state says neither the international court nor Bush has any say in Medellin's case.

State and federal courts rejected Medellin's claim when he raised it on appeal.

No death penalty in Mexico
Then, in 2003, Mexico sued the United States in the International Court of Justice in The Hague on behalf of Medellin and 50 other Mexicans on death row in the U.S. who also had been denied access to their country's diplomats following their arrests.

Mexico has no death penalty. Mexico and other opponents of capital punishment have sought to use the court, also known as the World Court, to fight for foreigners facing execution in the U.S.

The international court ruled for Mexico in 2004, saying the sentences and convictions should be reviewed by U.S. courts. Bush ordered state courts to give the prisoners new state court hearings.

Bush has since withdrawn the United States from the international agreement that allows the world court to have the final say when citizens claim they were illegally denied access to their diplomats when they are jailed abroad.

The case is Medellin v. Texas, 06-984.

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