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Dangerous precedent

Jose Medellin's execution in Texas could come back to haunt Americans jailed abroad.

August 17, 2008

Tuesday's execution of Jose Medellin, a Mexican citizen who was convicted of the 1993 rape and murder of two girls in Texas, ended the life of a vicious criminal. But it also flouted a treaty signed by the U.S. that will now offer less protection to Americans arrested and imprisoned abroad -- unless Congress acts.

Medellin was one of 51 Mexican nationals on death row in the United States who weren't informed upon their arrest of their right to meet with consular officials from their home country, a violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations ratified by the U.S. in 1969. In 2004, in a lawsuit brought by Mexico, the International Court of Justice ruled for the prisoners and directed the U.S. "to provide by means of its own choosing, review and reconsideration of the convictions and sentences of the Mexican nationals."

President Bush, who ironically was a strong supporter of capital punishment as governor of Texas, responded by essentially ordering Texas prosecutors to reopen Medellin's case and others affected by the ruling. Predictably, Texas and its courts refused, and in March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Bush lacked the "unilateral authority" to force state officials to comply with a treaty.

As a matter of constitutional law, that was correct. But then Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the rest of the majority made an error of their own, holding that the Vienna Convention was not "self-executing" and could be implemented only through additional legislation. As Justice Stephen G. Breyer pointed out in a persuasive dissent, the Constitution's supremacy clause says that "all treaties

It's tempting, especially when the focus is on a killer like Medellin, to assume that no harm is done by the court's misreading of this country's treaty obligations. But, as former U.S. diplomat Jeffrey Davidow argued in a recent opinion article in The Times, thousands of U.S. citizens are jailed abroad every year and depend on U.S. consular officials to inform them of their rights and act as intermediaries. If U.S. officials don't feel obliged to honor the treaty, why should foreign jailers?

After the Supreme Court's ruling, the only realistic hope for foreign death row inmates who were denied their rights -- including 28 in California -- is for Congress to pass the sort of legislation Roberts described in his majority opinion. Last month, legislation was introduced that would give effect to the World Court's decision. Bush should lobby Congress for its enactment with the same vigor with which he took on the courts of Texas.

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