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Court Overrules President Bush in Texas Case, Weighs Detainee Rights

March 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST
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The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas does not have to reopen the case of a Mexican national on death row, rebuking President Bush, and heard arguments in a terrorism detainee rights case. The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle explains the day in court.
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JEFFREY BROWN: In 1994, a Mexican national named Jose Ernesto Medellin was convicted of rape and murder in Texas and sentenced to death. Ten years later, in a case brought by Mexico, the International Court of Justice held that Medellin’s conviction violated an international treaty.

President Bush said the Texas courts should accept that ruling and review the case, but Texas refused. And today, in a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court sided with Texas.

Our court watcher, Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal, is here to tell us about it.

Marcia, this issue goes back to when Mr. Medellin was first apprehended and was not told that he could have access or could consult with his own diplomats.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: That’s right, Jeff. There are a number of states, not just Texas, that were not giving foreign nationals the notice required by a particular treaty to which the United States and many countries are a member.

After his conviction, he made some appeals that actually went to the Supreme Court, went back down. But what really happened, what got this case going at the Supreme Court was that Mexico, which had at the time 51 citizens on U.S. death rows, went to the International Court of Justice…

JEFFREY BROWN: Popularly known as the World Court right in the Hague.

MARCIA COYLE: … the World Court, that’s right, to complain basically that the United States had violated that treaty requiring notice be given to foreign nationals that they can consult with the diplomats of their own country when they’ve been arrested.

JEFFREY BROWN: So then is it a case that pits international law versus state law? Is that how to think of it?

MARCIA COYLE: This is an amazing case, because it involves international law, state law, executive power, the role of the federal courts, many, many different things are at work here.

But boiled down, the World Court issued a decision saying that the United States had violated the treaty, and it directed the United States by a means of its own choosing to see that these 51 Mexican nationals’ convictions and sentences were reviewed to see if they’d been prejudiced by the treaty violation.

Challenging presidential authority

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
The chief justice said that, if these treaties were non-self-executing and required congressional action, the president acting alone ... could not make the World Court's judgment binding federal law.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the president said that should happen...

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, he did.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... but today the court ruled against him. So what was the argument? What was the decision, I mean?

MARCIA COYLE: The decision was written by the chief justice, John Roberts. And he essentially made two points here.

First, he said that the judgment by the World Court was not binding federal law that could supersede a state court's criminal process, because, he said, the treaties on which this judgment was grounded were not what is known as self-executing treaties. They required some action by Congress implementing legislation that would make them binding federal law.

Second, the question of whether the president through a memorandum could direct the states to comply, the chief justice said that, if these treaties were non-self-executing and required congressional action, the president acting alone on whatever authority he might assert -- executive power, power in foreign affairs -- could not make the World Court's judgment binding federal law. He could not create federal law.

Adhering to international treaties

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
(Justice Breyer) felt that, under those circumstances, those treaties and this judgment, this decision, were as binding on U.S. courts and state courts as any law that Congress would enact.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and then there were three justices in dissent.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Souter. And Justice Breyer wrote for the dissenters, and he took the complete opposite view here.

He said the United States had signed and ratified this series of treaties. It also had agreed to be bound by the World Court's judgment in this case and Congress had never done anything to the contrary.

He felt that, under those circumstances, those treaties and this judgment, this decision, were as binding on U.S. courts and state courts as any law that Congress would enact.

JEFFREY BROWN: And briefly here, do the experts think there are wider implications for international law or international treaties from this case?

MARCIA COYLE: I think they probably are going to chew over this decision for many months because it is very complex, but...

JEFFREY BROWN: And not to mention presidential authority, which you also raised, yes.

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely. But I think there were amicus briefs filed here, and some by international scholars and diplomats, who were concerned that, if the United States does not honor its obligations under these treaties, that our partners in the world are going to wonder whether the United States will honor its other obligations, which is why President Bush stepped forward here to comply with this judgment.

Considering detainee rights

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
The question here is whether our federal courts have the jurisdiction or the authority to review the legality of the detention of these two American citizens held in Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now let's move to the case that was argued today at the court. Now, this one involved two U.S. citizens currently detained by U.S. forces in Iraq.

Shawqi Omar went to Iraq in 2002, he said, to get a job with reconstruction efforts. In 2004, he was arrested by American troops for allegedly harboring terrorists and amassing bomb-making materials.

Mohammed Munaf went to Iraq in 2005 to serve as a translator for three Romanian journalists. Insurgents kidnapped Munaf and the reporters, releasing them two months later, but U.S. troops then arrested Munaf for allegedly participating in the kidnapping.

Both men face being turned over to Iraqi authorities for trial and have petitioned American courts to grant them protection.

So what's the key thing to be decided in this case?

MARCIA COYLE: The question here is whether our federal courts have the jurisdiction or the authority to review the legality of the detention of these two American citizens held in Iraq.

The first person to argue today was the deputy solicitor general for the Bush administration, Gregory Garre. And his argument was very straightforward. He claims that, under federal law, federal courts can review what they call habeas petitions challenging government detention if the person being detained is in the custody, under the authority of the United States.

He argues, the Bush administration argues that these two American citizens are in the custody and under the authority of the Multi-National Force, which was created by the United Nations, not the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, they're being held by the U.S. Army, but they're saying that, because the U.S. Army is part of a Multi-National Force, that makes all the difference? That's the argument.

MARCIA COYLE: That's the argument. And they're being held by the U.S. military as part of an agreement to hold right now roughly 20,000 detainees charged with a number of different crimes and to be ultimately transferred to the Iraq courts for trial.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did the lawyer for the two men argue?

MARCIA COYLE: Joseph Margulies, representing the two men, really disputed that it's the Multi-National Force that's the authority here. He said the buck stops with the American government when it comes to these detainees.

He also argued, contrary to the Bush administration, that these detainees are really not trying to interfere with Iraq's sovereign right to try people who violate its laws, that all they're asking for is for a federal court to temporarily enjoin their transfer to the Iraqi courts until a federal court can look at whether they're being held legally.

JEFFREY BROWN: The two men are arguing that, if they are transferred, they might be subject to torture...

MARCIA COYLE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... and that they might be subject to jail in Iraq, whereas they're U.S. citizens.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, and that did come up during the arguments. Justice Ginsburg raised that. And the government claimed that those charges of torture and abuse generally relate to two departments in Iraq, the Department of Interior and Department of Defense, not to the Ministry of Justice, which is where these detainees would be.

Upholding federal habeas corpus

Marcia Coyle
National Law Journal
The federal habeas law doesn't make a distinction between citizens and non-citizens.

JEFFREY BROWN: What other kind of interesting comments or questions came from the justices in this case?

MARCIA COYLE: For the government, there was a concern about, you know, what is the limit here? The United States made an agreement to hold these people as part of the Multi-National Force. But if the United States can make agreements like this, in a way it's unilaterally eliminating federal habeas corpus for American citizens.

JEFFREY BROWN: For everybody.

MARCIA COYLE: That's right. On the other hand, there was a concern that, if the United States really is the authority here, what about the 20,000 detainees who are non-citizens, as well as citizens? The federal habeas law doesn't make a distinction between citizens and non-citizens. Would federal courts then have to hear habeas petitions from those 20,000?

JEFFREY BROWN: And how does this relate to -- because this is just the latest in a series of somewhat related cases...

MARCIA COYLE: It is.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... involving detainees, whether abroad or in Guantanamo. How does this relate to those cases?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, just this term, this is the second set of war on terror-related cases that the court has taken up. The first set has already been argued, and that examines, once again, the role of the federal courts.

Did Congress unconstitutionally strip the federal courts of habeas jurisdiction over the detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay, which is considered under the authority of the United States?

The court also, since 2004, has heard three other war on terror-related cases that examine to different extents the scope and the role of the federal courts.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I just want to ask you briefly before we go, as Ray mentioned in the news summary, the attorney general, Michael Mukasey, argued -- this was another case that was being argued today. How unusual is it for the attorney general to go before the court himself?

MARCIA COYLE: It's something of a tradition for the attorney general to make an appearance. Not all of them do it. Prior to Attorney General Mukasey, Attorney General Gonzales and Attorney General John Ashcroft did not appear. But I think it's tradition and it's a courtesy. And I heard he had a good time.

JEFFREY BROWN: So a return to tradition today?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Marcia Coyle, thanks a lot.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.