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High Court Rules on Special Education Law, Hears Death Row Case

October 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The Supreme Court hears questions about presidential authority. Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: Today’s arguments at the court pitted the Bush administration and lawyers for a convicted murderer against lawyers for the state of Texas.

The case involves a Mexican man on death row in Texas who was not advised before his trial of his right to contact the Mexican consulate. President Bush ordered the Texas court to review his 1994 conviction, but the state refused.

NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal was in the courtroom today, and she joins us once again.

So, Marcia, very strange bedfellows. We’ve got the Bush administration and lawyers for this convicted murderer against the state of Texas. How did this case end up at the Supreme Court?

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: It is a fascinating case. The Mexican national on Texas death row is Jose Medellin. And after he was convicted and sentenced to death for participating in a very brutal gang rape and murder of two teenaged girls, he began pursuing his appeals through the Texas courts.

While he was doing that, the government of Mexico brought proceedings against the United States before the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, which is the judicial arm of the United Nations. Mexico claimed — and the World Court ultimately agreed — that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the treaty that requires the government to notify foreign nationals when they’ve been detained that they have a right to consult their embassies or their consuls.

Medellin, once this ruling came down, went back into court to say, OK, I have this claim. My rights were violated. The Texas court said, Sorry, this international court’s judgment doesn’t have the force of law in Texas courts, and the president’s declaration, that we have to enforce it, he exceeded his authority. Medellin is now before the Supreme Court in the case that was argued today.

MARGARET WARNER: So if we take the plaintiffs — that is, the administration and this man’s lawyers — what was their basic argument today?

MARCIA COYLE: OK, there were really two threads on this side. Medellin’s lawyer is saying the Constitution has a supremacy clause; that clause says international treaties are the supreme law of the land. The international court’s judgment here is the law of the land. The United States signed the treaty; Senate ratified it.

The Bush administration’s arguing the president decides whether to comply with treaties. He has the authority as president making foreign policy. He decided to comply; it’s the law of the land.

MARGARET WARNER: So it’s sort of about his executive power, as far as they’re concerned?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And now the lawyers for Texas?

A separation of powers

MARCIA COYLE: Texas is saying, This is really separation of powers here. The president cannot declare the law of the land. He executes the laws; he doesn't make the laws. He needed Congress to help him make a law to say, OK, Texas, you have to set aside your own court procedures and give this man a hearing.

MARGARET WARNER: And what's Texas' argument to Medellin's lawyers who are saying that, in fact, they just have to obey this World Court rule?

MARCIA COYLE: Texas is also saying, Medellin, what you're saying is the courts have no role here in interpreting international judgments, so that is unconstitutional, and you cannot just use the supremacy clause. The Supreme Court and our courts have a role in interpreting the treaties.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how did the justices respond to all this?

MARCIA COYLE: It was fascinating. They were viewing this case through all those different lenses. You had Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, who have a very deep understanding and knowledge of international law, turning to the supremacy clause and the treaties. There are treaties here. They're supreme law of the land.

You have Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia who, on a court that's generally very jealous of its own power, saying, "What role is left for the Supreme Court? Are we just supposed to enforce this judgment without examining whether it complies with the Constitution?"

And then you had other justices, like Justice Kennedy, worried about states' rights. Can an international judgment just supplant a state court's criminal procedures?

MARGARET WARNER: Is this the first time this has ever come up?

MARCIA COYLE: Medellin was actually before the court one other time, and he had raised the violation of the treaty before, but the court never got to the merits, because the Bush administration at that point stepped in and decided to enforce the judgment.

World Court judgments

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when the judgment came down from the World Court, the Bush administration was actually very critical of it.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: What is the status of, in fact, that Vienna Convention, that part of it, now?

MARCIA COYLE: This judgment applies only to 51 Mexican nationals on death rows in the United States. Right now, the number has gone down to about 44 in nine states.

The Bush administration agreed to comply with the judgment just for those Mexican nationals. It withdrew from another part of the agreement that said it would be bound by the World Court's judgments in interpreting this treaty in other cases.

MARGARET WARNER: So what is the status of either a foreign national arrested here now or an American national detained or arrested overseas?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the truth is, Margaret, that this case has really educated a lot of people in this country about the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Local law enforcement officials, who may not have been aware of it for a long time, have received educational materials from the State Department. And I think there is a general intention to comply.

But if the Supreme Court were to decide that the treaty judgment is not enforceable, there could be retaliation by other countries when our nationals are detained abroad. Those countries may say, "Well, if you're not going to provide access, why should we?"

MARGARET WARNER: And that is one of the Bush administration's arguments?

MARCIA COYLE: They're very concerned about how our diplomats and other citizens might be treated abroad if this judgment is not enforced.

Deciding on special education

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, in a separate case, the court issued a split decision in a special-ed case they heard just last week. What happened there?

MARCIA COYLE: It was an early decision. And usually when we get early decisions, it's because the case had a problem, a procedural problem, and it washed out. The justices didn't know until it was argued. But this case was before eight justices. Justice Kennedy had recused himself.

MARGARET WARNER: And just remind us, this was about some parents who sent their child to private school who was disabled...

MARCIA COYLE: That's right.

MARGARET WARNER: ... who were saying they should nonetheless be reimbursed by the state.

MARCIA COYLE: Exactly. The state of New York was saying, under federal law, you have to try the public school first, if the school can provide the service. The justices just issued a two-sentence order saying, We split 4-4. That means the lower court's decision is upheld, which means the parents won here, but it sets no precedent for any future cases.

MARGARET WARNER: And we don't even know how the justices split?

MARCIA COYLE: No, we don't. They just say, We divided 4-4. The lower court's affirmed.

MARGARET WARNER: And, quickly, is it unusual for them to so quickly essentially get rid of a case like this, rather than try to argue with one another and try to build a majority of five on one side or the other?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I think they do try to do that. Believe it or not, after an argument, they sit right down, and they do discuss it, and they vote. So, obviously, the sides were firm here. The court may get another shot at this issue. There is a pending case that they could take if they wanted to address it.

MARGARET WARNER: Marcia, thanks.

MARCIA COYLE: You're welcome.