How One Court Case Upset American-Mexican Relations

The conviction and execution of a Mexican national by the state of Texas in 2008 raised profound legal questions.

Building of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington DC, September 2009
Building of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington DC, September 2009 (Ken McCown)

In contemporary American-Mexican relations, decade-old legal proceedings continue to upset amicable ties between two governments that have to closely cooperate to combat human trafficking and a deadly drug trade along their border. The particulars of the case involve a number of complicated legal questions.

José Ernesto Medellín was a Mexican national, convicted of capital murder under Texas state law and executed in 2008 for his part in the robbery and sexual assault of two minors who were murdered by Medellín and his accomplices to prevent their identification. His case highlighted an important distinction in treaties between nations — self executing and non-self executing, both of which are recognized under international and American law.

On appeal, Medellín asserted that his right to substantive due process was violated because the state had failed to inform him that as a Mexican national, he had the right to speak with and receive counsel from the Mexican consulate under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963.

The controversy turned on the question whether or not the treaty violation constituted a substantive violation due process or was a procedural error that did not necessarily raise sufficient grounds to vitiate Medellín’s conviction. The subtle difference between self executing and non-self executing treaties was relevant here. Whereas the former are lawfully binding immediately upon ratification, non-self executing treaties require passage of enabling legislation before they can come into effect.

Medellín’s request for a writ of habeas corpus reached the Supreme Court of the United States. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Glover Roberts, while not explicitly endorsing any single position, reaffirmed the position long held by the United States on the nature and interpretation of treaties.

The determination of whether or not a treaty is self executing or not as well as the nature of the obligations imposed upon the parties involved is, and has always been, a function of and dependent upon two primary variables: one, the context in which a treaty is made and the intentions of its framers as discernible through the linguistic elements and conventions employed in its construction as affirmed in Ware v. Hylton by the Supreme Court in 1796; two, the meanings attributed to the words themselves as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted in 1918’s Towne v. Eisner:

A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.

The Medellín case and its aftermath have served to reinforce a wariness on the part of the Mexican government to work with the United States in anti-drug operations. This the Bush Administration predicted in 2007 when it argued before the Supreme Court that Medellín’s execution could end up frustrating American foreign policy. Texas was allowed to carry out the sentence despite appeals from Mexico and the International Court of Justice which both urged the state to delay capital punishment.

Texas stressed that Medellín and his accomplices were on death row for murdering Texan citizens. Indeed, their crimes were abominable and the Texas government has a duty and a responsibility to protect its people from harm and punish those who inflict it. The rights of children, moreover, trump many legal considerations but the effect on American bilateral relations with Mexico, if not future legal proceedings involving American citizens abroad, has been profound.

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