Increasingly, the proper implementation of the United States’ international obligations in domestic law has presented difficult challenges in the structural context of the U.S. legal system. Challenges are evident at multiple levels of that structure; that is, among the branches of the federal government and between the states and the federal government.
In my recent article, The U.S. Supreme Court Misses the Mark: Towards Better Implementation of the United States’ International Obligations (2008), I use the efforts of the White House (below right) to implement the judgment of The Hague-based International Court of Justice (courtroom above), in the Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (2004), to illustrate some of the problems presented by this issue.
International law scholars, not to mention IntLawGrrls readers of these prior posts, will remember the backstory:
In Avena, the ICJ found that that the United States had breached its obligations under Article 36 of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, for the reason that authorities within the United States had not informed certain arrestees, Mexican nationals, of their treaty-based rights to consular notification. The ICJ further found that the appropriate reparation would consist of providing, by means of the United States’ own choosing, review and reconsideration of the convictions and sentences of the Mexican nationals that were the subject of the case.
In the domestic implementation stage of that decision, a 2005 memorandum by President Bush asserted the power to order state courts to provide review and reconsideration of the Mexican nationals’ judgments in state criminal proceedings. The President’s claim to such authority was troubling, because it appeared to violate structural principles of separation of powers and federalism. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court (below left) rejected the President’s claim to such unilateral authority in Medellín v. Texas (2008), in a decision that leaves unanswered many questions regarding the proper implementation of the United States, international obligations.
My article analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of arguments that were made in the Medellín litigation regarding the proper way to implement the ICJ judgment consistent with the United States' constitutional structure. It then places the litigation in the larger context of the debate regarding the implementation of the United States’ international obligations, examining: from a separation-of-powers perspective, the proper role of each branch of the federal government; and from a federalism perspective, the interplay between the state and federal governments. Finally, the article provides some suggestions as to how the United States can better handle implementation of these obligations in the future:
► 1st, the U.S. Supreme Court should pay more than lip service to its own statement, at footnote 9 of Chief Justice John G. Roberts' opinion for the Court, that ICJ decisions are entitled to “respectful consideration.” The article describes how a true respectful dialogue between the two courts might proceed.
► 2d, with respect to the political branches, when ratifying a treaty the Senate (left) and the President should provide clearer directions as to how the treaty ought to be implemented, and whether and what types of private claims will be allowable under the treaty.
► 3d, the federal and state governments should establish a better consultation process, particularly for treaties that affect areas of traditional state regulation.
Through these methods, it is hoped that treaties will be implemented more effectively in U.S. law, and that better relations will result, both externally with the United States’ treaty partners and internally among the various branches and levels of government.