U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in the case of a convicted murderer from Mexico who is trying to escape the death penalty by arguing that he was not informed at the time of his arrest in Texas of his right to speak with the Mexican consul. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the case centers not on the crime or the legal proceedings in Texas, but on the limits of presidential power.
The Medellin vs. Texas case pits President Bush against the courts in his home state of Texas, with the president and the U.S. Justice Department arguing on the side of a man convicted of rape and murder. No one is arguing that the convicted felon is innocent.
In 1993 Jose Medellin signed a confession that provided gruesome details about how he and five fellow gang members raped and murdered two teenage girls in Houston.
After being convicted, Medellin and four others were given the death penalty. But Medellin later appealed based on the failure of police to inform him of his right to contact the Mexican consulate to seek legal assistance after he had informed them that he was a Mexican citizen.
The state rejected this appeal on the grounds that he had not brought it up in the original trial, but in 2004 Mexico won a judgment from the International Court of Justice at the Hague ordering the United States to review such cases. The United States is obligated to inform foreign nationals of their right to speak to their nation's consuls under the 1963 Vienna Convention.
In February, 2005 President Bush ordered courts in Texas and elsewhere to review cases to comply with the International Court ruling. The state of Texas argues that the president exceeded his authority in doing this and that he should have gone to Congress to seek legislation allowing a direct appeal to federal courts in cases involving the Vienna Convention.
University of Texas law professor Ernest Young is among constitutional scholars who filed a friends-of-the-court appeal arguing that the president did exceed his constitutional authority in this case, but he says there are many issues involved here and it is difficult to say how the Supreme Court might rule.
"The justices who want to respect international law the most, who are also the judges who are most anti death penalty, the four liberals on the court, they are also the most suspicious of broad presidential powers," said Ernest Young. "On the other hand the justices who are most in favor of broad presidential power are in favor of the death penalty and skeptical of international law."
Young says the controversy surrounding this case and many others involving the Vienna Convention have made it less likely that local police will fail to inform foreign suspects of their rights, but he says it is a difficult rule to implement since the federal government that signed the international treaty has little control over the state and local authorities who are expected to carry it out.
"You are counting on tens of thousands of state and local people to be the primary enforcers of this obligation to tell foreign nationals about their rights," he said. "It is also made difficult by the fact that foreign nationals are often going to be reluctant to say that they are a foreign national because they might be here illegally."
Although attorneys from both sides will present their arguments in the case on Wednesday, the nine Supreme Court justices are not expected to make a decision until sometime next year.