The Law and the Golden Rule


Imagine being arrested in a foreign country where you are unfamiliar with the language, the culture, the legal system or your rights, and never being allowed to contact a U.S. Consulate for help. That’s a nightmare that Americans overseas could face if the United States continues to be lax in respecting the rights of foreign nationals arrested in this country.

In the case of 51 Mexican nationals on death row here, the International Court of Justice ruled that the United States did an abysmal job of honoring its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The United States, along with 166 other nations, is a party to the convention, which gives detained foreign nationals the right to access their consulates. The ICJ, also known as the World Court, said that U.S. courts must reconsider these cases to see whether the failure to inform the Mexican nationals of their rights contributed to their convictions and sentences.

Earlier this term, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review the case of Jose Medellin, a Mexican national sentenced to death in Texas, to determine whether U.S. courts are indeed bound by the World Court’s ruling. While the Supreme Court was considering the case, President Bush asked state courts to honor the international tribunal’s ruling. Alas, the president’s action led the Supreme Court to dismiss the Medellin appeal. The court felt that the states are allowed some deference to decide how the president’s request affects the treatment of the Mexican nationals’ cases, if at all.


It’s unfortunate that the Supreme Court is relying on the good graces of individual states -- including California, which has the most Mexican nationals on death row -- to fulfill a U.S. treaty obligation. Disappointingly, Texas officials have announced that they will challenge the president’s directive.

The states should follow the president’s lead and comply with international law instead of seeking technical excuses s to circumvent the consular rights of foreign nationals. State courts should grant new trials and sentencing hearings in those cases where the assistance of the Mexican Consulate would have improved the quality of the defense, especially in uncovering evidence that could have persuaded jurors to vote for life instead of death.

Given the general lack of adequate resources for indigent capital defendants in the U.S., and Mexico’s commitment to protecting the rights of its citizens facing the death penalty, consular assistance might have made a difference in plenty of cases.

Equally important, prompt compliance with the World Court’s ruling will send a signal to the world that this country doesn’t hold itself above international law, and that could help Americans in distress overseas.