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International Decisions: Medellin v. Texas

American Journal of International Law, Vol. 102, p. 622, 2008

University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2009-13

8 Pages Posted: 18 Jun 2009  

Margaret E. McGuinness

St. John's University - School of Law


In Medellín v. Texas, 128 S.Ct. 1346 (2008), a 6-3 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court held that the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Avena case (Mex. v. U.S.), 2004 ICJ Rep. 12 (Mar. 31), was not automatically binding as domestic law within the United States, and that the president, absent a congressional act, lacked the power to enforce the Avena decision against U.S. states. The ICJ had decided in Avena that with regard to 51 Mexican nationals on death rows in ten U.S. states, the United States was in breach of its obligations under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations to provide consular notification to foreign nationals who are detained or arrested, and that the United States must provide “review and reconsideration” of the convictions and sentences of those 51 individuals. Petitioner José Medellín had argued that as one those named in Avena, he was entitled to review of his state conviction and sentence because Avena preempted contrary Texas state law and also because Texas was bound by a February 2005 memorandum from President Bush stating U.S. intent to comply with Avena. The Supreme Court rejected Medellín’s claim, holding that “neither Avena nor the President’s Memorandum constitutes directly enforceable federal law that pre-empts state limitations on the filing of successive habeas petitions” (p. 1348).

The Court analyzed the effect of three U.S. treaty obligations triggered by the petitioner’s request for relief under Avena: the Optional Protocol of the Vienna Convention, which provides the basis for ICJ jurisdiction over disputes arising out of the application or interpretation of the Convention; Article 94 of the UN Charter; and the ICJ Statute itself. The Court did not rely on the text of the Vienna Convention to determine whether Avena overrides state procedural rules, because the Court had already decided that any rights under Article 36 do not preclude application of state procedural bar rules (p. 1361 n.8).13 Moreover, the Court distinguished the obligations created under a treaty from those created by a judgment rendered pursuant to a treaty. None of the three treaties in question has been incorporated by statute into federal law. The Court concluded that the treaties themselves were not self-executing and consequently that, absent implementing legislation, they cannot be given effect by the Court.

Keywords: Medellin, Medellin v. Texas, Avena, ICJ, international court of justice, Vienna Convention, Consular Relations, self-executing, Article 94

Suggested Citation

McGuinness, Margaret E., International Decisions: Medellin v. Texas. American Journal of International Law, Vol. 102, p. 622, 2008; University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2009-13. Available at SSRN:

Margaret McGuinness (Contact Author)

St. John's University - School of Law ( email )

8000 Utopia Parkway
Jamaica, NY 11439
United States

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