Federalism, Harm, and the Politics of Leal v. Texas
13 Pages Posted: 7 Oct 2011 Last revised: 14 Sep 2012
Date Written: October 5, 2011
Humberto Leal Garcia, a Mexican national who had lived in the United States since the age of two, was convicted and sentenced to death in Texas for brutally raping and killing sixteen-year-old Adria Sauceda in 1994. In 2011, he asked the United States Supreme Court to stay his execution because Texas officials had not given him access to the Mexican Consulate, in violation of an international treaty. His case ignited a brief but powerful storm of controversy that went beyond his legal claims and ventured into the arena of politics, placing even some conservative instincts about constitutional politics at odds with each other – notably, presidential claims of American foreign policy interests against federalism-based claims about the ability of States to administer their own criminal justice system without federal interference. In this short article, I endeavor to explain why, although the President’s political claims were legitimate, the Court’s ultimate decision to deny Leal relief correctly rejected reliance on a hypothetical legislative enactment and properly weighed the competing assertions of harm by vindicating the strength of the State’s capital prosecution. The weight of the guilt and punishment phase evidence proved significant, even in light of the asserted federal interests, and consular access would not have altered the outcome of Leal’s trial or sentencing. This weighing of the competing harms is consistent with both the pending legislation upon which Leal relied and with existing jurisprudence that protects State criminal law authority and interests.
Keywords: Supreme Court, Vienna Convention, capital punishment, constitutional law, harmless error
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