Further Thoughts on Medellin

by David Sloss

I wanted to react quickly to two of the other items posted earlier today. First, Paul Stephan makes the point that Justice Breyer’s dissent is “very problematic.” I agree. Breyer’s opinion does not make a helpful contribution to untying the “Gordian knot” of non-self-execution doctrine.

Second, Curt Bradley claims that the Court’s decision effectively reserves “to Congress the determinations of whether and how to comply with the ICJ decision.” With due respect for Curt, whose views are usually very insightful, I think this assessment is wrong. Even if the Court held that courts are obligated to enforce the Avena decision, Congress would retain the power to decide “whether and how to comply with the ICJ decision,” because Congress could enact a statute to override the Court’s decision. The real issue here concerns default rules — what should the courts do in the absence of congressional action? The Court effectively endorses a default presumption against judicial enforcement (although the Court does a very poor job of explaining when that default presumption applies). In contrast, the Framers endorsed a default presumption in favor of judicial enforcement, as evidenced by the constitutional text specifying that “the judges in every State shall be bound” by treaties. Thus, the Court’s decision does not empower Congress. To the contrary, it effectively amends the Supremacy Clause by instructing state courts not to enforce treaties — or not to enforce some ill-defined category of treaties — in the absence of Congressional action.


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