Medellin and the Perversion of Legal Realism

Medellin and the Perversion of Legal Realism

In Medellin, the Court held “that neither Avena nor the President’s Memorandum constitutes directly enforceable federal law . . . .” This comment focuses on the effect of the Avena judgment itself, and disregards the President’s Memorandum. The majority was undoubtedly correct to hold that Avena is not “directly enforceable federal law.” In fact, Avena is not federal law at all. The Constitution is federal law. Statutes are federal law. Treaties are federal law. But decisions of the ICJ are not federal law.

The Court erred, however, by concluding that Article 94 of the U.N. Charter is not federal law. See Roberts, slip op. at 10 (stating that the U.N. Charter does not create “binding federal law in the absence of implementing legislation”); id. at 24 (“the particular treaty obligations on which Medellin relies do not of their own force create domestic law”); id. at 31 (“A non-self-executing treaty, by definition, is one that was ratified with the understanding that it is not to have domestic effect of its own force.”) The Chief Justice, unfortunately, confused two entirely separate questions: whether Article 94 of the U.N. Charter is federal law, and how the treaty obligation is to be executed.

Article 94(1) of the Charter stipulates: “Each Member of the United Nations undertakes to comply with the decision of the International Court of Justice in any case to which it is a party.” Chief Justice Roberts tried to answer the question whether Article 94 is federal law by analyzing the text of the treaty. This is like trying to answer a question about Venezuelan law by looking in the U.S. Code. The question whether the U.N. Charter is federal law is a question about U.S. constitutional law. Accordingly, the answer is to be found in the text of the Constitution, not in the text of the treaty. The Constitution states that “all Treaties made . . . under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” Since the U.N. Charter was made under the authority of the United States, it is the supreme Law of the Land: i.e., it is federal law. By deciding that the U.N. Charter is not federal law, the Court has effectively rewritten the text of the Supremacy Clause to say that treaties are the Law of the Land unless we, the Supreme Court, decide otherwise.

Given that Article 94 is federal law, the next question is how to execute the U.S. treaty obligation. As noted above, Article 94 obligates the U.S. to comply with the ICJ decision “in any case to which it is a party.” There is no dispute that the U.S. is obligated to comply with the ICJ decision in Avena because the U.S. was a party in Avena. At the risk of over-simplifying, one can say that Avena obligates the U.S. to provide a judicial hearing for Medellin for the purpose of deciding whether he was prejudiced by the violation of his rights under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR). So, in the present case, the question of how to implement the U.S. obligation under Article 94 becomes a question of how to implement the U.S. obligation to provide a judicial hearing for Medellin.

In this regard, it is helpful to recall Justice Iredell’s opinion in Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. 199 (1796). In Ware, Justice Iredell distinguished between executed and executory treaty provisions. Treaty provisions are “executed” if “from the nature of them, they require no further act to be done.” Id. at 272. In contrast, executory treaty provisions require some further action by the U.S. government. Justice Iredell divided executory treaty provisions into three groups: legislative, executive, and judicial. See id. at 272-73. Whether an executory treaty provision requires legislative, executive, or judicial action depends on the nature of the international obligation, and the capacity of the respective branch of government to implement that obligation.

Chief Justice Marshall’s analysis in Foster v. Neilson, 27 U.S. 253 (1829), was entirely consistent with Iredell’s analysis in Ware. Marshall thought that Article 8 of the 1819 treaty with Spain was executory because the specific treaty language – “shall be ratified and confirmed” – required further government action. (It bears emphasis that Marshall was drawing a distinction between executory and executed treaty provisions, a distinction that depended on whether the treaty required further government action. See David Sloss, Non-Self-Executing Treaties: Exposing a Constitutional Fallacy, 36 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1, 19-24 (2002)). The specific government action required by the treaty, in Marshall’s view, involved the transfer of real property from one private party to another private party. Legislative action was necessary because the treaty obligated the U.S. to convey title to real property, and the legislature was the only branch of government competent to execute that obligation. Foster neither states nor implies that legislative action is always necessary to execute an executory treaty provision. Thus, the Court in Medellin erred by construing Foster to mean that a non-self-executing treaty always requires legislative implementation. See Roberts slip op., at 30. As Justice Iredell explained in Ware, some executory treaty provisions require legislative action, but others require executive or judicial action, depending on the nature of the international obligation.

The application of this framework in Medellin is very straightforward. As noted above, the U.S. obligation under Avena and Article 94 of the U.N. Charter is to provide a judicial hearing for Medellin. There is only one branch of government capable of executing that obligation: the judicial branch. As Justice Breyer noted in his dissent, the obligation could be implemented either by the federal judiciary or the Texas state courts, but there are a variety of factors that weigh in favor of state court implementation. Regardless, the correct application of Foster and Ware to the facts of Medellin leads inexorably to the conclusion that Article 94 is an executory treaty provision that requires judicial execution because the judicial branch is the only branch competent to execute the U.S. obligation to provide a judicial hearing for Medellin. This does not mean that every ICJ decision is directly enforceable in U.S. courts. As Justice Iredell explained in Ware, it depends on the nature of the obligation that flows from the particular ICJ decision.

The fundamental flaw in the Court’s analysis in Medellin stems from its failure to distinguish between two very different questions: 1) is Article 94 of the U.N. Charter federal law?; and 2) what is the appropriate mechanism to execute U.S. treaty obligations under Article 94? The Court conflated these two questions by combining them into a single question: whether Article 94 is self-executing. This muddled analytical approach is symptomatic of a broader trend in U.S. jurisprudence that can be traced, in part, to the rise of legal realism a century ago. Justice Holmes thought that a so-called “law” is not really “law” if it can’t be enforced. Henry Hart argued persuasively that effective application of Holmes’ insight necessarily requires a two-step analysis: 1) is the relevant instrument a “law”?; and 2) what is the best way to enforce that law? Under Hart’s approach, the assumption is that all laws must be enforced in some way because the very nature of “law” is that it must be enforced.

Unfortunately numerous courts and commentators have twisted Holmes’ idea to produce the opposite result. They think that courts should simply bypass step one, proceed directly to step two, and ask whether the relevant law explicitly requires judicial enforcement. Under this approach, if the law does not explicitly require judicial enforcement, courts should refuse to enforce it. Whereas Holmes believed that the idea of an “unenforceable law” is a contradiction in terms, modern realists have perverted Holmes’ key insight and produced a wide range of judicial decisions that effectively render valid laws unenforceable. Medellin is the latest in this misguided series of decisions. In Justice Roberts’ perverted version of Holmesian realism, Article 94 of the U.N. Charter is not domestically enforceable (without legislative action) because it does not specify a domestic enforcement mechanism. Since Article 94 is not domestically enforceable, it is not federal law – even though the Constitution states unambiguously that it is federal law!!! Justice Holmes is rolling over in his grave.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Notify of
Charles Gittings

Great post. Your 2002 article is available from the UC Davis website…