Medellin v. Texas: Another Set of Early Thoughts

by Ernie Young

As lead counsel on the scholars’ amicus brief in support of Texas, I am not entirely unbiased here. But when one can get scholars with as diverse views of executive power as John Yoo and Erwin Chemerinsky to sign on to a brief arguing that the President has gone too far, it shouldn’t be entirely surprising to find that the Court agrees. Here are some early thoughts on the opinions:

1. This opinion certainly gives aid and comfort to those who have argued for a general presumption that treaties are not self-executing, although it might be a stretch to say it holds as much. The Chief’s majority opinion does strongly reject the dissenters’ opposite presumption, and that is important in itself. But keep in mind that the Chief carefully distinguishes between the different ways that treaties may or may not be self-executing. The Vienna Convention is plainly self-executing in that it binds the Houston police to give warnings without further implementing legislation, and it may be self-executing in the sense that individuals can assert violations on their own in court (the Court doesn’t decide). What the Court rejects is that the ICJ’s judgments under the treaty are self-executing in the sense of being directly enforceable in domestic courts. But Medellin was on unusually weak ground here to argue otherwise, given that the Executive had taken the position that such judgments are not self-executing, and both the Executive and the Court (in Sanchez-Llamas) were on record that the judgment to be enforced was incorrect on the merits. These things are going to have to be fought out treaty by treaty, which is probably the right result.

2. The presidential power holding, although it takes a back seat to the self-execution holding in the majority opinion, may be more sweeping in at least one sense. The Court holds pretty categorically that the President lacks power unilaterally to execute a treaty that is otherwise non-self-executing. In fact, the Court says that a determination that the treaty is non-self-executing means that Congress has implicitly disapproved actions to execute the treaty, placing presidential actions to execute it in Category 3, not 2, under Youngstown. Given the broad and amorphous nature of many of the non-self-executing treaties to which we are parties—think of some of the more open-ended trade or human rights instruments—a contrary holding would have been a broad grant of power to the President indeed.

3. The majority also takes what seems to be a major bite out of the sole executive agreement cases like Garamendi, Dames & Moore, and (looking further back) Pink and Belmont. Chief Justice Roberts says that these cases “involve a narrow set of circumstances” concerning the settlement of claims against foreign nations. It will be harder, in future, to cite Garamendi and Dames & Moore for open-ended presidential authority to create binding federal law by sole executive agreements without congressional action.

4. The internationalism of Justice Breyer’s dissent is really quite striking, as is the extent to which this case replicates the usual left-right split on the Court. (Justice Stevens concurs in the result, but his heart seems to be with the other liberals in dissent.) I think that’s unfortunate. The legal question dividing the Court in Medellin concerned the domestic effect of international law, and the allocation of authority between domestic and supranational courts. That should be a left-right issue only on the most cynical view of international law, which is that it provides a vehicle to achieve more liberal results on issues like the death penalty than the domestic political consensus would otherwise stand for. But even if we take that view, the truth is that both liberals and conservatives have things to gain and things to fear from increasing or decreasing the influence of international law and institutions in the domestic legal system. Free market conservatives may approve (and liberals disapprove) of decisions by supranational trade tribunals rejecting local environmental or labor laws, for instance. Reasonable people can differ about the extent to which we should open up the domestic legal system to international law and courts, but they should not differ on the traditional left-right grounds.

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