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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court stepped back from a major dispute over international law Monday when it dismissed from its docket a case in which the World Court had ordered new hearings for Mexican nationals on death row in Texas. The World Court, officially the International Court of Justice, last year ordered the new hearings in U.S. courts for Ernesto Medellin and 50 other Mexican nationals because, at the time of their arrest, local police had not informed them of their rights to seek help from Mexican consulates, in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Medellin was sentenced to death for participating in the rape and murder of two girls in 1993. The court said Monday that it took the action in Medellin v. Dretke because, while the case was pending, President George W. Bush announced he would have state courts “give effect” to the World Court ruling. Lawyers for Medellin promptly went back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals with a habeas corpus petition based on Bush’s statement. “This state-court proceeding may provide Medellin with the very reconsideration of his Vienna Convention claims that he now seeks in the present proceeding,” the court said in its unsigned opinion. In light of that pending proceeding, the court said it would be “unwise” to decide the issues raised in Medellin’s case concerning the impact of World Court rulings on federal courts. Significantly, the court in a footnote held out the likelihood that Medellin will be back before the Supreme Court once the Texas court makes its decision and the losing party appeals. “In that instance, this court would in all likelihood have an opportunity to review the Texas courts’ treatment of the President’s memorandum and [the World Court ruling] unencumbered by the issues that arise from the procedural posture of this case.” By shifting the spotlight back to Texas, the court has opened a second front in the battle over the impact of World Court judgments within U.S. borders. Before the Texas court, Bush may be opposed by the state he once was governor of. Texas officials have questioned whether Bush has the authority to order Texas courts to hold habeas hearings to implement World Court decisions. “Now we have to wait and see what happens in state courts,” said Sandra Babcock, a Minneapolis solo practitioner who filed a brief in the case on behalf of Mexico. “This is exactly what Medellin and Mexico hoped for — the opportunity to pursue a remedy in state courts.” Babcock, who also heads a project aiding Mexican nationals in mounting U.S. death penalty appeals, was encouraged by the tone of the court’s brief ruling and four separate concurrences and dissents by individual justices. “There was nothing that was disrespectful toward the International Court of Justice,” she said. The ruling was closely watched not only because of the implications for the World Court and U.S. foreign relations but also in light of the ongoing Supreme Court debate over the relevance of international law to Supreme Court decision making. Justice Antonin Scalia, usually viewed as the leading opponent to use of international law in high court decisions, joined Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an internationalist, in a concurrence Monday that seemed somewhat deferential toward World Court judgments. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer, dissented from the court’s action, arguing that the court should have decided the case without delay. “It seems to me unsound to avoid questions of national importance when they are bound to recur,” O’Connor wrote. Souter wrote separately to say he thinks the court should have kept the case on its docket while Texas reviews Medellin’s case. “We would, however, remain in a position to address promptly the nation’s obligation under the judgment of the ICJ if that should prove necessary.” Tony Mauro is the U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for Legal Times, a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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