Barring an unlikely last-minute intervention by the Board of Pardons and Parole and the Governor, Texas will execute Medellin this evening for the double murder of two Houston teenagers. The Lone Star State has executed people for far lesser crimes - even people convicted under the "law of parties" who weren't directly responsible - so if the only issue were whether Medellin deserves to die, I doubt I'd waste space on Grits about him.
However, Medellin's case implicates much larger issues regarding America's place in the world and Americans' safety when traveling abroad that I do care a lot about, particularly since I love to travel.
Why are those crowing about the rule of law unconcerned when America violates our treaties and soils the nation's reputation and good word? In a ridiculous column published in the Houston Chronicle August 1, Dallas attorney Cameron Kinvig offers up one of the more absurdist examples of (what's passing for) conservative commentary on the subject:
those espousing the "internationalist" perspective seem all too willing to thwart justice, destroy sovereign rights and otherwise thumb their noses at the proper (and unabashedly domestic) rule of law, so that the United States can somehow make friends in the international legal community. This movement is counter to the constitutional principles upon which this country was founded, and must be stopped. Indeed, to place the laws of the state of Texas up for review by any and every international body that wants to opine certainly would be contrary to the system of independent federalism governing our legislative and judicial systems.For starters, if Kinvig or perhaps his spouse or one of his children were ever arrested in, say, Central America or Southeast Asia, I wonder if he would be satisified when, upon asking to speak with the American consulate, he were told the American government "can go to hell"? If his own rights were at stake, or his family's, would he be so cavalier about the importance of nations abiding by their treaties? I sincerely doubt it. It's easy to act like a jerk when somebody else's ox is getting gored; less so when it's you and yours.
Instead, and in the words of Randy Ertman, father of Jennifer Ertman: "The world court don't mean diddly. This business belongs in the state of Texas ... the rest of them can go to hell."
Kinvig's caricatured depiction of a so-called "internationalist" perspective similarly begs credulity. How are internationalists the ones "thumbing their noses" at the rule of law? Did the United States not enter into the Vienna Convention willingly many years before Medellin was even born? Doesn't the US Constitution obligate us to abide by treaties freely entered into and ratified like this one?
The US Supreme Court held that the Vienna accords did not give Medellin an individual right, but instead created an obligation for Congress to establish that right under federal law, something that had never been deemed necessary since the treaty was enacted in 1963. However that doesn't mean that Medellin needn't have been notified of his consular rights, just that the United States failed to comply with its treaty obligations by not ensuring those rights.
In other words, to say Medellin needn't have been notified, one must embrace the idea that the United States can and should knowingly violate an existing treaty. That's just wrong. The federal government is still obligated by the rule of law to protect Medellin's Vienna rights, which is why the Bush Administration including Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice are calling on Texas to stay the execution until Congress can fulfill its SCOTUS-articulated duty. This isn't really about "making friends," but whether America's word can be trusted by other nations.
The Supreme Court ruled that states aren't bound by the treaty and that gave the state of Texas a narrow time window in which it could legally carry out Medellin's execution under US law. But Texans are also Americans. The United States of America is bound by Vienna requirements and our nation's failure to fulfill them still violates US international obligations, regardless of domestic legalities. Medellin's execution will amount to a breach of treaty, even if the feds can't force Texas (for the moment) to comply.
If the United States doesn't intend to abide by treaties, we should not enter into them. But when we do, those obligations constitute the "rule of law" just as much as other types of statutes. Those who say so-called "internationalists" would "thumb their noses" at the rule of law need to find a mirror. Somehow the phrase "internationalist" has morphed into meaning, "people who think the United States should not violate longstanding treaties."
Typically, those baying most loudly for an immediate death sentence portray US treaty obligations as mere flights of fancy, as Kinvig did when he referred to the:
banal musings of an international court seeking to impose its will, and arguably its moral compass, on nonconsenting sovereign governmentsHow exactly is the United States a "nonconsenting sovereign government" when we willingly signed onto the treaty? The International Criminal Court wasn't just "musing" on the topic - they were using mechanisms our government agreed to to tell the United States to do what it said it would do 45 years ago in Vienna. The feds agreed; Texas said "F-You."
I would prefer that consular notification questions had come up regarding a case with a less hot-button underlying crime, because the issues would be the same if Medellin were convicted of shoplifting. But tonight's execution date raises the stakes and simultaneously makes the violation of Medellin's Vienna rights an irreversible act. The whole episode reminds me of a remark from H.L. Mencken that popped up recently on my "Quote of the Day" feed:
That's exactly the dilemma here. Those who think rights for everyone shouldn't be abrogated find themselves reduced - in this case as in so many others - to advocating for the rights of a scoundrel, which description surely fits Jose Medellin.
“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”
- H. L. Mencken, 1880 - 1956