The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to decide whether federal courts must give a hearing to a Mexican death-row inmate in Texas who says the state violated international law by...

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to decide whether federal courts must give a hearing to a Mexican death-row inmate in Texas who says the state violated international law by trying him for murder without first notifying Mexican diplomats.

The case, which has attracted worldwide attention, is seen as a test of the willingness of the judicial branch of the U.S. government to accept an international institution’s authority at a time when the executive branch under President Bush is taking criticism for operating unilaterally in world affairs.

The fact that it arises in the context of the death penalty, for which the United States in general and Texas in particular are under fire in Europe and Latin America, adds to its potential international impact.

The case marks the Supreme Court’s first opportunity to respond to a March 31 decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, which ruled that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention on consular relations in the case of the Texas inmate, Jose Ernesto Medellín, and 48 other Mexican nationals on death row.

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Medellín was one of five gang members sentenced to death for raping and murdering 14- and 16-year-old girls in Houston in 1993.

The application of the Vienna Convention to criminal cases is no small issue in the United States, where the population includes millions of noncitizens. Including the Mexicans directly involved in the ICJ ruling, 118 foreign nationals from 32 countries are on death row in the United States.

14 states affected

Locations of the 118 foreigners from 32 countries on death rows in the United States:





Nevada and Ohio:
4 each


Pennsylvania and the federal government:
2 each

Georgia, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia:
1 each

Source: Death Penalty Information Center

The Associated Press

The court received friend-of-the-court briefs from the European Union and 14 Latin American countries, all urging justices to hear the case. Also supporting the appeal was a group of former U.S. diplomats who noted about 6,000 Americans are arrested or detained each year in other countries and need consular help to “navigate and understand an unfamiliar, and perhaps hostile, legal system.”

The ICJ did not try to overturn the men’s death sentences. It said only that the treaty — which the United States has ratified and pledged to enforce in cases involving citizens of other ratifying countries, including Mexico — gives Medellín and the other Mexicans an individual right to claim in a federal court that their cases might have turned out differently if they’d had consular access. U.S. rules that require them to raise such claims in state court first do not apply, the ICJ ruled.

The Bush administration had argued against this interpretation, but the vote in the ICJ was 14-1, with a U.S. judge joining the majority.

The ICJ ruling brought to a head a long-simmering conflict between that court and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which generally favors limiting avenues by which death-row inmates may challenge their sentences on constitutional and other legal grounds.

The court six years ago said a treaty-based right of consular access could not trump the requirement in U.S. law that inmates must raise constitutional and legal claims in state court first.

Details on Medellín’s crime and American arrests in other countries were provided by The Associated Press.