WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday against President Bush in a far-reaching legal dispute with his home state, concluding that the president can't order Texas courts to conduct a new hearing for a Mexican national who's on death row.
In a 6-3 decision, the court sided with the state of Texas in denying an appeal for Jose Ernesto Medellin, who's on Texas' death row in the gang rape and murder of two teenage girls in Houston 15 years ago.
The case had broad international reach and threatened to strain relations further between the United States and Mexico. The Mexican Embassy in Washington expressed disappointment with the ruling.
Bush was cast in an unlikely legal alliance with Medellin by insisting that Texas abide by an international treaty that requires those arrested abroad to have access to their country's consular officials. Medellin asserts that he was denied access to Mexican representatives.
In the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, the justices upheld a 2006 ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which held that Bush overstepped his constitutional authority through "an intrusive exercise of power" over the Texas court system.
Roberts said that the president's authority, "as with the exercise of any governmental power," stemmed from an act of Congress or the Constitution.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented.
The ruling marked a victory for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office argued that Medellin waited too long to invoke his treaty claim and was grasping at the issue to avoid execution in a brutal crime that rocked Houston in 1993.
"Now, 15 years after two innocent teenage girls were brutally gang-raped and murdered, their grieving families are a step closer to justice,'' Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz said.
New York attorney Donald Frances Donovan, who represented Medellin at the request of the Mexican government, was traveling out of the country and unavailable to discuss his next legal step. But in a statement through his office, Donovan said the ruling constituted a "departure from the original intent of the Constitution and over 200 years of enforcement of treaties by U.S. courts."
Medellin, 33, remains at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, one of 368 death row inmates, including nine women, who are awaiting execution in the state.
Texas, like other states, has a de facto moratorium on executions until the Supreme Court rules on a case from two Kentucky death-row inmates challenging the constitutionality of lethal injections. Roe Wilson, a prosecutor in the Harris County district attorney's office, said the office wouldn't proceed with seeking an execution date for Medellin until after a ruling in the lethal injection case.
Medellin, a former member of a Houston gang known as the Black and Whites, was born in Mexico but has lived in the United States since childhood. He was one of five defendants sentenced to die for the rapes and killings of Jennifer Lee Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Pena, 16, after they stumbled into a gang initiation while hurrying home from a party.
Witnesses said Medellin, who confessed to his involvement, later bragged about the assault and described using a shoelace to strangle one of the girls because he didn't have a gun, according to the state's Supreme Court brief. Medellin, then 19, also "put his foot on her throat because she would not die," the brief said.
Medellin said he wasn't informed of his right to contact the Mexican consulate after his arrest, in violation of a 4-decade-old international treaty ratified by 166 countries, including the United States.
After Medellin first lodged his appeal with aggressive backing by the Mexican government, the case broadened to include 50 other Mexican nationals on death rows in Texas and eight other states.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands, commonly known as the World Court, ruled that all 51 Mexican defendants weren't given proper notification of their rights to consular access and therefore were entitled to new hearings.
Under the treaty that created the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations in 1963, a detained foreign national in any of the 166 participating countries is entitled to contact his or her consular officials "without delay."
The Bush administration ordered Texas and the other states with condemned Mexican prisoners to grant new hearings to comply with the World Court ruling.
Medellin's appeals lawyers said that the indigent defendant's court-appointed trial attorney was under suspension for ethics violations and had bungled Medellin's defense. The case has woven its way through state and federal courts and has been heard twice by the Supreme Court.