Supreme Court wavers on death-row lawsuit

Justices may hold off on case of 51 Mexicans

March 29, 2005|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court said yesterday that it might put off a decision on whether 51 Mexican nationals on death row in California, Texas and several other states are entitled to reopen their cases as the result of a ruling in their favor by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

Instead, the justices said the state courts in Texas should take up the matter first to deal with an unusual order by President Bush.

One month ago, Bush surprised lawyers on both sides of the dispute by declaring that the state courts must consider whether to give the Mexican defendants a new trial or new sentencing hearing. The president said the United States had a duty to "discharge its international obligations" by complying with a clear ruling of the international court.

In the Vienna Convention of 1963, U.S. officials agreed that they must be informed when Americans are arrested abroad. The same applied to foreign nationals who were arrested and held in the United States.

Two years ago, Mexico sued the United States because it had not been informed when Mexican nationals were arrested, tried and sentenced to death. The suit was brought on behalf of 51 Mexican nationals on death row in California, Texas, Illinois, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Oklahoma, Arizona and Arkansas.

The international court, also known as the World Court, ruled for Mexico and said U.S. officials must "review and reconsider" the convictions and sentences of those 51 Mexican nationals.

Until Bush's order, it was unclear whether the United States would abide by the order. No one had anticipated that Bush would put himself in conflict with Texas officials in a challenge to the validity of more than a dozen death sentences in the Lone Star state.

California has 27 Mexican nationals on death row who could take advantage of Bush's order, lawyers said.

The surprise order also threw a wrench into the pending proceedings before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Jose Ernesto Medellin vs. Doug Dretke, who heads the Texas prison system.

The justices already had agreed to decide in this case whether the World Court's ruling gave the Mexican national a right to reopen his case in federal court.

But when that issue came up for argument yesterday, several justices said it might make more sense to send the dispute back to Texas.

In other action yesterday, the court:

Rejected an appeal to reinstate a state law requiring girls younger than 18 to get parental consent for abortions except under the most dire of medical emergencies. Without comment, justices let stand a lower court ruling that struck down the Idaho law because its provisions on emergency abortions were too strict.

At issue was whether the Idaho law was unduly burdensome on young mothers by limiting abortions without consent to "sudden and unexpected" instances of physical complications. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said yes, saying there was no reasonable explanation for the restriction.

Refused to step into a lawsuit against a newspaper, leaving the news media in Pennsylvania legally vulnerable when they report defamatory comments by public figures. The case could chill news coverage of political campaigns where charges and countercharges are commonplace, First Amendment advocates say.

The justices' decision not to consider the case was a victory for the former mayor and current council president of Parkesburg, Pa., who sued when the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., reported that a council member claimed they were homosexuals.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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