WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court declined to put international law to the test on death penalty cases yesterday, dismissing an appeal that contends 51 Mexicans were improperly denied legal help from their consulates.
The 5-to-4 decision turned away the case of Jose Medellin, who argued he was entitled to a federal court hearing on whether his rights were violated when a Texas court tried and sentenced him to death in 1994 on rape and murder charges.
It means the case, which has stirred tensions with foreign countries over convictions of their citizens in violation of international law, will be hashed out in state courts. President Bush in February ordered new state court hearings for the 51 Mexicans, and the court cited that order yesterday.
Texas prosecutors pledged to challenge Bush's authority in the matter. ''Jose Medellin voluntarily confessed to the brutal gang-rape and murder of two teenage girls," Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz said.
Sandra Babcock, an attorney representing the Mexican government, said she remained hopeful that Medellin's international rights would ultimately be recognized in state court.
''All the issues are still open, and Mexico is confident that if and when Mexican nationals receive new consideration, they will prevail," she said.
In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court dismissed Medellin's case as premature because of Bush's unexpected order, which came one month before justices heard arguments in the case. The court reserved the right to hear the appeal again once the case had run its full course in state court.
''This state-court proceeding may provide Medellin with the very reconsideration of his Vienna Convention claim that he now seeks in the present proceeding," stated the opinion, which was backed by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, as well as Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Antonin Scalia.
At issue is how much weight US courts should give to decisions of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which ruled last year that the 51 convictions violated the 1963 Vienna Convention.
In 1969, the Senate ratified the Vienna Convention, which requires consular access for Americans detained abroad and foreigners arrested in the United States. The Constitution states that US treaties ''shall be the supreme law of the land," but does not make clear who interprets them.
In a dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said she would have ordered the federal courts to review whether international law should be binding on the US courts. Justices should not refrain from intervening because of Bush's last-minute action that may or may not resolve the case, she said.
''It seems to me unsound to avoid questions of national importance when they are bound to recur," O'Connor wrote in an opinion joined by Justice John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, and Stephen G. Breyer, adding that the court remains ''rightfully agnostic" on whether Bush's action was valid.
Last year, the New Orleans-based US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit sided with Texas in ruling that federal relief for Medellin was barred because he did not file objections at trial. It cited a 1998 Supreme Court case that suggested treaties were subject to each country's procedural rules.
Medellin was one of five gang members sentenced to death for raping and murdering Jennifer Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Pena, 16, in Houston in 1993.
Justices were told that Medellin's court-appointed lawyer was suspended from practicing law for ethics violations during the case, and he failed to call any witnesses during the guilt phase of the trial. Lawyers for Mexico say the country would have made sure Medellin had a competent lawyer had it known about the 1994 trial.
Medellin was supported in his appeal by dozens of countries, legal groups, and human rights organizations, as well as former American diplomats and the European Union. Much of the international community is opposed to capital punishment, with the execution of Mexican nationals in Texas a particularly touchy point.
According to Amnesty International, the Mexicans on death row affected by the World Court ruling are held in nine states, although some recently have had their sentences reduced to life in prison. The states are California (27); Texas (15); Illinois (3); and Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Arizona, and Arkansas (1 each).
In all, 118 foreigners from 32 countries are on death rows in the United States.