Chron editorial board creates new treaty

The members of the Houston Chronicle editorial board frequently take on topics for which they have no special expertise, and often the results are embarrassing.

Take today's staff editorial on the complex topic of the extent to which international law can intrude on the traditional police powers of states (and, by extension, localities), using the Supreme Court's decision to consider a Texas case (Medellin v. Dretke) as a starting point.

It's hardly surprising that the Chronicle presents an overly simplified view of the debate.

However, it's more than a little surprising, even by the poor standards of the Chron, that the editors could simply make up a treaty that doesn't exist, and nobody would catch the error:

In fact, the Geneva Convention on Consular Rights gives you the right to make that contact. The arresting authorities would have the additional responsibility under the decades-old international pact to advise you of that right.

There is no Geneva Convention on Consular Rights. Presumably, they are referring to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

In any case, this dispute is much more narrow than the Chron editorial suggests. The dispute is not whether treaty law trumps state law (that has been fairly definitively decided), as the Chron would have it, or whether Greg Abbott is a bad guy (the newspaper loves to beat up "bad guys"). Rather, the dispute centers on whether the treaty obligations shall be subject to/conform with a state's normal procedural requirements (the narrow issue in this case being one of timing):

At issue here, though, is Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which recognizes the right of foreign nationals to communicate with their consul whenever they are detained. The United States ratified and signed the agreement in 1969.

The case will decide important questions about the domestic application of international law. But the focus, however, is international objections to the death penalty as exercised in the United States - particularly in Texas, which executes more offenders than any other state.

In May, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that Medellin had never been informed of his right to contact the Mexican consul. But it rejected his claim because the issue was not raised at his trial, and even if it had been, provisions of the Vienna Convention aren't enforceable in U.S. courts as an individual constitutional right.

Those are some of the issues at stake. Isn't it interesting that the anti-death-penalty Chron editorial board neglected to mention the death-penalty implications of this case? It's also interesting that a search of the Chron website indicates that the newspaper didn't even bother to cover news of the Supreme Court decision to take the case, making this another bizarre example of the newspaper editorializing on topics that it hasn't even covered on its news pages.

In any case, the Chron editorial board really shouldn't be taken all that seriously on complex questions of the relationship of international/treaty law to American constitutional law and federalism. There's nobody on the board particularly qualified to write on such matters authoritatively. Indeed, they should probably just stick to local matters and leave the heavier fare to serious newspapers and/or legal bloggers.

As for the editorial's "cheap seats" reference -- well, guys, you're the ones who got the name of the international agreement wrong, not us.

UPDATE: Please ignore the struck content. While a search of the site didn't turn up this article, a search of the daily Chron emails sitting in my google mail account did turn it up. At least those of us in the "cheap seats" correct our errors quickly!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 12/13/04 09:44 PM | Print |

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