Supreme Court, in 5-4 Per Curiam, Denies Stay in Texas Execution Despite Request of SG

The Per Curiam Opinion (from the Chief, and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, obviously)  in Leal Garcia v. Texas is available here.

The majority rejected a plea by the Solicitor General to stay Leal’s execution, in light of the fact that even though implementing legislation of the Vienna Convention has been  introduced by the Senate, “[n]o implementing legislation has been introduced inthe House.” Basically, Congress has had 7 years since the ICJ ruling interpreting the Vienna Convention. If they wanted to enact it, they would have done so. Because they didn’t, the Court won’t grant a stay.

First, we are doubtful that it is ever appropriate to stay a lower court judgment in lightof unenacted legislation. Our task is to rule on what the law is, not what it might eventually be . . . Neither the United States nor JUSTICE BREYER, post, at 1–6 (dissenting opinion), cites a single instance in this Court’s history in which a stayissued under analogous circumstances. . . .

It has now been seven years since the ICJ ruling and three years since our decision in Medellín I, making a stay based on the bare introductionof a bill in a single house of Congress even less justified. If a statute implementing Avena had genuinely been a priority for the political branches, it would have been enacted by now.

The Per Curiam opinion discounts fears of  “the grave international consequences that will follow from Leal’s execution.”

Congress evidently did not find these consequences sufficiently grave to prompt its enactment of implementing legislation, and we will follow the law as written by Congress. We have no authority tostay an execution in light of an “appeal of the President,” post, at 6, presenting free-ranging assertions of foreign policy consequences, when those assertions come unaccompanied by a persuasive legal claim.

That the SG did not argue that Leal was prejudiced seemed quite important in the Court’s rejection of the stay:

We decline to follow the United States’ suggestion of granting a stay to allow Leal to bring a claim based onhypothetical legislation when it cannot even bring itself to say that his attempt to overturn his conviction has any prospect of success.

Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, and concurred with the United States’ argument.

As the Solicitor General points out, Leal’s execution atthis time “would place the United States in irreparable breach” of its “obligation[s]” under international law.

Justice Breyer directly calls out the Per Curiam as thumbing its nose at the President, Executive Branch Officials, Members of Congress, and 4 Members of the Court.

In reaching its contrary conclusion, the Court ignores the appeal of the President in a matter related to foreign affairs, it substitutes its own views about thelikelihood of congressional action for the views of Execu-tive Branch officials who have consulted with Members of Congress, and it denies the request by four Members of the Court to delay the execution until the Court can dis-cuss the matter at Conference in September. In my view,the Court is wrong in each respect.

More from Justice Breyer’s dissent after the jump.

Update: It is interesting to contrast the Court’s willingness to give Congress more time to reconsider the Voting Rights Act in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, but their unwillingness to give Congress two months to enact enforcement legislation in Leal Garcia.

Justice Breyer, relying on the introduction of the bill in the Senate, and the United States’ claim that “‘congressional . . . action’ is a reasonable possibility,” is persuaded that a stay should be granted. Additionally, he gives much credence to the possible injuries to the United States’ foreign policy interests,and finds these interests “plainly compelling.”:

At the same time, the Solicitor General sets forth strongreasons, related to the conduct of foreign affairs, for grant-ing a stay. Representing the Executive Branch (hence the President), the Solicitor General tells us that “[p]e-titioner’s execution would cause irreparable harm” to “foreign-policy interests of the highest order.” Id., at 11. The Solicitor General says that failing to halt Leal’s execu-tion would place “the United States in irremediable breach of its international-law obligation,” with“serious repercussions…”

Further, were this law to be enacted in September, the Court would GVR the petition.  In his view, the equities weigh in favor of a stay:

Thus, on the one hand, international legal obligations, related foreign policy considerations, the prospect of legis-lation, and the consequent injustice involved should thatlegislation, coming too late for Leal, help others in identi-cal circumstances all favor granting a stay. And issuing abrief stay until the end of September, when the Court could consider this matter in the ordinary course, would put Congress on clear notice that it must act quickly. On the other hand, the State has an interest in proceeding with an immediate execution. But it is difficult to see how the State’s interest in the immediate execution of an individual convicted of capital murder 16 years ago can outweigh the considerations that support additional delay, perhaps only until the end of the summer.

The majority,which opened the opinion with this graphic recitation of facts, may view the emphasized portion about waiting a few more months differently:

Petitioner Humberto Leal Garcia (Leal) is a Mexican national who has lived in the United States since before the age of two. In 1994, he kidnaped 16-year-old Adria Sauceda, raped her with a large stick, and bludgeoned her to death with a piece of asphalt. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a Texas court.

Justice Breyer’s pithy opening has a different focus:

The petitioner, Humberto Leal Garcia (Leal), convicted16 years ago of capital murder, is scheduled to be executed this evening.

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4 Responses

  1. PrometheeFeu says:

    As much as I dislike capital punishment, I definitely see the Court’s point of view. Congress had plenty of time to enact a law to handle this issue. Its inaction is a clear demonstration of that it did not consider this issue to be a priority. It is a bit rich for them to introduce this legislation at the 11th hour and then complain that they don’t have enough time to pass it.

  2. Josh Blackman says:

    Breyer makes an interesting point in dissent–were the Court to grant such an extraordinary remedy, it would certainly (he hopes) prompt Congress to act, more so than this 11th hour effort.

  3. PrometheeFeu says:

    @Josh Blackman:
    I see that point. And ideally, I would prefer if that issue did not have to come up because there would not be a death penalty. But, is it really the Court’s job to prompt Congress to take action when the law as it is currently written is constitutional? I don’t think so. If Congress really wanted to prevent Leal’s execution, they could have done so, they just decided to deal with other things instead. I find this to be quite horrific honestly, but it seems to me the body should be laid at the feet of Congress for not acting, not the Supreme Court for failing to prod Congress into action.

  4. Joe says:

    I’m sympathetic to the sentiment of Comment #1 but still see some value in the SC pushing Congress to act in the way proposed here.

    Justice Stevens concurred in Medellin v. Texas but supported a stay when the litigant himself pointed to the chance of political action. When the President himself is behind the request, it has more force.

    The majority is reasonable but the dissent puts forth a reasonable alternative policy that probably is more ideal.