Stancil Speaks on International Precedent

The United States Supreme Court is divided on the issue of whether or not to take into consideration the rulings of the international community when deciding matters of domestic law. There have been several cases concerning whether or not the execution of individuals, who were minors at the time of their crimes, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Some Supreme Court justices referred to international trends, while others scoffed at the idea. As part of the UVM Political Science Department’s Lyman J. Gould lecture series, constitutional scholar Mark T. Stancil gave a speech on Tuesday, April 4th, about the Supreme Court’s history with respect to international rulings and trends. The first portion of the lecture focused on the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution. Ruling on two major cases in the past few years, the majority of the justices on the United States Supreme Court have held that executing persons who were underage when they committed a crime constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Speaking for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited international trends, which have moved away from juvenile execution, as “significant confirmation” for the Court’s opinion.Justice Antonin Scalia issued a fiery dissent, characterizing the logic of the majority as “sophistry,” and rejecting the notion that international trends should be taken into consideration when cases of domestic law are being decided. Scalia is one of the Court’s strictest originalists and he tends to believe that the text of the 8th Amendment can only mean what it would have meant to Americans in the 18th century when it was written.The second issue Stancil spoke about was a treaty that the United States has signed, known as the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. According to the treaty, each signatory has the responsibility of informing foreign nationals of their right to contact their country’s foreign consulate upon arrest. The US has also signed an optional conflict-resolution protocol, stating that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is responsible for abiding disputes between signatories.Six days before delivering his speech, Stancil argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of a defendant who was not notified of his rights under the convention. The circumstances of the defendant’s case are such that had he been informed of his rights, it is probable that he would have been acquitted of the charges brought against him.Currently, the High Court is grappling with the question of whether or not to recognize the authority of the International Court of Justice, which has ruled against the United States in several disputes involving this treaty. Stancil points to the supremacy clause in Article Six of the US Constitution, stating that US treaties are on par with federal law, as proof that the Court should uphold the ruling of the ICJ and side with the defendant.Some argue that when interpreting the 8th Amendment, the United States should gauge the sentiment of its own people rather than that in the international arena.”There is a visceral reaction against international decision making simply because it’s international.” Stancil expressed hope that those justices who are reluctant to consider the ICJ’s rulings would change their minds. but he also doubted that his client would win the case. A ruling on this matter is expected by July.