Human Rights in State Courts 2014

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The Opportunity Agenda and the Program on Human Rights in the Global Economy of Northeastern University School of Law has released a new report, Human Rights in State Courts 2014. The report reviews state court decisions and Attorneys General opinions interpreting human rights treaties, laws, and standards.

Since the last version of this report was released in 2011, litigants have continued to use international human rights law in their arguments before state courts. In fact, the range of cases in which international law arguments are offered seems to have increased, now encompassing environmental claims, tort cases, and guardianship matters. Many of these arguments have been cursorily dismissed, with a few courts and individual judges staking out their opposition to the application of international human rights law. However, some state courts have considered and affirmatively used international law as persuasive authority for the interpretation of state constitutions, statutes, and common law. Further, individual judges regularly draw on human rights norms in concurring or dissenting opinions.

This updated publication includes previously reported cases as well as those that have been decided since the 2011 edition. Highlights of the new report include the following developments:

  • The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court gave retroactive effect to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sentencing a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional, citing international law in support.
  • A Maryland Court of Appeals considered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and its recognition of the right to “family life” as a marker of fundamental fairness, when deciding upon a due process challenge to a guardianship proceeding.
  • The Tennessee Attorney General addressed international human rights law when a state representative inquired as to whether a bill to prohibit and criminalize observation of state elections by United Nations (U.N.) officials violated the United States Constitution. The Attorney General determined that the bill would likely violate the Supremacy Clause and noted that U.N. officials would be immune from prosecution under the Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, to which the United States is a party.
  • A dissenting judge in an Iowa Supreme Court decision, addressing the right to education under the state constitution, would have used the human rights norms as a tool for interpreting the Iowa constitution. The dissent cited the UDHR for the proposition that education is essential to the development of an autonomous individual with dignity.
  • State courts continued to consider claims arising under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, generally finding that the treaty does not grant defendants the right to any actual assistance by consular officials, as opposed to a right to consular notification.
  • There continue to be a host of cases citing the Hague Service Convention for guidelines to proper service of process between parties residing in signatory countries. Additionally, the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction continues to play a substantial role in guiding courts in child custody hearings.
  • Regional international norms articulated by the Inter-American system figured in several cases. For example, a Connecticut Superior Court utilized the Inter-American Convention on Letters of Rogatory and Additional Protocol to impose proper service of process when it found that protocols under the Hague Service Convention were not applicable.
  • A New York court stated that while the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is not binding under New York law, the international adoption of a guarantee of legal capacity for all persons is entitled to persuasive weight in the interpretation of local laws.