When Can Foreigners Sue in US Courts? ; A Case at the High Court Involving a Mexican Doctor Could Affect Multinational Companies and the Terror War

By Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

When Can Foreigners Sue in US Courts? ; A Case at the High Court Involving a Mexican Doctor Could Affect Multinational Companies and the Terror War


Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


If cases at the US Supreme Court were named like pulp mystery novels, the appeal set for oral argument Tuesday might aptly be called "The Case of the Inscrutable Statute."

At the center of Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain is whether one of the nation's oldest laws, adopted by the first Congress, authorizes foreign individuals anywhere in the world to sue in US courts for money damages for alleged violations of international law.

What makes the case particularly difficult for the justices to resolve is the fact that virtually no information exists explaining why Congress passed the so-called Alien Tort Statute of 1789. There are no legislative findings explaining the problems lawmakers were seeking to address. The only direct evidence the court has to work with, according to legal scholars, is the wording of the statute itself. But those words have spawned competing theories about the law's meaning and scope.

The case is being closely watched as a potential landmark because it could determine the proper role of American judges in enforcing international human rights. It may also help define the place of international law in US courts.

Human rights advocates say the law, also referred to as the Alien Tort Claims Act, has helped create a forum for those least able to defend themselves against human rights abuses overseas.

"The Alien Tort Claims Act has been a beacon to the world," says Paul Hoffman in his brief to the court urging that it uphold existing legal precedents dating to 1980 that facilitate individual suits.

Critics say such a reading of the Alien Tort Statute raises significant constitutional concerns and could undermine US antiterrorism efforts. In addition, they say, it is putting American business at a competitive disadvantage in foreign markets.

The case before the court involves a lawsuit filed by a Mexican doctor abducted and brought to the US in 1990 at the behest of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The doctor, Humberto Alvarez- Machain, was allegedly involved in the torture death of a DEA agent investigating a drug cartel in Mexico. Rather than seek official extradition, DEA officials arranged for a group of Mexicans to apprehend the doctor and fly him to the US so he could stand trial on murder charges.

The charges against Dr. Alvarez-Machain were thrown out at trial. The judge said the government's case was based on speculation rather than evidence.

After returning to Mexico, the doctor filed suit under the Alien Tort Statute, claiming his abduction by Mexicans acting at the direction of the DEA violated international human rights. He was awarded $25,000. The award was upheld by the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals.

At the center of the appeal to the Supreme Court is a dispute over the scope of the law. The Alien Tort Statute clearly empowers federal judges to hear lawsuits brought by foreign individuals who were personally harmed by violations of international law or US treaties. …

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