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
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
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
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