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Ruling makes it harder for foreigners to sue in US courts

Court overturns a ruling for a Mexican doctor, saying a 1789 law does not grant automatically right to sue.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2004


In a decision with potential major implications for victims of harsh US treatment in Iraq and the broader war on terror, the US Supreme Court has sharply cut back the role of federal judges to decide cases involving alleged human rights abuses overseas.

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The nation's highest court Tuesday ruled that a law passed by the first Congress in 1789 offers only a limited opportunity for foreign nationals to sue in US courts for alleged violations of international law that take place in other countries. In ruling that the Alien Tort Statute is primarily jurisdictional absent additional action by Congress, the justices reversed a $25,000 judgment won by a Mexican doctor who sued after being kidnapped and brought to the US to stand trial in a murder case.

At issue in the case was whether the doctor could win such a judgment based on alleged violations of international law - particularly when those laws may never have been adopted or endorsed by Congress.

Writing for the majority, Justice David Souter said that while the Alien Tort Statute is jurisdictional and thus does not offer a basis for individuals to file suit, the practical implications of the law suggest it does create a cause of action but only in a "modest" number of cases involving clear international law violations. The court does not define which cases might apply.

"It looks like you can still bring an action for torture, genocide, for slavery, for apartheid, and other things that are definite widespread violations," says Harold Koh, dean of Yale Law School and an international law expert.

The justices stopped short of rolling back 24 years of legal decisions by lower-court judges who have taken a more expansive view of the statute. But the ruling raises questions about pending Alien Tort Statute (ATS) suits, including many against corporations doing business in repressive countries.

"Basically the high court said if a [US] court were to find a cause of action, it would have to be as specific and as narrow as the causes of action that existed back in 1789 [when the ATS was adopted]," says John Niblock, a Washington lawyer who defends corporations against ATS suits. Mr. Niblock says a footnote in the decision "suggests foreign-policy concerns raised by ATS lawsuits [against corporations] could very well require their dismissal."

The decision marks somewhat of a setback for international human rights activists and those seeking greater US involvement in the development of international law. Although US courts will remain open under the ATS to foreign victims of human rights violations, it is now unclear which cases will qualify.

The issue is likely to be litigated soon on behalf of victims of abuse at a US military prison in Iraq and longtime detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The decision marks a victory for US-based corporations that had increasingly been targeted under ATS lawsuits. The corporations were sued for allegedly aiding and abetting human rights abuses of repressive governments with whom they did business.

But the decision is perhaps most significant for its core ruling: that the Alien Tort Statute empowers judges to decide which international legal standards should apply in a particular case and then decide whether the conduct in question violates those standards.