- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Supreme Court yesterday limited the right of foreigners to sue in U.S. courts over claimed human rights abuses and international law violations.

The 9-0 decision was a win for the Bush administration, which had argued that the obscure U.S. law cited in the case did not give foreigners the right to sue in American courts, and that such claims could hinder efforts to fight terrorism.

But the court left the door open to future lawsuits, including one against U.S. corporations accused of abusing prisoners in Iraq, according to lawyers following the case.

The Supreme Court yesterday dismissed a case brought by a Mexican doctor seeking damages against the U.S. government and a Mexican national who had kidnapped him on behalf of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The kidnapped doctor was brought to the United States and tried for the torture and killing of a DEA agent but was acquitted.

After his acquittal, he sought damages from his kidnapper under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law written in 1789 to deal with issues of piracy and assault on diplomats.

The court said that the law does not create a right to bring such a lawsuit under the act.

“It is enough to hold that a single illegal detention of less than a day, followed by the transfer of custody to lawful authorities and a prompt arraignment, violates no norm of customary international law so well-defined as to support the creation of a federal remedy,” Justice David H. Souter wrote in reversing a lower court’s decision.

Human rights, environmental and labor groups have used the act to sue governments, companies and individuals. Business groups, facing a slew of cases against companies that operated in apartheid-era South Africa, in Burma, in Sudan and in other nations, said the decision came as a relief.

“I don’t think it shuts the door as tightly as we would have liked to see it shut. But the decision does raise the bar for ever finding affirmatively,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a business group that submitted a “friend of the court” brief in the case.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in a separate opinion, said the ruling left the door wide open.

“This Court seems incapable of admitting that some matters — any matters —are none of its business,” Justice Scalia wrote.

Justice Scalia called the decision a victory for “Never Say Never Jurisprudence” that would invite plaintiffs to file more lawsuits and lower courts to hear them.

Jennie Green, senior staff lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the decision clearly indicates that other cases can proceed. The center this month filed a lawsuit against defense contractors Titan, based in San Diego, and CACI International of Arlington for purportedly abusing prisoners in Iraq. The case cites the Alien Tort Claims Act.

Ralph Steinhardt, co-counsel in yesterday’s case and a George Washington University law professor, said the decision does not provide the clear victory hoped for by the administration and corporations, but would limit extreme arguments under the act.

“What I see in the case is everybody breathing a sigh of relief,” Mr. Steinhardt said.

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