Sosa v. Alvarez-MachainPreserving the Alien Tort Statute as a Powerful Tool for Human Rights Litigation
Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain et al. 542 U.S. 692 (2004)
In February 2004, CJA filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain et al. Our brief defended the use of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) as an effective judicial remedy for survivors of gross human rights violations and highlighted a number of cases illustrating its impact on the healing process for communities and individuals through judicial recognition and legal redress.
BackgroundThe case of Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain arose from the 1985 arrest of Dr. Humberto Alvarez-Machain (Alvarez) by agents of the U.S. government, for his alleged complicity in the torture and murder of a Drug Enforcement Agency officer. Unable to extradite Alvarez from Mexico, the United States government hired two Mexican nationals to kidnap and return him to the United States to stand trial. The suit went before the Supreme Court, which remanded the case to District Court for criminal prosecution, where Alvarez was later acquitted. However, the Supreme Court had expressed reservations about the legality of Alvarez’s forcible abduction from Mexico. Alvarez subsequently filed a number of civil tort suits against the United States and one of his kidnappers, Jose Francisco Sosa.
The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California found Sosa liable under the ATS for arbitrary arrest and detention, and judgment was entered against him for $25,000. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment and agreed that the ATS permits claims for human rights violations. However, widespread disagreement concerning the application of the ATS and dissent within the Ninth Circuit led the Supreme Court to agree to review the decision.
Sosa Before the U.S. Supreme Court
The issue before the Court was whether the ATS creates private causes of action for torts committed anywhere, in violation of international law or treaties with the United States, or, instead, is merely a provision that grants jurisdiction to federal courts.
CJA’s amicus brief argued that the ATS accords with the international law principle that obligates states to provide remedy for gross human rights violations. Furthermore, our brief pointed out that the ATS is consistent with the historical trend of the United States in developing mechanisms to hold perpetrators accountable and supporting efforts to end impunity. It also emphasized the paramount importance of the ATS in light of its status as the sole judicial remedy available for mass and systematic human rights violations such as genocide and crimes against humanity.
The Supreme Court’s opinion looked to the historical framework of the late 18th century to understand the intended purpose of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) when it was passed in 1789. The Court found that although the ATS is a jurisdictional statute, it was intended to have a practical effect, and concluded that it “[…] is best read as having been enacted on the understanding that the common law would provide a cause of action for the modest number of international law violations with potential for personal liability at the time.” The Court found that international law of the time included a “narrow set” of “hybrid international norms” that were of particular concern because of their effect on international relations, and which would have fallen under the common law. Such norms included violations against ambassadors, safe conduct and piracy.
However, rather than enumerating the specific international norms that would give rise to causes of action, the Court set forth a standard which recognized the evolving nature of international law and provided a modern framework for determining whether a tort constitutes a cause of action. The framework incorporates four features that approximate the considerations used in 1789 to establish a private right of action: universality, obligatory nature, specificity and prudential considerations.
In light of this framework, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision, stating that Alvarez’s arrest and detention in this case did not violate any treaty with the United States; nor did they violate an international norm meeting the “specific, universal and obligatory” standard.