Law School Case Brief
Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain - 542 U.S. 692, 124 S. Ct. 2739 (2004)
Although the Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C.S. § 1350, is a jurisdictional statute creating no new causes of action, the reasonable inference from the historical materials is that the statute was intended to have practical effect the moment it became law. The jurisdictional grant 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 a potential for personal liability at the time.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) approved using petitioner Sosa and other Mexican nationals to abduct respondent Alvarez-Machain (Alvarez), also a Mexican national, from Mexico to stand trial in the United States for a DEA agent's torture and murder. After his acquittal, Alvarez sued the United States for false arrest under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which waives sovereign immunity in suits "for . . . personal injury . . . caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any [Government] employee while acting within the scope of his office or employment.” Alvarez also sued Sosa for violating the law of nations under the Alien Tort statute (ATS), a 1789 law giving district courts "original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations.” The District Court dismissed the FTCA claim, but awarded Alvarez summary judgment and damages on the ATS claim. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the ATS judgment, but reversed the FTCA claim's dismissal.
Were remedies under the FTCA and the ATS available to Alvarez?
The Court held that with respect to Alvarez's allegation that the DEA had instigated his abduction from Mexico for criminal trial in the United States:
(1) Alvarez was not entitled to a remedy under the FTCA, because § 2680(k) applied, for (a) the alleged actions in Mexico were most naturally understood as the kernel of a barred claim arising in a foreign country; and (b) contrary to the Court of Appeals' headquarters doctrine, § 2680(k) barred all claims based on any injury suffered in a foreign country, regardless of where the tortious act or omission occurred.
(2) The ATS was in terms in terms a jurisdictional statute creating no new causes of action.
(3) This jurisdictional grant was best read as originally having been enacted on the understanding that common law would provide a cause of action for the modest number of international-law violations with a potential for personal liability at the time.
(4) The ATS right of action asserted by the individual did not fall within this modest number.
(5) Alvarez was not otherwise entitled to a remedy under the ATS, for when his claim was gauged against the existing state of international law, his claim did not meet the requirement that federal courts ought not to recognize private claims, under federal common law, for violations of any international-law norm with less definite content and acceptance among civilized nations than the historical paradigms familiar when the ATS had been enacted.
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