Legal Actions Over Foreign Misdeeds

New York Times

The Supreme Court hears arguments today in a case that may determine how open American courts are to lawsuits filed by foreign victims of human rights abuses. It tests the scope of the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 1789 law that is increasingly being used to hold American companies accountable for their abusive actions outside this country. Companies doing business abroad have tried to block these suits, and the Bush administration has now joined in, arguing that such lawsuits could interfere with the war on terrorism. The Supreme Court should follow the lead of the appeals court that heard the case and recognize that the act provides victims of American misconduct abroad with a right to be heard.

The Alien Tort Claims Act authorizes federal courts to hear suits by foreigners when their rights under "the law of nations or a treaty of the United States" have been violated by individuals, companies or government agents. It was rarely used for two centuries, but in 1980, a federal court upheld a suit brought by Paraguayan citizens for torture and murder committed in Paraguay by a Paraguayan police official, and other cases followed. One of the highest-profile cases is unfolding in California, where a federal judge has just ordered ChevronTexaco to stand trial on charges that a subsidiary abetted the Nigerian military in killing villagers who protested its operations.

Today's case is an unusual one, with the federal government as the defendant. It was brought by a Mexican doctor who was abducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration and tried in California on charges of participating in the murder of a federal drug agent. After his acquittal, he filed a false-arrest suit. A group of American companies is arguing that a broad reading of the act will encourage lawsuits against them and discourage them from investing abroad. The Bush administration contends that a broad reading will impede its ability to go after terrorism suspects outside the country.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, upheld the doctor's suit, ruling that his case was just the sort covered by the act. There is no reason American businesses cannot conduct foreign operations without violating "the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." As for terrorism, the appeals court expressly stated that it was not deciding how the act would apply if the military were being sued, or if national security were at stake. The Supreme Court should affirm this well-reasoned ruling.