msnbc.com news services
updated 6/29/2004 5:58:06 PM ET 2004-06-29T21:58:06

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that foreigners have only a limited right to use an obscure U.S. law to sue in America over alleged human rights abuses. However, that decision still left open the possibility of lawsuits over inmate mistreatment in Iraq and other claims.

The court blocked a lawsuit by Dr. Humberto Alvarez-Machain, who was kidnapped in Mexico and brought to the United States to face trial in the death of federal drug agent. The doctor was acquitted, and he used a 1789 law to sue the people who orchestrated his abduction.

His case prompted the Supreme Court’s first ruling on the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act, a law that has been invoked in other recent cases when alleged victims of international human rights abuses won judgments in U.S. courts.

Justices said the law did not create a right to bring lawsuits like the one pursued by Alvarez-Machain.

But while the decision limits suits under that law, Paul Hoffman, the attorney for Alvarez, said: “The limit is not that much of a limit. The community of people who have been involved in bringing Alien Tort Claims Act cases are breaking out champagne bottles over this decision.”

Earlier this month, human rights lawyers filed a lawsuit in California against two U.S. defense contractors, accusing them of conspiring to torture, rape and kill Iraqi prisoners. Jennifer Green, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought that lawsuit, said Tuesday’s ruling would bolster their case.

Doctor acquitted in agent’s death
The arrest of Alvarez-Machain provoked strong protests from Mexico, which said its sovereignty had been violated.

Alvarez-Machain was abducted from his office in Guadalajara in 1990 by Mexicans who acted at the request of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He was flown in a private plane to El Paso, Texas, where waiting DEA agents arrested him in the murder in Mexico of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena.

Alvarez-Machain was then taken to Los Angeles to stand trial, where he was acquitted. When he turned to U.S. courts to seek damages, a sharply split appeals court said that the federal agents acted illegally when they ordered Alvarez-Machain’s kidnapping without the involvement of Mexican officials.

The Supreme Court agreed on a 9-0 vote that the law gave federal courts jurisdiction to hear some claims, but it said it did not give individuals a right to sue.

Justice David H. Souter, writing for the court said Congress envisioned only a “modest” set of lawsuits under the federal law, over such things as offenses against ambassadors and piracy.

But Justice Antonin Scalia complained separately that those exceptions did not totally close the door on foreign lawsuits.

“This court seems incapable of admitting that some matters — any matters — are none of its business,” Scalia wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Scalia wrote that the court “wags a finger at lower courts for going too far” but put few limits on how they handle future cases.

It was the second time Alvarez has been to the Supreme Court. The first time, the justices ruled in 1992 that the U.S. government could kidnap people from foreign countries and prosecute them over that nation’s objection without violating an extradition treaty.

In this follow-up, the justices overturned a decision to award $25,000 to the doctor, which was to be paid by one of the Mexican abductors who is living in the United States in the federal witness protection program.

The case had been closely watched by business leaders, who had feared an increase in lawsuits over labor practices at their overseas plants.

The Alien Tort Claims Act has been used since about 1980 to get foreign suits before U.S. judges. Relatives of people killed or tortured under despotic regimes from South America to the Philippines used the law, as did survivors of the Holocaust. One case pending in California accuses oil giant Unocal Corp. of cooperating with human rights violations in Myanmar, formerly called Burma, including slavery, murder and rape.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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