Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain

U.S. Supreme Court clarifies jurisdictional nature of Alien Tort Statute, limits its scope

Term: 2003 Term
Oral Argument Date: Mar 30, 2004
Vote: 6-3
Opinion: Souter
Questions Presented: 

1. Whether the ATA, is simply a grant of jurisdiction, or whether, in addition to granting jurisdiction, it provides a cause of action upon which aliens may sue for torts in violation of the law of nations or treaties of the United States. 

2. If the ATA provides a cause of action, whether the actions it authorizes are limited to suits for violations of jus cogens norms of international law.

3. Whether a detention that lasts less than 24 hours, results in no physical harm to the detainee, and is undertaken by a private individual under instructions from senior United States law enforcement officials, constitutes a tort in violation of the law of nations actionable under the ATA.

U.S. Chamber's Position: 

NCLC urged the U.S. Supreme Court to hold that the Alien Tort Statute of 1789 (ATS) provides jurisdiction only and contains no private cause of action. NCLC also urged the Court to clarify that the ATS confers jurisdiction only where Congress has provided a cause of action by statute or treaty. In its amicus brief, NCLC explained that ATS litigation increasingly interferes with foreign investment by putting companies with a U.S. presence at a unique and unfair competitive advantage. ATS lawsuits also interfere with foreign relations by undermining the nuanced foreign policy decisions of the President and Congress. 

Outcome Content: 

The Supreme Court ruled that the respondent could not recover damages under the ATS. According to the Court, the ATS "is a jurisdictional statute creating no new causes of action" but does not require further statutes expressly adopting causes of action. Rather, "the common law would provide a cause of action for the modest number of international law violations thought to carry personal liability at the time: offenses against ambassadors, violation of safe conducts, and piracy."  

Justices in Minority: 
Procedural History: 

NCLC amicus brief supporting cert. filed 10/03/03. NCLC amicus brief on the merits filed 01/23/04. Decided 6/29/04.