Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain

Case Details

Status: Other
Docket No: 03-339
NCLC Involvement: Petitioner
Solicitor General Involvement: Petitioner
Industry: All Industries
Sub-Industry:
Term: 2003 Term
Oral Argument Date: March 30, 2004
Vote: 6-3
Opinion: Souter
Lower Court: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Question(s) 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.

NCLC'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. 

Case Outcome

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 Majority
Breyer
Ginsburg
Kennedy
O'Connor
Souter
Stevens
Justices in Minority
Rehnquist
Scalia
Thomas
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.

Case Documents