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Court OKs Foreign-Abuse Suits

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    sbillenness@yahoo.com Wed, 30 Jun 2004 List-Id: List-Subscribe:
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 30, 2004
      Wed, 30 Jun 2004
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      Los Angeles Times
      Court OKs Foreign-Abuse Suits
      Justices say a 1789 law permits a narrow class of such lawsuits.
      Ruling may affect a Unocal case.
      By Lisa Girion
      Times Staff Writer

      June 30, 2004

      The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that foreigners can file
      lawsuits in American courts to address some abuses overseas, a
      decision legal experts said may provide an opening for human rights
      cases filed against Unocal Corp. and other companies to move forward.

      By a 6-3 vote, the justices said the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789
      permits foreigners to sue in the U.S. for violations of certain
      international laws. The decision was the court's first major ruling
      on the obscure law that has been used successfully by Holocaust
      survivors and relatives of people tortured or killed under
      dictatorships overseas.

      In the majority opinion written by Justice David H. Souter, the court
      said the door to alien tort suits "is still ajar subject to vigilant
      doorkeeping, and thus open to a narrow class of international norms

      Business groups had hoped the Supreme Court would eliminate the use
      of U.S. courts to enforce international law.

      But they applauded Tuesday's decision nonetheless, asserting it would
      sharply curtail such suits.

      Human rights advocates also claimed victory, saying that suits
      alleging corporate complicity in crimes such as summary execution,
      torture and slavery were exactly the type of international standards
      the court cited.

      Lawyers on both sides predicted that the first test of the ruling
      would come in a celebrated case involving El Segundo-based Unocal.

      Fifteen Myanmar refugees have sued the oil giant in federal court in
      Los Angeles, alleging that the company is liable for murder, rape and
      forced labor allegedly committed by soldiers guarding a gas pipeline

      The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was awaiting the Supreme Court's
      ruling before deciding whether the claims of the Myanmar villagers
      should go to trial.

      Tuesday's decision bodes well for the villagers, said Harold Hongju
      Koh, incoming dean of Yale University's law school and former
      assistant secretary of State for human rights.

      A majority of the court upheld the doctrine that "allows litigants to
      sue for well-established violations of human rights," Koh said. "They
      essentially adopted the language of past decisions" by lower courts,
      including the 9th Circuit, in a line of alien tort suits against
      foreign dictators, such as the late Ferdinand Marcos of the
      Philippines, and their henchmen.

      Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas and
      Antonin Scalia did not join Souter's opinion.

      "This court seems incapable of admitting that some matters Ö are none
      of its business," Scalia wrote in dissent.

      The opinions reflect a battle on the court over whether U.S. courts
      should operate in isolation or as a part of an international system
      of law.

      The ruling came in a suit brought by Dr. Humberto Alvarez Machain,
      who was kidnapped in Mexico and brought to trial in Los Angeles for
      allegedly aiding the torture killing of a U.S. drug agent. Alvarez
      was acquitted of the charges against him and sued his alleged
      kidnappers in federal court under the Alien Tort Claims Act.

      The Supreme Court rejected Alvarez's suit, saying kidnapping was not
      a violation of a widely accepted international law. "A single illegal
      detention of less than a day, followed by the transfer of custody to
      lawful authorities and a prompt arraignment violates no norm of
      customary international law," Souter wrote.

      Paul Hoffman, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents Alvarez as well as
      some of the Myanmar refugees, said the slavery and forced labor
      allegations in the Unocal case were the type that the Supreme Court
      ruled merit federal court attention.

      "This is a huge victory for us," Hoffman said. "It's not great for
      Dr. Alvarez, which is a shame. But in terms of the law, it's great.
      And there were six justices joining in, so there's no doubt about it."

      But Unocal's lead lawyer, Daniel Petrocelli, said the allegations in
      the Unocal case were ordinary tort claims and did not fall under
      federal court jurisdiction.

      The high court's ruling "is not a general invitation to permit
      ordinary tort claims to be brought under international law," he said.

      "Issues involving local labor conditions, issues involving local
      crimes are matters internal to the affairs of a country. These are
      not the sorts of claims that would be so specific that resort to
      international law is required."

      Petrocelli said the ruling represented "a complete vindication for
      the rights of American companies doing business abroad."

      "The court made clear that there is no ability to bring suits under
      the alien tort statute of the sort that had been brought against
      American businesses and against Unocal," he said. "Hopefully the 9th
      Circuit will follow suit and the case will end swiftly."

      Carter Phillips, a lawyer who represented the defendant in the
      Alvarez case, said the Supreme Court ruling appeared to keep federal
      courts open to hear certain human rights violations.

      But he doubts the court would sanction lawsuits against corporations
      that are not alleged to be the actual perpetrators.

      "A lot of these claims against corporations are based on aiding and
      abetting theories," he said. "But that doesn't remotely approach
      suing a corporation that does business in one of those countries."


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