Posted Apr 18, 2012 02:42 pm CDT
Updated: The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that a 1991 federal law authorizing foreign torture suits may not be used to sue organizations.
The decision bars a suit by relatives of a naturalized U.S. citizen who died after being arrested in 2005 by Palestinian Authority intelligence officers. The suit was brought under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which authorizes suits against “an individual” for torture and extrajudicial killings committed under color of law of any foreign nation. Named defendants were the Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization. (The court incorrectly identified the group as the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog says.)
The opinion (PDF) by Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the term “individual” refers only to natural persons, and the law doesn’t allow suits against organizations. The opinion cites three dictionary definitions and says there is no indication Congress meant to define the word “individual” more expansively.
Justice Antonin Scalia did not join a section of Sotomayor’s opinion dealing with legislative history. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, on the other hand, wrote a concurrence that emphasizes legislative history.
The case is Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority. A companion case relying on the Alien Tort Statute, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, is being reargued next term. At issue in the reargument is whether U.S. courts can hear claims for international law violations that occur outside the United States.
Updated on April 18 to note incorrect reference to the Palestine Liberation Organization.