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THE NATION

Abduction Lawsuits Likely to Be Thrown Out

The justices, in hearing the case of a Mexican doctor, indicate that they will avoid a ruling on the role of U.S. courts in international law.

March 31, 2004|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Hearing arguments in the case of a Mexican doctor who was abducted in Guadalajara to stand trial in Los Angeles, the Supreme Court signaled Tuesday that it was likely to throw out his lawsuits but probably would avoid a broad ruling on the role of U.S. courts in enforcing international law.

Several justices said they thought agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration had not acted illegally in 1990 when they arranged to have Dr. Humberto Alvarez Machain abducted in Mexico and brought to the United States. He was tried in the killing of DEA agent Enrique Camarena Salazar, and acquitted.

After returning to Mexico, the doctor filed a lawsuit against U.S. authorities and the Mexican bounty hunters who kidnapped him. Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Alvarez in both claims, ruling that he was a victim of an "arbitrary arrest and detention" in violation of international law.

The justices attacked that conclusion during the 90-minute argument.

"He was under indictment by a grand jury," said Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. It was not arbitrary to seek out and arrest a person who had been indicted, he said.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor also disputed the 9th Circuit's view that DEA agents had no authority to make arrests abroad. "A DEA agent can very likely enforce the law outside our borders," she said. If so, the court could reverse the rulings of the 9th Circuit while avoiding the broader question of whether such claims are properly heard in U.S. courts.

Tuesday marked the first time the high court had dealt directly with a provision in the Judiciary Act of 1789 that says judges may hear civil lawsuits brought by an "alien" for a "violation of the law of nations."

In recent years, human rights advocates have used the law to sue on behalf of foreigners who have been victims of abuses abroad. Many of the claims have targeted U.S. companies that operate in countries like Myanmar and Indonesia. Business lawyers and the Bush administration urged the court to rein in the law, but O'Connor said she saw no need to do it in this case.

"It has had a very long history," she said of the 1789 statute. "It could be easily changed by Congress."

The business advocates who do not like the measure should take their complaints to the House and Senate, she said.

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