Using the Alien Tort Statute to Bring Justice

Contact: Jim Vescovi 212-854-4937
Paul Hoffman, a long-time civil rights and human rights litigator, discussed the evolution of the Alien Tort Statute with students and faculty at the invitation of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute on Monday, Nov. 12. Hoffman, a partner at Schonburn, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman and former legal director for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, has been involved in several of the field’s most important cases.
Although the Alien Tort Statute originated from legislation passed in 1789 that gave the federal courts jurisdiction over aliens involved in tort disputes, few cases were brought under the statute until 1978. The first modern case of significance, filed by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, saw Paraguayan citizen, Dr. Joel Filartiga, sue another Paraguayan, police officer Américo Norberto Peña Irala, who had killed Filartiga’s son in Paraguay. Citing the Alien Tort Statute, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit allowed the suit to go forward, though it involved a crime committed in Paraguay and involved Paraguayan citizens. (The Filartigas were awarded $10 million, but never collected since Peña was deported after the verdict.)
“After Filartiga, a precedent was established and a few human rights lawyers, including myself, began to bring suits,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman worked closely on another landmark case, Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, which, in various forms, has occupied the courts for more than two decades. In 1985, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agent in Mexico was captured and tortured to death by members of a drug cartel. Later, U.S. agents and Mexican authorities abducted Dr. Alvarez-Machain in Mexico and brought him to the U.S., where he was charged with murder. Alvarez-Machain was acquitted, but he also brought suit against the United States for violating the U.S.-Mexico extradition treaty and international law in the abduction. In 1992, the Supreme Court rejected his claims (United States v. Alvarez-Machain).
The following year, Alvarez-Machain filed a civil suit against the United States and Jose Sosa, a Mexican national involved in his abduction. “By the time it reached the Supreme Court in 2004, the case had taken on new meaning with the Bush administration and 9-11,” Hoffman said.
The Supreme Court ruled against Alvarez-Machain, but in doing so it also acknowledged the validity of the Alien Torn Statute. “In a way, it was a vindication and it has allowed us to bring other cases forward that were stalled while the Supreme Court weighed Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain,” Hoffman said.
Currently, Hoffman is working on several cases, commonly known as the Apartheid cases, in which victims of South Africa’s apartheid regime are suing various private companies that allegedly lent support to the regime.