WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court ruled June 29 that foreigners cannot use an obscure U.S. law to sue in America over alleged human rights abuses, throwing out damages won by a doctor kidnapped in Mexico and brought to the United States to face trial in the death of federal drug agent.
The doctor was acquitted, and used a 1789 law to sue the people who orchestrated his abduction.
His case prompted the Supreme Court's first ruling on the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act, a law that has been invoked in other recent cases where alleged victims of international human rights abuses won judgments in American courts.
Justices said that the law does not create a right to bring lawsuits like the one pursued by Dr. Humberto Alvarez-Machain, who was taken from his office in Mexico in 1990.
A sharply split appeals court had said that federal drug agents acted illegally when they ordered the kidnapping by paid bounty hunters, without the involvement of Mexican officials. Alvarez was acquitted, and later turned to U.S. court to seek damages.
The Supreme Court, however, said the doctor's lawsuit belonged in Mexican courts.
Justices agreed on a 9-0 vote that the law gave federal courts jurisdiction to hear some claims, but did not give individuals a right to sue. Court members were split on other issues.
Justice David H. Souter, writing for the court, said that Congress envisioned a "modest" set of lawsuits under the federal law, over such things as offenses against ambassadors and piracy.
It was the second time that Alvarez has been to the Supreme Court. The first time, the justices ruled in 1992 that the U.S. government may kidnap people from foreign countries and prosecute them over that nation's objection without violating an extradition treaty.
In this follow-up, the justices overturned a decision to award $25,000 to the doctor, which was to be paid by one of the Mexican abductors who is living in the United States in the federal witness protection program.
The decision was a major victory for business leaders, who had feared an increase in lawsuits over labor practices at their overseas plants.
The Alien Tort Claims Act has been used since about 1980 to get foreign suits before U.S. judges. Relatives of people killed or tortured under despotic regimes from South America to the Philippines used the law, as did Holocaust survivors. One case pending in California accuses oil giant Unocal Corp. of cooperating with human rights violations in Myanmar, formerly called Burma, including slavery, murder and rape.