In “International Human Rights in American Courts,” Judge William Fletcher analyzes the implications of the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Sosa v. Avarez-Machain. The plaintiff in Sosa brought suit for tortious violation of customary international law under 28 U.S.C. § 1350, the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”). The Court held that the federal courts can enforce norms of customary international law in suits brought under the ATS only if the norms are established with sufficient clarity to satisfy the restrictive criteria set forth in the Court’s opinion.
According to Judge Fletcher, the Court answered two questions in Sosa. First, there is a limited federal common law of international human rights based on customary international law. Second, that federal common law is both jurisdiction-conferring in the sense of “arising under” federal law, and supreme in the sense of the Supremacy Clause. Professors Jack Goldsmith and Curtis Bradley, among others, had raised questions about the legitimacy of the line of human rights cases based on customary international law that began with the Second Circuit’s 1980 decision in Filartiga v. Pena-Irala. The Court’s response was that, within the scope of the federal common law permitted by Sosa, Filartiga remains good law.
However, the Supreme Court in Sosa did not answer questions about the possible preemptive scope of the federal common law on international human rights. Judge Fletcher explores three examples — (1) a wholly international case in which an alien sues another alien for a violation of international human rights abroad; (2) a partially international case in which an alien sues an American corporation for such a violation abroad; and (3) a wholly domestic case in which a defendant in a American court contends that a State’s death penalty violates international human rights. Judge Fletcher points out that these preemption questions are going to arise in both state and federal courts. He further points out that the federal courts may, in some cases not covered by federal common law, be required by Erie Railroad v. Tompkins to follow state courts’ decisions on questions of international human rights.