The U.S. State Department Suggests Former President of Mexico Is Immune from Suit in U.S. Federal Court for Alleged Human Rights Violations

Ernesto Zedillo

On September 16, 2001, ten anonymous Mexican nationals sued Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico, in U.S. federal court in New Haven, Connecticut. The complaint asserted claims for money damages in excess of $10 million under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA) over the December 22, 1997, Mexican militia’s attack on civilians in the village of Acteal in Chiapas, Mexico. On January 6, 2012, Zedillo moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that as a former Mexican president, he was immune from the lawsuit. All of this was explained in a prior post and a January 10th comment thereto.

Not much happened in this lawsuit until September 7, 2012, when the U.S. Government filed its suggestion that Zedillo should be immune from the suit and the case be dismissed. The Government did so in a letter from Harold Koh, the Department of State’s Legal Advisor and a former Dean of the Yale Law School, to the U.S. Department of Justice and in a formal pleading in the lawsuit entitled “Suggestion of Immunity Submitted by the United States of America.”

The letter stated that the U.S. State Department had determined that Zedillo was immune from the suit. It did so after “[t]aking into account principles of immunity articulated by the Executive Branch in the exercise of its constitutional authority over foreign affairs and informed by customary international law, and considering the overall impact of this matter on the foreign policy of the [U.S.].”

The letter and the formal filing set forth the following principles of the common law of officials immunity:

  • Under the law and practice of nations, a foreign sovereign is generally immune from lawsuits in the territory of another sovereign.
  • Until the 1976 enactment of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), U.S. federal courts routinely “‘surrendered’ jurisdiction over suits against foreign sovereigns ‘on recognition, allowance and certification of the asserted immunity by the political branch of the government charged with the conduct of foreign affairs when its certificate to that effect was presented to the court.'”
  • Under the U.S. Constitution, the executive branch of the federal government had the responsibility for foreign affairs.
  • A “sitting head of state’s immunity is based on his status as the incumbent office holder and extends to all his actions.” (Emphasis added.)
  • For a former official, on the other hand, immunity “is based upon the character of that official’s conduct and extends only to acts taken in an official capacity” with a presumption that “actions taken by a foreign official exercising the powers of his office were taken in his official capacity.”
  • Such a presumption “is particularly appropriate when a former head of state is sued, because holders of a country’s highest office may be expected to be on duty at all times and to have wide-ranging responsibilities.”
  • That presumption is corroborated when “the foreign government itself has asserted that the actions of its official were taken in an official capacity.”

Here, the Mexican government had asserted that Zedillo’s actions that are challenged in this lawsuit were taken in his official capacity as President of Mexico. Indeed, according to the letter, this assessment of Zedillo’s actions is confirmed by the allegations of the complaint.

The letter’s reasons and conclusion are endorsed by the Suggestion of Immunity Submitted by the United States of America.

A Duke University Law Professor, Curtis A. Bradley, observed that the courts had the authority to make the ultimate decision on immunity for former officials and that the courts usually side with the State Department’s determination. This was certainly true in the ATS and TVPA case against a former Somali general as seen in a prior post.

I cannot see any legitimate basis for any challenge to this suggestion of immunity and anticipate that the District Court will conclude that Zedillo is immune and dismiss the case.