U.S. Court of Appeals Affirms Dismissal of Compliant against Former Mexican President

Ernesto Zedillo
Ernesto Zedillo

As previously noted, last year the U.S. District Court in New Haven, Connecticut dismissed a complaint against former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo that had been brought under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act based upon the alleged 1997 massacre in the Mexican village of Acteal.[1]

On appeal, the plaintiffs conceded that the district court properly had dismissed their complaint. Instead, the plaintiffs argued that the district court had erred in not permitting them to amend their complaint, for which the appellate court could reverse only if the district court had abused its discretion and if any amendment would not be futile.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that any amendment would be futile since the U.S. Government had submitted a suggestion of immunity for Mr. Zedillo and since that suggestion is dispositive.

Therefore, the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal in a short Summary Order on February 18th. (Doe v. Zedillo, No. 13-3122 (2d Cir. Feb. 18, 2014).)


[1] Seven prior posts have discussed the Zedillo case in the district court.

 

Dismissal of U.S. Lawsuit Against Ex-President of Mexico

On July 18th the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut dismissed a private lawsuit under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victims Protection Act against Ernesto Zedillo, a former President of Mexico.[1]

The written dismissal order merely states that it was for the reasons stated at the oral argument that day. Those reasons, according to the attorney for Mr. Zedillo, centered on the court’s deferring to the U.S. Department of State’s conclusion that Mr. Zedillo was entitled to immunity as a former head of state of Mexico sued for alleged acts taken in his official capacity. This was confirmed in the transcript of the court’s ruling.

The State Department’s position, which was provided to the court in September 2012, was based upon “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.].” These principles of officials’ immunity included the following:

  • 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.”

The court’s dismissal also relied upon the U.S.’ advising the court on May 15, 2013, that it did not intend to appear at the July 18th hearing and that it “rests on its [previous] Suggestion of Immunity.” The court saw this advice “as a reaffirmation of the State Department’s Suggestion of Immunity, but even if it were a Statement of Neutrality, as the Plaintiffs’ contend, the fact is that the State Department has not withdrawn its Suggestion of Immunity.”

The U.S. court also noted that on May 23rd an unanimous Mexican appellate court reversed a lower court’s ruling that the Mexican government’s request for Zedillo’s immunity was illegal under Mexican law.[2]

The Mexican appellate court held that the Mexican plaintiffs in the U.S. case were not injured bythat Mexican government’s request because it was a “communiqué between Sates, and is a suggestion or proposal of immunity that the neighboring country [the U.S.] may or may not accept.” The appellate court also denied a motion to have the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice review the case, thereby finally ending the Mexican case.

According to the U.S. court, “even if . . . [the lower Mexican court’s decision had been affirmed], I find that it would ultimately be irrelevant to this Court’s determination of whether the Defendant is immune from this lawsuit because the Plaintiffs have cited no authority, and I’m not aware of any authority, for the proposition that the impropriety of such a request by the Mexican government would be sufficient justification for a court to disregard our own State Department’s Suggestion of Immunity.”

The U.S. case should also be over. Any appeal by the plaintiffs, in my judgment, would be fruitless.

The U.S. case was brought by ten anonymous Mexicans alleging that Mr. Zedillo had been complicit in a a 1997 massacre in the Mexican village of Acteal in the southern state of Chiapas.


[1] Various aspects of this U.S. case have been discussed in prior posts.

[2] The decision of the lower Mexican court was discussed in posts on March 10 and March 26, 2013.

 

 

U.S. Supreme Court Severely Limits Application of the Alien Tort Statute

On April 17, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. that severely limited the application of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS),[1] which provides that the U.S. district courts “shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the [U.S.].”[2]

The Court unanimously decided that the ATS did not cover a lawsuit by Nigerian plaintiffs for money damages against corporations incorporated in the Netherlands, the U.K. and Nigeria for their alleged aiding and abetting the Nigerian military and police’s beating, raping, killing and arresting of Nigerians and destroying and looting their property, all in Nigeria.[3]

The Court, however, differed, 5 to 4, on the rationale for this conclusion.

The Majority’s Rationale

The opinion for the Court by Chief Justice John Roberts, expressing the majority’s rationale, held that the Court’s presumption against extraterritorial application of federal statutes applies to claims under the ATS and that nothing in the ATS rebutted that presumption. Therefore, said the Chief Justice, this “case seeking relief for violations of the law of nations occurring outside the [U.S.] . . . is barred.”[4]

This presumption, according to Roberts, was recognized in these precedents from the Court in 1957, 1991, 2007 and 2010, which were referenced by him as follows:

  • The 1957 case, Benz v. Compania Naviera Hidalgo, S.A., 353 U.S. 138, 147 (1957), was merely quoted in the 1991 case to say, “For us to run interference in . . . a delicate field of international relations there must be present the affirmative intention of the Congress clearly expressed. It alone has the facilities necessary to make fairly such an important policy decision where the possibilities of international discord are so evident and retaliative action so certain.”
  • The 1991 case, EEOC v. Arabian American Oil Co., 499 U.S. 244, 248 (1991), said this presumption “serves to protect against unintended clashes between our laws and those of other nations which could result in international discord.” After the above quotation from the Benz case, the Court in the 1991 case continued, ” The presumption against extraterritorial application helps ensure that the Judiciary does not erroneously adopt an interpretation of U.S. law that carries foreign policy consequences not clearly intended by the political branches.”
  • The 2007 case, Microsoft Corp. v. AT&T Corp., 550 U.S. 437, 454 (2007), said the “presumption [assumes] that [U.S.] . . . law governs domestically but does not rule the world.”
  • The 2010 case, Morrison v. National Australian Bank Ltd., 561 U.S. ___, ___ (2010), said this canon of statutory construction provides that “[w]hen a statute gives no clear indication of an extraterritorial application, it has none.” This case, noted the Chief Justice, said “the question of extraterritorial application was a ‘merits question,’ not a question of jurisdiction.”

In discussing whether and how this presumption applied to the ATS, the Chief Justice first disposed of the Morrison case’s limitation of the presumption to the merits whereas the ATS was only jurisdictional as established by the Supreme Court in Sosa v. Alverez-Machain, 542 U.S.692, 713 (2004). Said Roberts, “the principles underlying the canon of interpretation similarly constrain courts considering causes of action that may be brought under the ATS.”

Roberts then found nothing in the ATS itself that suggested a congressional intent that it have extraterritorial application. It refers to “violations of the law of nations,” but such violations can occur in the U.S. It says it covers “any” civil action, but the Court in decisions in 1949 and 2005 had established that generic terms like “any” or “every” do not rebut the presumption. It covers actions for “torts,” but that word does not evidence such an intent.

Nor, according to Roberts, did the historical context of the 1789 adoption of the ATS overcome the presumption. At the time, as Sosa noted, two of the three recognized violations of the law of nations at the time–violation of safe conducts and infringement of the rights of ambassadors–had no extraterritorial application.

The other recognized violation in 1789–piracy–was not as easy for the Chief Justice to get around. He said, “Piracy typically occurs on the high seas, beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the [U.S.] . . . or any other country.” Although the Court “has generally treated the high seas the same as foreign soil for purposes of the presumption,” Roberts refused to regard that as evidence of congressional intent for extraterritorial application. Said Roberts, “Applying U.S. law to pirates . . . does not typically impose the sovereign will of the [U.S.] . . .  onto conduct occurring within the territorial jurisdiction of another sovereign, and therefore carries less direct foreign policy consequences. Pirates were fair game wherever found, by any nation, because they generally did not operate within any jurisdiction.”

Finally, according to Roberts, “there is no indication that the ATS was passed to make the [U.S.] . . . a uniquely hospitable forum for the enforcement of international norms . . . It is implausible to suppose that the First Congress wanted their fledgling Republic–struggling to receive international recognition–to be the first [custos morum or guardian of manners or morals of the  whole world]. Indeed, the parties offer no evidence that any nation, meek or mighty, presumed to do such a thing.”

Applying these principles to the Kiobel case itself, Roberts said “all the relevant conduct took place outside the . . .  [U.S.]. And even where the claims touch and concern the territory of the . . . [U.S.], they must do so with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application.” A “mere corporate presence” in the U.S. such as an office of a corporate affiliate of the corporate defendants in this case had would not suffice.

The Minority’s Rationale

The minority’s rationale was set forth in the concurring opinion of Justice Breyer, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan.

Breyer first rejected use of the presumption against extraterritoriality because the ATS’ use of “alien,” “treaties” and “the law of nations” clearly demonstrate that Congress had foreign matters in mind.

Moreover, piracy was clearly contemplated as covered by the statute in 1789 and takes place abroad. The Chief Justice’s treatment of piracy, however, Breyer implied, is erroneous. Says Breyer, “the robbery and murder that make up piracy do not normally take place on the water; they take place on a ship. And a ship is like land, in that it falls within the jurisdiction of the nation whose flag it flies.” Thus, ‘applying U.S. law to pirates’ does typically involve applying our law to acts taking place within the jurisdiction of another sovereign.”

On the other hand, Breyer agreed with Roberts that pirates “were fair game wherever found, by any nation,” but not, as Roberts said, because they did not operate within any jurisdiction, but because pirates were “common enemies of all mankind and all nations have an equal interest in their apprehension and punishment.”  Today, according to Breyer, torturers and perpetrators of genocide are today’s pirates.

Breyer then said that international jurisdictional principles justified the conclusion that ATS jurisdiction exists where “(1) the alleged tort occurs on American soil, [or] (2) the defendant is an American national, or (3) the defendant’s conduct substantially and adversely affects an important American national interest.” One such national interest, according to Breyer,  is “preventing the [U.S.] from become a safe harbor (free of civil as well as criminal liability) for a torturer or other common enemy of mankind.”

With respect to Kiobel itself, Breyer noted that the corporate defendants were foreign corporations who were present in the U.S. only through a small office of a corporate affiliate, that the plaintiffs are not U.S. nationals, that the conduct at issue took place abroad and that the alleged illegal corporate conduct was not direct, but accessory. It, therefore, “would be farfetched to believe . . . that this legal action helps to vindicate a distinct American interest.”

Conclusion

The majority’s rationale essentially obliterates the 34 years of ATS jurisprudence carefully developed by the lower federal courts. It should lead to the immediate dismissal of many pending ATS cases.[5]

I disagree with the result in this case and with the majority’s rationale because I believe that the ATS has been an important way of expanding the reach of international human rights norms and because the Congress in these 34 years has not chosen to amend the ATS to negate this jurisprudential development. Indeed, when Congress in 1991 adopted the Torture Victims Protection Act, it recognized and approved this ATS jurisprudence.

Moreover, the Supreme Court’s creation and elaboration of the presumption against extraterritorial application, I believe, is a development of the last 60 years and was not clearly known to the Congress when it initially adopted the ATS in 1789. It, therefore, seems unfair and inappropriate to employ this interpretative presumption to construe the ATS. In more recent years, on the other hand, the Congress should be aware of this presumption in drafting statutes.

I also continue to be baffled by everyone’s failure to include in the analysis of the congressional intent behind the ATS the fact that Congress in 1948 re-enacted the ATS as part of the Judicial Code (title 28 of the U.S. Code). That year–1948– was a very important year in the development of the law of nations regarding human rights.  The U.N. Charter–a treaty ratified by the U.S.–was three years old, and one of its purposes was “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights” (Article 1(3)) while its Economic and Social Council was directed to set up a commission “for the promotion of human rights” (Article 68). Such a commission was established, and in 1948 its Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide were approved by the U.N. General Assembly. Such an appreciation should broaden the types of “torts in violation of the law of nations” beyond the three discussed by the Chief Justice.

Justice Breyer’s legitimate concern for the U.S. interest in not being a safe haven for the common enemies of mankind, as discussed in a prior post, has been recognized by the Congress in several statutes–the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention act of 2004 and the Magnitsky Act of 2012–and by the legal proceedings to remove or deport such common enemies of mankind from the U.S. by the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and by the criminal prosecution of other such individuals for immigration fraud and perjury.

Finally, we must remember that this is a case of statutory interpretation, and Congress could always amend the ATS or adopt a new statute to overrule this decision. In a future post, I will set forth a draft outline of such a new statute even though I am not hopeful that this dysfunctional U.S. Congress will be prepared to take such action in the near future.


[1] The New York Times and the Washington Post obviously covered this decision. The Times editorial board criticized the decision while the Wall Street Journal reached the opposite conclusion.

[2] Many prior posts have discussed the ATS. Some of these focused on the Kiobel case itself.

[3] The Court did not address another issue presented by this case–whether corporations could be held liable under the ATS.

[4] The Chief Justice’s opinion was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito. Justice Kennedy also authored a short concurring opinion, which stated, “Other cases may arise with allegations of serious violations of international law principles protecting persons, cases covered neither by the [Torture Victims Protection Act] . . . nor by the reasoning and holding of today’s case; and in these disputes the proper implementation of the presumption against extraterritorial application may require some further elaboration and explanation.” Another concurring opinion was submitted by Justice Alito joined by Justice Thomas; it said, “a putative ATS cause of action will fall within the scope of the presumption against extraterritoriality–and will therefore be barred–unless the domestic conduct is sufficient to violate an international law norm that satisfies Sosa‘s requirements of definiteness and acceptance among civilized nations.”

[5] For example, the Supreme Court’s decision should lead to the dismissal of the ATS claims against Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico, but the claims against him under the Torture Victims Protection Act should survive for the court’s ruling on the immunity issue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Former Mexican President Tells U.S. Court To Ignore Mexican Court Decision

This blog has been following the civil lawsuit for money damages in U.S. federal court against Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico, for his alleged involvement in a 1977 massacre in a Mexican village and his claim for immunity from same.

That request for immunity has prompted another lawsuit, this in a Mexican court, over the legality of the request under Mexican law. In early March 2013 the Mexican court decided that the request for such immunity by the Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. State Department was illegal, and on March 28th that Mexican court decision was filed with the U.S. court.

The latest move in this duel between the two court systems took place on April 12th when Mr. Zedillo told the U.S. court that it should just ignore the Mexican court.

That was the bottom line in the Defendant’s Response to Plaintiffs’ Notice Regarding Mexican Trial Court Decision that was filed that day in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

Although Mr. Zedillo in this document noted that his pending appeal of the Mexican court decision had been joined by the current Mexican President and Secretary of Foreign Affairs, that decision is asserted to be “irrelevant” to the U.S. case, and the U.S. court should “promptly and finally” dismiss the U.S. case. This conclusion purportedly follows from these premises:

  • The U.S. Department of State decides whether immunity for a foreign official advances U.S. interests and U.S. law.
  • The U.S. Department of State does not judge whether a foreign nation’s request for immunity for one of its former officials is in accordance with that country’s laws.
  • The U.S. Department of State already has decided that immunity in the U.S. case for Mr. Zedillo is in accordance with U.S. law and foreign policy and so advised the U.S. court.
  • Under U.S. law, U.S. courts are required to honor the U.S. Department of State’s decisions on immunity of former foreign officials.

Although I do not quarrel with these premises, I do not think that they support the conclusion put forward by Mr. Zedillo.

If the Mexican trial court decision is sustained on appeal in Mexico, then that should result in the Mexican government’s rescission of the earlier request for immunity by its Ambassador. That hypothetical situation, to me, looks like the case where the State Department recently refused to support immunity in a U.S. case for a former Somali official because there was no Somali government that could ask the Department for such immunity.

In any event, if I were the U.S. judge in the Zedillo case, I would postpone making any decision on immunity for Mr. Zedillo until after the Mexican case was concluded and the U.S. State Department had expressed its views on the impact of the Mexican case. Perhaps I would now ask the State Department for its views before the Mexican case had concluded, but I anticipate the Department would say it was waiting for a final judgment in the Mexican case before it expressed its views.

This blog will continue to watch for further developments in these cases.

 

 

 

 

 

Mexican Court Decision Regarding Zedillo Immunity Is Filed in U.S. Case

On March 28, 2013, the plaintiffs in the U.S. lawsuit against Ernesto Zedillo in federal court in Connecticut filed a copy of the Mexican court decision (with 108-page English translation) regarding the Mexican government’s request for immunity for the former president. The plaintiffs, however, did not ask the U.S. court for any relief as a result of the Mexican court decision. Presumably that will come later.

According to the U.S. plaintiffs’ attorneys’ summary, the Mexican court on March 6, 2013, (a) granted a writ of Amparo in favor of the plaintiffs; (b) declared that the immunity request lacked any constitutional or legal basis in Mexican law; and (c) instructed the current Mexican Ambassador to perform all official acts necessary to withdraw the immunity request, including notifying the U. S. Department of State of that withdrawal. (Pp.106-107.) The Mexican court provided the following reasons for its decision:

  1. The immunity request violated the principle of Constitutional Supremacy set forth in Article 133 of the Political Constitution of the United Mexican States because the Ambassador of Mexico to the U.S. disregarded the international legal standard adopted by Mexico forbidding requests for head-of-state immunity allowing public officials to evade their responsibilities. (Pp. 99 – 106.)
  2. The immunity request lacks any rationale how Mexico’s national sovereignty would be damaged by civil proceedings against a former president who no longer occupies the post of, or performs the functions of, head of state. Id. at 94– 99.
  3. The immunity request violates the plaintiffs’ human rights of equality and nondiscrimination under the Mexican Constitution, Article 1, because the Mexican Ambassador engaged in disparate treatment pursuant to criteria of a political nature, creating a discretionary exception of impunity in favor of Zedillo, thereby preventing plaintiffs’ ability to exercise their rights to equally seek damages for the injuries suffered. Id. at 83-94.
  4. The immunity request violates plaintiffs’ human rights set forth in the Mexican Constitution, Articles 14 and 16, as applied by the Federal Law of Administrative Procedure, because it is not properly executed with the required formalities. Id. at 78-83.
  5. The immunity request violates plaintiffs’ human rights set forth in the Mexican Constitution, Articles 14 and 16, because the Mexican Ambassador failed to set forth or justify any jurisprudential, statutory or regulatory basis for the degree or amount of subject matter or jurisdictional authority. Id. at 70-78.

As noted in a prior post, the case in Mexico is not yet final so we will have to wait to see what additional proceedings, if any, occur there.

Additional Thoughts About Mexican and U.S. Legal Issues in the Pending U.S. Lawsuit Against Ernesto Zedillo, Former President of Mexico

Ernesto Zedillo
Ernesto Zedillo

In September 2011 Ernesto Zedillo, a former president of Mexico, was sued in the federal court in Connecticut for money damages for his alleged complicity in a massacre in the Mexican village of Acteal in 1997. In September 2012, the U.S. government asked the court to grant immunity to Zedillo and dismiss the case based upon the Mexican government’s request to that effect and the subsequent similar request by the U.S. Department of State. These matters were covered in prior posts (here and here).

The U.S. court has not yet resolved the immunity or any other preliminary issues in the case, and the latest dockets sheets reveal no activities whatsoever since early February this year.

In March 2013 a Mexican court decided that the Mexican request to the U.S. State Department requesting such immunity was legally insufficient, as discussed in a prior post.

Subsequently a Mexican lawyer and friend, Juan Carlos Arjona Estévez, has provided me with additional comments about the Mexican court decision that prompt these additional thoughts about Mexican and U.S. legal issues in the case.[1]

The Mexican Court Decision

The Mexican court said the Mexican Ambassador’s letter to the U.S. Department of State requesting such immunity was legally deficient.[2] First, it was a letter from the Ambassador in his diplomatic capacity, not an official communication of Mexican government policy. Second, the letter did not cite to all the Mexican legal provisions relevant to the case. Third, the letter did not explain why immunity for Zedillo in the U.S. case was appropriate under those Mexican legal authorities and why such immunity would not affect Mexican ethnic groups’ right to access justice.

Moreover, there is no basis in the Mexican constitution for immunity for a former president or other government officials. Such immunity under Mexican law applies only when such individuals are in office.

This court decision could be appealed in Mexico by the Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, but reversal does not seem likely because the defense in the Mexican case is that the action of the Ambassador was not an “authorized act” that can affect the human rights of Mexicans, but only a diplomatic action.

If the decision is appealed, the three-magistrate appellate tribunal could affirm the decision and also refer to the provision in the Mexican Constitution stating that Mexican foreign policy has to promote human rights and that the request for Zedillo immunity for alleged human rights violations is contrary to such promotion.

Another possible outcome is for the Mexican Ambassador to rescind his request for immunity and to send a new letter to the U.S. Department of State saying that Senor Zedillo has not been sued in Mexico for the same claims and that Mexican courts should have the first opportunity to deal with these issues.

Related U.S. Legal Issues

These developments in Mexico raise at least two issues for U.S. law.

1. With or without a rescission of the original Ambassador’s letter, should the U.S. court grant immunity to Zedillo?

The original September 2012 letter from the U.S. State Department to the U.S. Department of Justice said “a sitting head of state’s immunity is based on his status as the incumbent office holder and extends to all of his actions.” (Emphasis added.)

On the other hand, the State Department letter went on, the “residual immunity of a former official . . . is based upon the character of that official’s conduct and extends only to acts taken in an official capacity. . . . [The] Department of State generally presumes that actions taken by a foreign official exercising the powers of his office were taken in his official capacity. This . . . 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.” (Emphasis added.)

The State Department letter mentioned the Mexican Ambassador’s request for immunity based upon his assertion that “any actions [by Zedillo] . . . in connection with the events alleged in the complaint were taken in the course of his official duties as head of state.” This Mexican government assertion, the State Department letter says, corroborates its assessment to the same effect. In addition, the plaintiffs have not rebutted this assessment.

Therefore, the State Department’s letter concluded that Zedillo’s “alleged actions were taken in an official capacity, and he enjoys immunity from this lawsuit.”

This letter, taken by itself, might suggest that immunity might still be open even if the Mexican Ambassador’s letter were rescinded as it only corroborated that Zedillo was acting in his official capacity.

However, when the State Department in another case declined to request immunity for a former Somali official, it said any immunity protecting foreign officials for their official acts ultimately belongs to the sovereign, not the official. Thus, the foreign state must claim or waive any such immunity for the official. Where there is no recognized government, as was the case for Somali at the time, there was no one that could assert such a claim or make such a waiver. As a result, the State Department concluded that the former official did not enjoy immunity, and the court endorsed that conclusion and rejected the immunity claim.

Thus, if the Mexican Ambassador’s letter to the State Department is rescinded and not replaced by another request for immunity, the principles enunciated in the Somali case suggests that Zedillo would not be entitled to immunity.

2. Failure To Exhaust Mexican Remedies.

Another U.S. issue is whether the plaintiffs have failed to exhaust whatever remedies they have in Mexico.

Some of the claims in the U.S. case are asserted under the Torture Victims Protection Act (28 U.S.C. § 2350 note), which provides, in part, “A court shall decline to hear a claim under this section if the claimant has not exhausted adequate and available remedies in the place in which the conduct giving rise to the claim occurred [here, Mexico].” There is no similar provision in the Alien Tort Statute, under which some of the claims are also asserted, but the U.S. Supreme Court in Sosa v. Alverez-Machain suggested that failure to exhaust remedies in the other country could be a limitation on ATS claims.

Thus, the issue for the U.S. court in such a hypothetical situation would be whether the claims under Mexican law are “adequate and available” and whether the plaintiffs had exhausted whatever Mexican remedies they had. [3]

Conclusion

I would anticipate that the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the U.S. case will advise the court in Connecticut of the Mexican court decision;[4] that the U.S. court will wait until there is a final resolution of the Mexican case before doing anything, and if the recent Mexican decision is not reversed, request the views of the State Department on the significance of the former; and thereafter the U.S. court will make a decision on whether or not to grant immunity to Zedillo.


[1] The Yale Daily News and ctlatinonews also have articles about the Mexican court decision.

[2] Because of the significance of the Mexican Ambassador’s letter, its text is attached at the conclusion of this post.

[3] There also should be a U.S. procedural problem if Zedillo now tries to raise the plaintiffs’ alleged failure to exhaust Mexican remedies as a defense in the U.S. case. The original U.S. complaint anticipated such a defense with the allegation that the plaintiffs do not have adequate remedies in Mexico and that they have exhausted their available Mexican remedies. Zedillo’s U.S. motion to dismiss the complaint only asserted immunity, and Rule 12(g) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure should prevent him from now raising this affirmative defense by motion.

[4] One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys has said they would so advise the U.S. court and ask it to request the State Department for reconsideration of the immunity issue.

=================================================

EMBASSY OF MEXICO

07654

Washington, DC, on November 4, 2011.

Madam Secretary:

On behalf of my Government, I have the honor to refer to the case v Doe et al. Zedillo Ponce de León, filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut as No. 3:11-cv-01433, in place of the former President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León.

In this regard, I wish to express my Government’s rejection of any internal process that violates the sovereignty of Mexico, to exercise jurisdiction over alleged acts occurred in territory in which he allegedly spoke the President in his official capacity. In this regard it should be noted that any other act performed by former President Ernesto Zedillo regard to the facts in the lawsuit that gave rise to the case of history, took place in the course of his official duties as head of state and is Therefore, to rule in some sense, the Court would be deciding on actions the government of Mexico sovereign within their own territory.

In light of the above, I would sincerely request the intervention of the Department of State through the Department of Justice before the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, by a suggestion of immunity to former senses of Mexico. In this regard, I note that the recognition of immunity enjoyed by foreign officials for acts performed in their official capacity is largely rooted in a principle of customary international law, whose application has been confirmed many times by the U.S. government, particularly in situations involving heads of state. There are also precedents in American jurisprudence that confirmed the practice.

In this regard, I quote Gemisen v cases. De la Madrid v Habyarimana. Kagame, Giraldo v. Drummond Co., Wei Ye v. Jiang Zemin and Lafontant v. Aristide, as a sign of the instances in which the State Department has intervened in the past the U.S. courts to reaffirm its position on immunity accompanying heads of state, even after completing your order. Enclosed is a legal memorandum that contains more elements on those precedents.

Similarly, I wish to present it as a process which aims to substantiate against former President of Mexico affect the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States, in dismissing the action of various national authorities in response to the event that occurred in the village of Acteal, Chiapas in December 1997, the Government made strongly condemned in turn, immediately abocándose research and presentation of those responsible to the law enforcement bodies.

In thanking Your Excellency in advance for your valuable support for the State Department’s intervention in the case of history, I do own the opportunity to renew the assurances of my highest consideration.

Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan

 

Mexican Court Invalidates Former Mexican President’s Claim of Immunity from Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victims Protection Act Case in U.S.

As a prior post reports, in September 2011, a group of Mexican nationals sued former Mexican President, Ernesto Zedillo, in federal court in Connecticut for his alleged complicity in a 1997 massacre in the Mexican village of Acteal. The complaint seeks $10 million in damages under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act.

The U.S. Government on September 7, 2012, suggested that Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo should be immune from this lawsuit and that the case should be dismissed. This was based upon a request for such immunity from the Mexican government.

Eighteen days later (September 25th), the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut issued an Order To Show Cause requiring the plaintiffs by October 9th (later extended to October 16th) to show cause why the case should not be dismissed on the basis of former head-of state immunity. Simultaneously the court denied Zedillo’s dismissal motion as moot.

On October 16th the plaintiffs filed their Response to Order To Show Cause, Objection to the United States’ Suggestion of Immunity, and Motion To Stay Proceedings. It asserted, with supporting documents, the following:

• that on October 3rd they filed a petition for a writ of amparo in a Mexican federal court asking for a declaration that the Mexican Government’s request for immunity for Zedillo in this case violated Mexican law and the Mexican constitution and, therefore, is a nullity;

• that on October 9th the Mexican court “accepted” the petition, i.e., determined it was not dismissable; and

• that on October 9th the Mexican court also entered another order temporarily suspending the validity of the Mexican Government’s request for immunity for Zedillo in the U.S. case and enjoining any acts in furtherance of that request pending resolution of the Mexican case.

With this showing, the plaintiffs asked the U.S. court (a) to stay proceedings in this case pending the outcome of the Mexican case; or (b) to dismiss the U.S. case without prejudice while tolling the statute of limitations with leave to re-file the U.S. case if they succeed in the Mexican case; and (c) to request the U.S. Department of State to reconsider its position on immunity after the Mexican case is resolved; and (d) to provide guidance as to plaintiffs’ right to amend their complaint or to petition for leave to do so.

As of March 10, 2013, the U.S. case had been reassigned to another District Judge, and the dispute over the claimed immunity had not been resolved by the U.S. court.

On the afternoon of March 10th while walking in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I saw the page 1 headline in an issue of LaJournada, a Mexican newspaper: “Inconstitucional, pedir inmunidad para Zedillo en EU.”  Even my limited Spanish language abilities told me that a Mexican court had decided that the Mexican government’s request for immunity for Zedillo in this U.S. case violated the Mexican constitution.

According to a Google English translation of the article on the Internet, a Mexican judge had determined that Mexican authorities had violated the Mexican Constitution and international human rights treaties by asking the U.S. government to grant immunity to former President Zedillo.

One of the treaties was the Havana Convention, which states that “no immunities must be claimed that are not essential to the performance of official duties,” and it was violated, the court said, because Zedillo does not currently occupy any public position in the Mexican government. The American Convention on Human Rights was also violated, according to the Mexican court, because immunity for Zedillo causes “undue discrimination and threatening the human right of equality” for those who allegedly were harmed.

I imagine that there will be appeals or further proceedings in the Mexican case. In the meantime, I predict that the U.s. court will do nothing until the Mexican case is finally resolved.

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.

 

Former President of Mexico Is Sued in U.S. Federal Court for Alleged Human Rights Violations

Ernesto Zedillo

On September 16, 2011, ten anonymous Mexican nationals sued Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico, in U.S. federal court in New Haven, Connecticut.[1]

The complaint asserts claims for money damages in excess of $10 million under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA).[2] The ATS allows claims by “an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”[3] The TVPA allows claims by an “individual’s legal representative” who has been subject to “extra judicial killing” against an “individual [acting] under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation” who commits the extra-judicial killing.[4]

Acteal Massacre bodies
Acteal Massacre Caskets

The case centers on a Mexican militia’s December 22, 1997, attack on civilians in the village of Acteal in Chiapas, Mexico.  At the time some of the villagers were troubled by the fighting in their area involving an indigenous insurgent group, the Zapatistas, and had formed a pacifist group known as “Las Abejas” or “The Bees.” On December 21st they started a retreat in and around their local church to pray and fast in the name of peace. On the second day of the retreat an anti-Zapatista militia armed with assault rifles surrounded the church and opened fire, killing 45 and wounding 17.[5]

Zedillo, shortly after his election as President in 1994, allegedly decided to break a ceasefire with the Zapatistas and instituted a plan know as “Plan de Campana Chiapas ’94,” which involved arming and training local militia groups. In addition, the Mexican military and Zedillo allegedly were involved or at least aware of the Acteal attack. Afterwards, Zedillo and his administration allegedly were actively engaged in trying to cover up the Mexican government’s involvement in the massacre. This cover-up included charging and convicting innocent people of the crime, as was confirmed in 2009 by the Mexican Supreme Court when it overturned 20 of the 37 convictions on the grounds that the prosecution had fabricated testimonies and tampered with evidence. [6]

Zedillo has not yet responded to the complaint, but immediately after the suit was commenced he said the accusations were “infamous and irresponsible” and “totally groundless and obviously false.” He had similar dismissive comments in 2005 about a complaint about the Acteal massacre that had been filed against Mexico in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.[7] In 2010, by the way, the Commission decided that the complaint was admissible, i.e., subject to further proceedings, on most of Mexico’s alleged violations of the American Convention on Human Rights with respect to this incident.[8]

The Connecticut lawsuit was filed over six years after the expiration of the 10-year statute of limitations for suits under the ATS and the TVPA. However, under certain circumstances this limitations period can be suspended or tolled. Thus, we can anticipate that Zedillo will raise this affirmative defense. Indeed, the plaintiffs’ complaint anticipates this defense by alleging that the statute of limitations should be suspended or tolled because of the alleged cover-up of governmental involvement in the massacre that was not revealed until the Mexican Supreme Court’s August 12, 2009, reversal of 20 convictions for the reasons previously stated and because of the government’s intimidation of members of the Chiapas indigenous community.[9]

Another affirmative defense that can be anticipated is the plaintiffs’ alleged failure to exhaust “adequate and available remedies in the place in which the conduct giving rise to the claim occurred [here, Mexico].” Again the complaint anticipates this defense with allegations of absence of adequate legal remedies in Mexico and of their exhaustion of the available remedies.[10]

By January 6, 2012, Zedillo is to file his motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction that will include a request for the court to ask the U.S. government for its opinion as to whether Zedillo has immunity as a former head of a sovereign state.[11]

Since 2002 Zedillo has been the Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and is believed to live in the New Haven, Connecticut area.[12]


[1] Henderson & Stephenson, Zedillo accused of massacre cover-up, Yale Daily News (Sept. 21, 2011); Navarro, Zedillo faces massacre claims in U.S., Guardian (Dec.27, 2011); Civil Docket Sheets, Doe v. Zedillo, Case No. 3-11-cv-01433-AWT (D. Conn. as of Dec. 28, 2011); 1997 Acteal Massacre, http://acteal97.com. It is surprising that there has been no mention of this case in the New York Times or Washington Post.

[2]  Id.

[3]  See Post: The Alien Tort Statute, 1789-1980 (Oct. 21, 2011); Post: U.S. Circuit Court’s 1980 Decision Validates Use of Alien Tort Statute To Hold Foreign Human Rights Violators Accountable (Oct. 23, 2011); Poat: The Alien Tort Statute, 1980-2004 (Oct. 25, 2011); Post: Alien Tort Statute Interpreted by U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 (Nov. 9, 2011); Post: The Alien Tort Statute, 2004-Present  (Nov. 14, 2011).

[4]  Post: The Torture Victims Protection Act (Dec. 10, 2011).

[5] See n.1 supra. The “Las Abejas” or “The Bees” have said that the plaintiffs are not members of their group and that their group is not interested in obtaining money for the massacre. (Stephenson, Plaintiffs in Zedillo case questioned, Yale Daily News (Oct. 5, 2011); Stephenson, Zedillo lawsuit lacks clear backers, Yale Daily News (Oct. 19, 2011).)

[6]  See n.1 supra.

[7]  Id.; Post, Zedillo says allegations are untrue, Yale Daily News (Feb. 14, 2005).

[8]  Manuel Santiz Culebra, et al. (Acteal Massacre), Rep. No. 146/10 (IACHR Nov. 1, 2010).

[9]  Complaint ¶¶ 120-133. See 28 U.S.C. § 1350, note §2(c ). See Post: Litigation Against Conspirators in the Assassination of Oscar Romero (Oct. 10, 2011); Post: Former Salvadoran Generals Held Liable for $54.6 Million for Failure To Stop Torture (Nov. 11, 2011); Post: Former Salvadoran Vice-Minister of Defense Held Liable for $6 Million for Torture and Extrajudicial Killing (Nov. 13, 2011); Post: The Torture Victims Protection Act (Dec. 10, 2011).

[10] Complaint ¶¶ 234-238.. See 28 U.S.C. § 1350, note §2(b). See posts in n.9 supra.

[11]  Scheduling Order, Doe v. Zedillo (Dec. 6, 2011). Within 30 days after the court dockets the U.S. government’s substantive response to such a request, the plaintiffs shall file their response to the dismissal motion. Within another 30 days after the plaintiffs’ response, Zedillo shall file his reply brief. (Id.) After all of these papers have been submitted, presumably the court will schedule a hearing on the dismissal motion and sometime thereafter issue the court’s decision on that motion.

[12] Ernesto Zedillo Biography, http://www.ycsg.yale.edu/center/zedillo.html;Lee, Zedillo takes globalization center post, Yale Daily News (April 5, 2002).