Sanchez v. Reagan – International Law – CCR Docket 1986-1987

In May 1984, while the International Court of Justice (the World Court) was issu­ing a preliminary restraining order against the United States for its illegal actions against the government and people of Nicaragua, CCR attorneys were arguing in a federal appeals court that U.S. courts have a duty to apply international law along with domestic law in evaluating the legality of actions of U.S. government offi­cials against the Republic of Nicaragua.

The question of U.S. responsibility for violations of internationally recognized human rights is at the heart of this lawsuit, filed in November 1982, on behalf of Nicaraguan, French and German victims of contra raids; twelve members of Con­gress; and two Floridians. The case alleged that U.S. officials are responsible for the injuries being inflicted upon Nicaraguan civilians by the contras. Using CCR’s suc­cess in Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, which established that the Alien Tort Claims Act permits aliens to sue in federal court for wrongs, such as torture, which violate international law, the plaintiffs argued that U.S. officials who direct and assist the contras to injure Nicaraguans are as responsible as those who inflict the injuries.

The congressional plaintiffs charged U.S. officials with violating the War Powers Clause of the Constitution, which says that only Congress can declare war, and the Boland Amendment, which prohibited the government from funding military activity aimed at overthrowing the government of Nicaragua.

The district court dismissed the case and the court of appeals affirmed. Aliens were thus denied the right to sue high public officials for damages under the Alien Tort Claims Act. Together with Filartiga, this case establishes that, when an alien is tor­tured at the behest of a foreign official, our courts will hear the case, but that when he or she is tortured under the direction of  a U.S. official, the courts will refrain from judgment.

Michael Ratner; Peter Weiss, Sarah Wunsch , Ellen Yaroshefsky, Margaret Ratner, David Cole, Robert Boehm, with CCR cooperating attorneys William Schaap, Jules Lobel, and Marc Van Der Hout, National Lawyers Guild