A Forest with No Trees: The Supreme Court and International Law in the 2003-04 Term

69 Pages Posted: 6 Oct 2004

See all articles by John K. Setear

John K. Setear

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: October 4, 2004


The Court's docket last Term included five cases directly presenting questions of international law. Republic of Austria v. Altmann raised issues of the international law of expropriation and the immunity of foreign sovereigns. Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain concerned a statute authorizing suits to redress "a tort . . . committed in violation of the law of nations." Rumsfeld v. Padilla, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, and Rasul v. Bush concerned the status of individuals taken prisoner in the war on terror, thereby raising the subject of that best known of all international agreements, the Geneva Convention.

The thesis of this Article is that, despite the direct relevance of international law to these cases, the Court repeatedly ignored international law and, when faced with no plausible way to ignore international law, took a highly constricted approach to its application. The Article argues that the Court decided three of the five cases - Altmann, Padilla, and Hamdi - without resolving any substantive international legal questions. In Rasul, the Article asserts, the Court ignored the Geneva Convention, although it did take a pragmatic, control-oriented view of what constituted "sovereignty." Even in Sosa, where the statute's plain language - giving federal courts jurisdiction over suits for a "tort, committed in violation of the law of nations" - unavoidably required some attention to international law, the Court repeatedly took a constricted reading of the meaning and relevance of international law, both by ignoring the importance of treaties to the statutory scheme (and history) and by repeatedly limiting the scope of the customary "law of nations." In all five cases, the Court focused on purely procedural issues and on statutory interpretation instead of on international law.

A concluding section of the Article speculates that the Court downplayed international legal issues not for fear of public, legislative, or executive backlash, but rather because the Court is simply more comfortable with traditional methods of statutory and originalist interpretation than it is with the unfamiliar, decentralized world of international law.

Keywords: International law, alien tort statute (ats), habeas corpus, sosa, hamdi

Suggested Citation

Setear, John K., A Forest with No Trees: The Supreme Court and International Law in the 2003-04 Term (October 4, 2004). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=600043 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.600043

John K. Setear (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

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