Supreme Court Says Torture Victim Can't Sue Palestinian Authority

WASHINGTON -- The family of a Palestinian American killed while in the Palestinian Authority's custody cannot sue the organization, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday morning.

Azzam Rahim, a naturalized American citizen, was visiting the West Bank in 1995 when intelligence officers from the Palestinian Authority arrested him and took him to a prison in Jericho. Two days later, an ambulance returned his dead body to his family; it had cigarette burns and broken bones, among other marks of torture. The following year, the U.S. Department of State confirmed that Rahim had been killed while in the intelligence officers' custody.

In 2005, Rahim's relatives sued the Palestinian Authority in U.S. court under the Torture Victim Protection Act. That law says that "[a]n individual who, under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation" tortures or kills another individual shall be liable for damages in a civil suit.

A separate federal law bars any lawsuits by U.S. citizens against foreign states. In the absence of a U.S.-recognized state of Palestine, however, Rahim's relatives sought to convince the courts that the term "individual" as used -- but not defined --in the Torture Victim Protection Act could extend to political organizations such as the Palestinian Authority, which has legal dominion over parts of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected that argument.

Writing for herself and her eight colleagues, Justice Sonia Sotomayor held that "the ordinary meaning of the word ['individual'], fortified by its statutory context, persuades us that the Act authorizes suit against natural persons alone."

"[N]o one, we hazard to guess, refers in normal parlance to an organization as an 'individual,'" Sotomayor wrote. "Evidencing that common usage, this Court routinely uses 'individual' to denote a natural person, and in particular to distinguish between a natural person and a corporation."

The Supreme Court further noted that had Congress intended to extend the Torture Victim Protection Act to organizations, it would have used the term "person," which by law ordinarily captures "corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals" within its definition.

"With the phrase 'as well as,' the definition marks 'individual' as distinct from the list of artificial entities that precedes it," wrote Sotomayor.

The court acknowledged that its decision could render the Torture Victim Protection Act "toothless" because victims often cannot identify their individual torturers and because organizations are more likely than natural persons to be able to pay the judgments against them. Just two plaintiffs have recovered against actual people, and one did so only after the defendant won the lottery, Sotomayor wrote.

Still, the court concluded that those limits on recovery "are ones that Congress imposed and that we must respect."

Meanwhile, Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer went another round in their ongoing debate over the use of Congress' legislative history as an interpretive tool. Per his custom, Scalia, who relies upon the plain text of the law alone, withheld his vote from the section of Sotomayor's opinion examining how the legislature came to settle upon the words it used. Breyer issued a concurring opinion emphasizing the importance of the act's legislative history, which he wrote "makes up for whatever interpretive inadequacies remain after considering language alone."

The case, Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, was argued in February in tandem with another case testing whether a separate federal law permitted foreign nationals to sue corporations for international human rights violations. The Supreme Court a week later ordered reargument in that case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, for next term. Skirting the politically explosive "corporate personhood" issue, the reargument will instead focus on the broader issue of whether the law in question, the Alien Tort Statute, can reach conduct that occurs overseas.

Wednesday's decision was not the only one this term that touched upon ambiguities arising out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last month, the Supreme Court determined that the federal courts have the power to decide whether U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem can list "Israel" as their country of birth on their U.S. passports. The State Department says no; Congress says yes. The appeals court had refused to pick a side, calling the issue a "political question" that cannot be reviewed by judges. The Supreme Court, by an 8-1 vote, sent the case back down, instructing the lower court to make a decision.