Washington International Law Journal


Brian C. Free


In June 2001, eleven Indonesian villagers filed suit in a U.S. District Court against Exxon Mobil Corporation for its alleged complicity in human rights abuses in the Indonesian province of Aceh. The plaintiffs asserted jurisdiction and a cause of action pursuant to the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act, both of which enable foreign nationals to bring international human rights claims in U.S. federal courts. The U.S. Department of State intervened in the suit, expressing its view that federal court adjudication of the plaintiffs' claims could complicate U.S. foreign policy. The State Department opinion raises concern that the Doe v. Exxon Mobil Corp. suit presents a nonjusticiable political question and is unfit for judicial resolution. The outcome of the Exxon Mobil suit will reflect the power of federal courts to remedy human rights violations committed abroad where the executive branch opposes judicial resolution. This Comment argues that the Exxon Mobil court must independently assess the suit's justiciability, disagreeing with executive branch conclusions when necessary. Separation of powers principles prevent the executive branch from mandating which cases federal courts may hear. Justiciability determinations should instead be guided by the principles underlying the political question doctrine, which insist that foreign affairs consequences do not themselves render a suit nonjusticiable. Congress enacted the Alien Tort Claims Act and Torture Victim Protection Act to ensure that individuals harmed by violations of international law could seek a remedy in U.S. courts. The Exxon Mobil court should not ignore this congressional mandate, nor should it ignore established judicial and constitutional doctrines, merely to accommodate executive foreign policy interests.

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