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Supreme Court Decisions Will Be Watched In Israel

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A second case that should be watched in Israel affects the prospect that Israeli officials will be dragged into American courts to answer for the kinds of allegations concerning military action in Gaza that have been made in the Goldstone report. To be sure, in the U.S. private citizens cannot initiate criminal prosecutions, as they can in many European countries where Israeli officials now fear to visit. In the U.S. only government prosecutors may file criminal felony charges. No responsible prosecutor in any American jurisdiction is likely to indict Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert or Tzipi Livni over Operation Cast Lead.

But civil lawsuits are another matter. They can be brought by any injured party against individuals who are served with process, and civil lawsuits for damages have been filed by foreigners in American courts under a law called the Alien Tort Claims Act since its enactment in 1789. On the other hand, lawsuits against foreign governments cannot be brought in American courts except in carefully defined situations specified in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

The case the Supreme Court has agreed to hear concerns a lawsuit brought against a general who served between 1980 and 1990 in the Somali regime of General Mohamed Siad Barre. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim they were imprisoned and tortured on the general’s orders. The court will decide whether the immunity a foreign government has under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act extends to lawsuits against individuals, and particularly to those who no longer hold the official governmental positions they once occupied.

Whether individuals who claim to have been injured by the Israeli operation in Gaza can sue Barak, Olmert, or Livni in American courts will turn on the Supreme Court’s decision in this case. A usually conservative federal Court of Appeals in Virginia held that the Somali general cannot invoke governmental immunity and must answer the lawsuit filed against him.

The decision rested on a precise reading of the immunities law, which does not explicitly protect individuals. Only “corporate and legal entities,” not “natural persons” are, according to the lower court, entitled to immunity.

The fact that the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case makes it much more likely than not that a majority of the Supreme Court will disagree with the lower-court decision. The two cases discussed here will probably be heard in January 2010 and will be decided before the Supreme Court adjourns at the end of June.

About the Author: Nathan Lewin, a former president of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council, has argued 28 cases in the Supreme Court of the United States and is an adjunct lecturer at Columbia Law School where he teaches “Religious Minorities in Supreme Court Litigation.”

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