Sanchez-Espinosa v. Reagan Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 

November 30, 1982

Case Description 

Sanchez-Espinosa v. Reagan is a case that challenged U.S. officials’ support for murder, rape, and other torture in Nicaragua.

In May 1984, while the International Court of Justice 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 were responsible for the injuries being inflicted upon Nicaraguan civilians by the contras. Using CCR’s success in Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, which established that the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) permits non-citizens to sue in federal court for abuses that violate international law, the plaintiffs argued that U.S. officials who directed and assisted the contras in injuring and killing Nicaraguans are as responsible as those who inflicted 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, which the Court of Appeals affirmed. Non-citizens were thus denied the right to sue high public officials for damages under the ATS.