Human Rights Case Against Marcos, 1986-1998
American Civil Liberties Union – Southern California Docket
International Civil Liberties Cases: Sison versus Marcos
U.S. District Court, Multi-District Litigation
Action on behalf of three members of the Sison family and Jaime Piopongco for violations of international law and common law torts committed by former Philippine President Marcos.
These violations include torture, political killing and disappearance, and arbitrary arrest and detention during the Marcos regime. We served Marcos in Hawaii where he was living after he was exiled to the United States in February 1986. On July 18, 1986, Judge Fong granted the motion to dismiss based on the “act of state” doctrine which he claimed prevented U.S. courts from inquiring into the actions of sovereign nations within their own territory, even if the acts are alleged to violate international law. We appealed. The argument took place on June 10, 1987, in San Francisco. In July, 1987, the court requested that the Justice Department file an amicus brief concerning certain questions posed by the court. The Justice Department filed this brief in October 1987.
The brief supported (grudgingly) our position on the act of state doctrine but argues that there is no subject matter jurisdiction under 28 USC § 1350 over claims against human rights violations present in this country who committed these violations outside the United States. Such a ruling would undermine the ruling in Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, 630 F.2d 876 (2d. Cir. 1980), upon which our suit is based. The “submission” of the case for decision was deferred pending the en banc decision in Republic of the Philippines v. Marcos.
In early December, 1988, the en banc panel issued a unanimous decision overturning the panel’s “act of state” decision. On July 10, 1989, the Ninth Circuit reversed Judge Fong’s dismissal on “act of state” grounds and remanded all of the other issues to him for decision. A request was made to transfer the case pursuant to rules governing multi-district litigation.
In early September 1990 all of the human rights cases against Marcos were transferred to Judge Real. The defendant’s motion for summary judgment was denied in October 1991.
On March 2, 1992, Judge Real granted our motions in limine and substantially narrowed the defense case. We were permitted to assert claims based on the recently passed (in March 1992) Torture Victim Protection Act. Trial started on September 9, 1992, and lasted (despite Hurricane Iniki in the middle) two weeks.
On September 25, 1992, the jury, after deliberating three days, returned a liability verdict for the class and for all of our plaintiffs. On June 8, 1992, a related appeal in Trajano v. Marcos, raising many of the key issues in our case, was argued in the Ninth Circuit. The decision came down in October, 1992, and affirmed the default judgment, rejecting all of the Estate’s arguments. The Estate’s Petition for Cert. was denied.
The trial on the exemplary damages phase of the case on February 22, 1994, resulted in an award of 1.2 billion dollars. A trial on the compensatory damages took place in January and Judge Manuel Real dismissed plaintiff Sison’s claims, stating that just because a plaintiff was tortured does not mean that he had been damaged. Our plaintiffs were awarded damages. Judge Real reduced most all of the jury awards to direct action plaintiffs for no apparent reason. Judgment was granted in the Sison case in August, 1995. We appealed on certain issues, including the dismissal of Sison’s claims.
In December 1995 Judge Real ordered two Swiss banks to deposit nearly $500 million into the federal court in Los Angeles so that he can decide who gets these assets. The Swiss banks, backed by the Swiss government and the U.S. Government, have appealed. This appeal and the estate’s appeals from the class judgment was heard on June 18, 1996. The 9th Circuit upheld the class judgment, but overturned Judge Real’s ruling relating to the Swiss banks.
In December 1996 the 9th Circuit reversed Judge Real and remanded our case for further proceedings on Sison’s damages claims and Jaime Piopongco’s claims relating to the destruction of his radio station. The Estate recently agreed to the entry of judgment in favor of Jose Maria Sison ($750,000) and Jaime Piopongco ($250,00) on the claims the Ninth Circuit sent back for retrial in our appeal. Overall, efforts to enforce the judgments against the Estate have not been successful so far.
In December, 1997, the Swiss High Court allowed the Marcos money to be transferred to the Philippines and urged the Philippine government to take the interests of the human rights victims into account. The actual transfer has not taken place. The ACLU has appealed Judge Real’s retroactive sua sponte removal of the exemplary damages award to our clients in 1995. In early 1999 the parties announced a $150 million settlement on the claims of the class; the individual claimants were not part of the settlement. The ACLU filed fee motions and objections of the class settlement in March, 1999, and filed a motion to recuse Judge Real. A fairness hearing was held on the settlement on April 29, 1999. The settlement money has not been transferred to the U.S. and the class counsel moved the court to terminate the settlement. Certain named class plaintiffs also filed an appeal from the approval of the settlement, and several lawsuits have been filed in the Philippines to block the settlement from going through. Judge Real denied the motion to terminate the settlement agreement. The Philippine courts will not allow the money to be transferred to the United States. As of May, 2001, the plaintiffs are still seeking to enforce the judgments against the Estate.
(Paul Hoffman, Ellen Lutz, Ralph Steinhardt, Peter Labrador, Romeo Capulong, Laim Millar-Melnick. Dilan Esper)
Public Policy Department
ACLU of Southern California
1616 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026