The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it will hear a dispute involving the cross-border killing of a Mexican teenager by an American border patrol agent.
The question before the justices is whether federal law enforcement officers can be sued for civil rights violations in cases where there is no other legal remedy.
Arguments are likely to be scheduled for the court's term beginning in October and could fuel debates over border security and President Donald Trump's immigration crackdown during the heated months preceding the next presidential election. A decision in the case is expected by June of 2020.
The case concerns the 2010 killing of Sergio Hernandez, a 15-year-old Mexican teenager, by Jesus Mesa, then a border patrol agent. Hernandez's family has said that the teenager was unarmed at the time he was killed. Mesa was in the United States and Hernandez was in Mexico at the time of the shooting.
The Department of Justice investigated the incident and decided not to pursue charges in 2012, saying that Mesa did not act inconsistently with the government's use of force guidelines.
"The U.S. government regrets the loss of life in this matter," the DOJ said at the time, and noted that the shooting "occurred while smugglers attempting an illegal border crossing hurled rocks from close range."
In a statement, Bob Hilliard, a partner at the law firm Hilliard Martinez Gonzales and the lead attorney representing the Hernandez family, said "the deadly practice of agents, standing in the United States and shooting innocent kids across the border must be stopped. It's never right. It's never constitutional. This is one of those times when morality and our U.S. constitution line up perfectly."
The dispute raises legal questions that extend beyond the contemporary debate over the security of the southern border, according to Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas who is one of the attorneys arguing on behalf of Hernandez's family.
"Optically, the cases look like they are part and parcel of the maelstrom of current political discourse over immigration. And there is some truth to that," Vladeck said in a November interview, referring to his case and another related dispute. "But the actual legal questions are in a sense much less headline driven and much more important."
Vladeck said the heart of the matter was when, if ever, federal courts should be allowed to provide damages to victims of constitutional violations by government officials.
The Supreme Court heard Hernandez's case before, in 2017.
The court at the time declined to decide the issue of whether Hernandez's family could sue. The court cited its decision in a separate case that term, which limited the circumstances under which a government official can be held liable for constitutional violations.