The Supreme Court said Monday that it will consider whether American courts can hear lawsuits alleging human rights atrocities that were committed overseas without a direct U.S. connection.
The court took the rare move of delaying a decision in a case heard last week about whether a 1789 law — the Alien Tort Statute — allows corporations to be held liable for human rights abuses committed abroad in which they might have been complicit.
Instead, the justices said they will hear additional arguments about a broader question — whether anyone can be sued under the Alien Tort Statute for violations of international law that occurred in other countries.
The decision seemed to reflect a key concern among skeptical conservative justices at the arguments last week in a case called Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum , the parent company of Shell Oil.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. summed up that concern.
“This case was filed by 12 Nigerian plaintiffs who alleged that respondents aided and abetted the human rights violations committed against them by the [Sani] Abacha dictatorship in Nigeria,” Alito said, quoting from a brief from the Nigerians.
Alito then asked their attorney, Paul Hoffman: “What business does a case like that have in the courts of the United States? There’s no connection to the United States whatsoever.”
Similarly, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy quoted from a brief submitted by corporations supporting the defendants: “No other nation in the world permits its court to exercise universal civil jurisdiction over alleged extraterritorial human rights abuses to which the nation has no connection.”
The statute in question was written at the founding of the new American nation and allows federal courts to hear “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”
But it was not invoked until 1980, when human rights lawyers used it to sue foreign officials for violations occurring in those countries.
Since the 1990s, according to a brief by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the use of the law has been greatly expanded and more than 150 lawsuits have been filed against U.S. and foreign companies doing business in 60 countries.
A 2004 Supreme Court decision opened the door to some lawsuits, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York tossed out the Kiobel claim because it said international law did not recognize corporate liability for such abuses. The administration of President Obama disagreed with the ruling, and said that the lawsuit should be heard.
The more liberal justices at last week’s arguments tried to narrow the question to, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it: “Is it only individual defendants or are corporate defendants also liable?”
But cases from other corporations wanting to settle the broader question — about whether any entity could be sued for overseas activities — are already waiting in the wings, and Monday’s decision seemed to take note of that.