The Supreme Court on Monday said it will consider whether corporations may be sued in U.S. courts for complicity in human rights violations abroad.
At issue is the 1789 Alien Tort Statute, which has been revived by human rights activists as a way to seek compensation for atrocities committed overseas.
Most federal appeals courts that have considered the issue have said the law allows suits against corporations as well as individuals. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York threw out the case at issue, filed by those who alleged that policies of the Arab Bank fostered terrorism in the Mideast.
Victims of attacks in Israel and the Palestinian territories said a New York branch of the bank distributed millions of dollars to terrorists and their families over a 10-year period.
The Supreme Court tried to address the corporate liability issue once before. But in a 2013 decision involving a petroleum company, the court instead said the case could be decided on other grounds. It said the allegations in the case did not have a close enough connection to the United States.
The current case is different, said attorneys for approximately 6,000 people who were injured or are survivors of those killed in attacks that occurred from January 1995 to July 2005.
“This contact with the United States is no fleeting detail,” they wrote. “Rather, it was a key aspect of the scheme. The U.S. dollar is the preferred currency for transferring money among terrorist front groups and paying the families of ‘martyrs’ in locations such as the West Bank and Gaza.”
They allege that accounts at the Jordanian-based bank served as “paymasters” for Hamas and other groups, including paying the families of those killed in suicide attacks.
The Alien Tort Statute (ATS), passed by the first Congress, is short but ambiguous, according to the courts that have considered it. It reads: “The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of 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.”
The bank had urged the justices not to accept the case. The court’s previous decision dictates the outcome, the bank said.
“The court would quickly discover that there is no need to reach the question of corporate liability because petitioners’ ATS claims do not have a sufficient nexus to the United States to be litigated in U.S. courts,” the bank said. “Everything about this case is fundamentally foreign — it involves foreign plaintiffs suing foreign defendants for injuries that occurred on foreign soil as part of a long-running conflict between foreign parties.”
The court will hear the case in the term that begins in October.
The court without comment decided not to review a lower court’s decision striking down New Hampshire’s prohibition on voters taking photos of their completed ballots.
The state’s “ballot-selfie” ban was found to be an unconstitutional restraint on free speech by a district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit.
About two dozen states have laws prohibiting voters from sharing photos of themselves with their ballots. But they differ in degree, and many are being challenged.
The states say the bans protect voter secrecy and combat fraud by, for instance, keeping those who would sell their votes from providing evidence that they had voted a certain way.
But the New Hampshire law was challenged by a state representative, who took a photo of his ballot to show he had voted and encouraged others to do the same, and a man who wrote in the name of his dog to protest his choice of U.S. Senate candidates.