U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Appears Ready to Limit Reach of Alien Tort Law

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The U.S. Supreme Court appears ready to limit federal suits over human rights abuses committed abroad, according to press coverage of Monday’s oral arguments.

The New York Times, the National Law Journal and the Washington Post all reported that the justices appeared ready to limit the reach of the Alien Tort Statute. The law authorizes federal courts to hear civil actions by aliens for torts “committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”

The case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Company, seeks to hold oil companies accountable for alleged human rights violations in Nigeria. An amicus brief by the ABA urges the court to rule that federal courts have jurisdiction to hear claims for international law violations that occur outside the United States.

Though the justices appeared inclined to limit the law, they seemed uncertain about “how tightly to shut the door” to the federal courts, the Post says.

The court accepted the case last year to decide a narrower question: whether the law applies to corporations as well as individuals. The court ordered new arguments after some justices wondered whether any defendant should be sued in U.S. courts for overseas torts.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs “drew skeptical questions” from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, according to the NLJ coverage. He asked whether U.S. companies could be “sued in any court in the world” for an international law violation committed here.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. supported the defendants, but urged a narrow ruling, according to the Times. He said the court should bar suits against “a foreign corporation when the allegation is that the defendant aided and abetted a foreign sovereign.”

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