On February 28th the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority (Sup. Ct. No. 11-88) on the issue of whether corporations are liable under the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA). The transcript of that hearing is available online.
Before that hearing, a prior post discussed this case and expressed my opinion that the Court would decide that corporations were not so liable. In summary, the TVPA provides a civil cause of action for money damages by an “individual” who is a victim of torture or by his or her representative for extrajudicial killing against the “individual” who committed the wrong, and the ordinary meaning of the word “individual” as used in federal statutes encompasses only natural persons and not corporations or other organizations.
Although one needs to be cautious in evaluating oral arguments before the Supreme Court, the argument on February 28th in this case did not provide any reason to change my opinion on the likely outcome. Indeed, my review of the transcript of the argument confirms my previously expressed view of this case. To illustrate, I make the following four points.
First, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. summarized what he thought was the plaintiffs position: “You are saying, ‘Well, we want a term that is going to include individual persons and organizations but not state organizations. And the only term that fits perfectly is ‘individual.’ ”
“Exactly,” the plaintiffs lawyer responded. “That’s our argument.”
Chief Justice Roberts was incredulous. “Really?” he asked, to laughter in the courtroom, which the Chief Justice joined.
Second, Justice Samuel Alito had a humorous exchange with the U.S. Justice Department lawyer who argued that corporations could not be liable under the TVPA, but earlier that same morning in another case (Kiobel) argued that corporations could be liable under the Alien Tort Statute. Justice Alito observed that the government’s position meant an alien could recover while a U.S. citizen could not. “Too bad, then, that Mr. Rahim [the plaintiff in Mohamad] became a U.S. citizen,” Justice Alito said. “I guess that was a mistake [on his part].”
Third, even Justice Steven Breyer, who is seen as more sympathetic to plaintiffs’ arguments, told the plaintiffs lawyer, “I think I have to say that you are on a weak wicket.”
Four, three other liberal Justices (Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan) also asked questions indicating skepticism of the plaintiffs’ arguments.
A Supreme Court decision in this case is expected by the end of June. I also reiterate that this is a case of statutory interpretation, and at any time the Congress with a presidential signature could amend the statute to make corporate liability express or to exclude such liability explicitly.