U.S. Supreme Court Severely Limits Application of the Alien Tort Statute

On April 17, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. that severely limited the application of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS),[1] which provides that the U.S. 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 [U.S.].”[2]

The Court unanimously decided that the ATS did not cover a lawsuit by Nigerian plaintiffs for money damages against corporations incorporated in the Netherlands, the U.K. and Nigeria for their alleged aiding and abetting the Nigerian military and police’s beating, raping, killing and arresting of Nigerians and destroying and looting their property, all in Nigeria.[3]

The Court, however, differed, 5 to 4, on the rationale for this conclusion.

The Majority’s Rationale

The opinion for the Court by Chief Justice John Roberts, expressing the majority’s rationale, held that the Court’s presumption against extraterritorial application of federal statutes applies to claims under the ATS and that nothing in the ATS rebutted that presumption. Therefore, said the Chief Justice, this “case seeking relief for violations of the law of nations occurring outside the [U.S.] . . . is barred.”[4]

This presumption, according to Roberts, was recognized in these precedents from the Court in 1957, 1991, 2007 and 2010, which were referenced by him as follows:

  • The 1957 case, Benz v. Compania Naviera Hidalgo, S.A., 353 U.S. 138, 147 (1957), was merely quoted in the 1991 case to say, “For us to run interference in . . . a delicate field of international relations there must be present the affirmative intention of the Congress clearly expressed. It alone has the facilities necessary to make fairly such an important policy decision where the possibilities of international discord are so evident and retaliative action so certain.”
  • The 1991 case, EEOC v. Arabian American Oil Co., 499 U.S. 244, 248 (1991), said this presumption “serves to protect against unintended clashes between our laws and those of other nations which could result in international discord.” After the above quotation from the Benz case, the Court in the 1991 case continued, ” The presumption against extraterritorial application helps ensure that the Judiciary does not erroneously adopt an interpretation of U.S. law that carries foreign policy consequences not clearly intended by the political branches.”
  • The 2007 case, Microsoft Corp. v. AT&T Corp., 550 U.S. 437, 454 (2007), said the “presumption [assumes] that [U.S.] . . . law governs domestically but does not rule the world.”
  • The 2010 case, Morrison v. National Australian Bank Ltd., 561 U.S. ___, ___ (2010), said this canon of statutory construction provides that “[w]hen a statute gives no clear indication of an extraterritorial application, it has none.” This case, noted the Chief Justice, said “the question of extraterritorial application was a ‘merits question,’ not a question of jurisdiction.”

In discussing whether and how this presumption applied to the ATS, the Chief Justice first disposed of the Morrison case’s limitation of the presumption to the merits whereas the ATS was only jurisdictional as established by the Supreme Court in Sosa v. Alverez-Machain, 542 U.S.692, 713 (2004). Said Roberts, “the principles underlying the canon of interpretation similarly constrain courts considering causes of action that may be brought under the ATS.”

Roberts then found nothing in the ATS itself that suggested a congressional intent that it have extraterritorial application. It refers to “violations of the law of nations,” but such violations can occur in the U.S. It says it covers “any” civil action, but the Court in decisions in 1949 and 2005 had established that generic terms like “any” or “every” do not rebut the presumption. It covers actions for “torts,” but that word does not evidence such an intent.

Nor, according to Roberts, did the historical context of the 1789 adoption of the ATS overcome the presumption. At the time, as Sosa noted, two of the three recognized violations of the law of nations at the time–violation of safe conducts and infringement of the rights of ambassadors–had no extraterritorial application.

The other recognized violation in 1789–piracy–was not as easy for the Chief Justice to get around. He said, “Piracy typically occurs on the high seas, beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the [U.S.] . . . or any other country.” Although the Court “has generally treated the high seas the same as foreign soil for purposes of the presumption,” Roberts refused to regard that as evidence of congressional intent for extraterritorial application. Said Roberts, “Applying U.S. law to pirates . . . does not typically impose the sovereign will of the [U.S.] . . .  onto conduct occurring within the territorial jurisdiction of another sovereign, and therefore carries less direct foreign policy consequences. Pirates were fair game wherever found, by any nation, because they generally did not operate within any jurisdiction.”

Finally, according to Roberts, “there is no indication that the ATS was passed to make the [U.S.] . . . a uniquely hospitable forum for the enforcement of international norms . . . It is implausible to suppose that the First Congress wanted their fledgling Republic–struggling to receive international recognition–to be the first [custos morum or guardian of manners or morals of the  whole world]. Indeed, the parties offer no evidence that any nation, meek or mighty, presumed to do such a thing.”

Applying these principles to the Kiobel case itself, Roberts said “all the relevant conduct took place outside the . . .  [U.S.]. And even where the claims touch and concern the territory of the . . . [U.S.], they must do so with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application.” A “mere corporate presence” in the U.S. such as an office of a corporate affiliate of the corporate defendants in this case had would not suffice.

The Minority’s Rationale

The minority’s rationale was set forth in the concurring opinion of Justice Breyer, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan.

Breyer first rejected use of the presumption against extraterritoriality because the ATS’ use of “alien,” “treaties” and “the law of nations” clearly demonstrate that Congress had foreign matters in mind.

Moreover, piracy was clearly contemplated as covered by the statute in 1789 and takes place abroad. The Chief Justice’s treatment of piracy, however, Breyer implied, is erroneous. Says Breyer, “the robbery and murder that make up piracy do not normally take place on the water; they take place on a ship. And a ship is like land, in that it falls within the jurisdiction of the nation whose flag it flies.” Thus, ‘applying U.S. law to pirates’ does typically involve applying our law to acts taking place within the jurisdiction of another sovereign.”

On the other hand, Breyer agreed with Roberts that pirates “were fair game wherever found, by any nation,” but not, as Roberts said, because they did not operate within any jurisdiction, but because pirates were “common enemies of all mankind and all nations have an equal interest in their apprehension and punishment.”  Today, according to Breyer, torturers and perpetrators of genocide are today’s pirates.

Breyer then said that international jurisdictional principles justified the conclusion that ATS jurisdiction exists where “(1) the alleged tort occurs on American soil, [or] (2) the defendant is an American national, or (3) the defendant’s conduct substantially and adversely affects an important American national interest.” One such national interest, according to Breyer,  is “preventing the [U.S.] from become a safe harbor (free of civil as well as criminal liability) for a torturer or other common enemy of mankind.”

With respect to Kiobel itself, Breyer noted that the corporate defendants were foreign corporations who were present in the U.S. only through a small office of a corporate affiliate, that the plaintiffs are not U.S. nationals, that the conduct at issue took place abroad and that the alleged illegal corporate conduct was not direct, but accessory. It, therefore, “would be farfetched to believe . . . that this legal action helps to vindicate a distinct American interest.”

Conclusion

The majority’s rationale essentially obliterates the 34 years of ATS jurisprudence carefully developed by the lower federal courts. It should lead to the immediate dismissal of many pending ATS cases.[5]

I disagree with the result in this case and with the majority’s rationale because I believe that the ATS has been an important way of expanding the reach of international human rights norms and because the Congress in these 34 years has not chosen to amend the ATS to negate this jurisprudential development. Indeed, when Congress in 1991 adopted the Torture Victims Protection Act, it recognized and approved this ATS jurisprudence.

Moreover, the Supreme Court’s creation and elaboration of the presumption against extraterritorial application, I believe, is a development of the last 60 years and was not clearly known to the Congress when it initially adopted the ATS in 1789. It, therefore, seems unfair and inappropriate to employ this interpretative presumption to construe the ATS. In more recent years, on the other hand, the Congress should be aware of this presumption in drafting statutes.

I also continue to be baffled by everyone’s failure to include in the analysis of the congressional intent behind the ATS the fact that Congress in 1948 re-enacted the ATS as part of the Judicial Code (title 28 of the U.S. Code). That year–1948– was a very important year in the development of the law of nations regarding human rights.  The U.N. Charter–a treaty ratified by the U.S.–was three years old, and one of its purposes was “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights” (Article 1(3)) while its Economic and Social Council was directed to set up a commission “for the promotion of human rights” (Article 68). Such a commission was established, and in 1948 its Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide were approved by the U.N. General Assembly. Such an appreciation should broaden the types of “torts in violation of the law of nations” beyond the three discussed by the Chief Justice.

Justice Breyer’s legitimate concern for the U.S. interest in not being a safe haven for the common enemies of mankind, as discussed in a prior post, has been recognized by the Congress in several statutes–the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention act of 2004 and the Magnitsky Act of 2012–and by the legal proceedings to remove or deport such common enemies of mankind from the U.S. by the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and by the criminal prosecution of other such individuals for immigration fraud and perjury.

Finally, we must remember that this is a case of statutory interpretation, and Congress could always amend the ATS or adopt a new statute to overrule this decision. In a future post, I will set forth a draft outline of such a new statute even though I am not hopeful that this dysfunctional U.S. Congress will be prepared to take such action in the near future.


[1] The New York Times and the Washington Post obviously covered this decision. The Times editorial board criticized the decision while the Wall Street Journal reached the opposite conclusion.

[2] Many prior posts have discussed the ATS. Some of these focused on the Kiobel case itself.

[3] The Court did not address another issue presented by this case–whether corporations could be held liable under the ATS.

[4] The Chief Justice’s opinion was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito. Justice Kennedy also authored a short concurring opinion, which stated, “Other cases may arise with allegations of serious violations of international law principles protecting persons, cases covered neither by the [Torture Victims Protection Act] . . . nor by the reasoning and holding of today’s case; and in these disputes the proper implementation of the presumption against extraterritorial application may require some further elaboration and explanation.” Another concurring opinion was submitted by Justice Alito joined by Justice Thomas; it said, “a putative ATS cause of action will fall within the scope of the presumption against extraterritoriality–and will therefore be barred–unless the domestic conduct is sufficient to violate an international law norm that satisfies Sosa‘s requirements of definiteness and acceptance among civilized nations.”

[5] For example, the Supreme Court’s decision should lead to the dismissal of the ATS claims against Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico, but the claims against him under the Torture Victims Protection Act should survive for the court’s ruling on the immunity issue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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