Pandemic Journal (# 29): Current Reflections on COVID-19 Pandemic

As of 8:48 CST on September 20, more than 6,790,500 people in the U.S. had been infected with the coronavirus (the most of any country in the world) and at least 199,500 have died. In Minnesota, there have been 88,773 cases and 5,133 deaths. For the world as a whole the numbers are 30,675,000 cases and 954,427 deaths.[1] These statistics cause one to have sympathy for all those who have or had the disease and all those who have died from it and for all their family members and friends.

I only know two people who have had the coronavirus. One is a nephew who is recovering at his home in another state. The other is Nachito Herrera, a friend and a  famous Cuban-American jazz pianist in Minnesota, whose ICU care with a ventilator was covered by Minnesota media and who recently played several pieces, including his arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” on a public television program. And on September 25 he is scheduled at the Minneapolis’ jazz club, the dakota, for a concert.  [2]

On March 19, 2020, our condo building management instituted new regulations in response to the coronavirus: residents were required to report to the office coronavirus symptoms; all common areas in the building were closed; new practices of cleaning and disinfecting the common areas were adopted; and residents were requested to minimize the number of contractors and visitors entering the building. Since then other measures have been adopted and some of the common areas were reopened with usage restrictions.

Thus, for roughly six months my wife and I have been spending most of our time in our own condo, walking and biking outside on nice days and going to grocery stores for our food supplies. More recently we have been going to doctors and dentists for necessary care, a barber and hair stylist for necessary services and restaurants for occasional meals outside on patios. For example, on an afternoon last week we walked on Nicollet Mall to Barrio Restaurant for delicious tacos at a table on the sidewalk. The Mall, which is Minneapolis’ main street (in normal times) for restaurants, bars, stores and office buildings, now has covered all ground-level windows and glass doors with plywood, most businesses are closed and most of the time very few people are walking around.

For these six months we have not traveled anywhere outside Minneapolis and nearby western suburbs except for two trips to a nearby town: one for our granddaughter’s high school  graduation party and the other for a walk with our son and his family. Thus, we have a great desire to see other places, and this week we plan to  drive to the North Shore of Minnesota for two nights to see the beautiful fall colors of the trees.

We are grateful that we and our family have not caught the virus and are healthy and hope that that will continue. We worry about our sons and their families here and in Ecuador and relatives in Nebraska and elsewhere and pray that they stay healthy.

Last Friday Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, died. For many years she has been an inspiring voice against gender and other discrimination. Last night I watched “RBG,” a moving documentary film about her by CNN Films. The film reminded me of what a wonderful human being she was and how we all will miss her.

Then we have to return to reading about the horrible words and actions of President Donald Trump, who immediately said that this week he will nominate a woman to replace Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader of that body, who has said he will lead the effort to have the Senate confirm the nomination as soon as possible and maybe even before the November 3rd presidential election. Many people, including me, fear that the nominee will be very conservative and a threat to undo many of the principles that Ruth Bader Ginsburg struggled for. I, therefore, sent some money to a group supporting Amy McGrath, who is McConnell’s opponent in this year’s election.

Another example of Trump’s insensitive and harmful remarks happened on his visit to Minnesota last Friday when he “extolled at length the battle prowess of” Confederate General Robert E. Lee to audiences that contained descendants of Minnesota men who were members of the Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment that played a vital role for the Union, many of whom were killed in the Civil War.[3]

This morning I attended a very moving virtual worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. The Scripture for the day was Samuel 3: 1-10 and Luke 2: 41-52 as the foundation for the sermon “Learning to Listen/Listening to Learn” by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen. [4]

A new moving voice in the service was Joe Davis, a poet and Artist in Residence at the church, who previously said, “ I am a poet because I struggle desperately to express my soul’s deepest longings each and everyday—yet I never shy away from the fight.” He “grew up in a non-denominational Pentecostal church in North Dakota, where his parents were active members. In college at Minot State, Joe began to go on spring break service trips with the campus ministry. The campus pastor, who happened to be Lutheran, encouraged Joe to become a peer minister. Her mentoring helped him grow in faith and as a leader, and the ELCA [Evangelical Lutheran Church in America] became an important part of his life.” Now he “feels ‘a little bit of both ‘Lutheran and Pentecostal’ while also being “a strong believer in ecumenicalism—the unity of Christians across denominational lines.”[5]

This worship service was previewed early last week at a ZOOM conversation about aging in the Covid pandemic. Rev. Hart-Andersen said that spirituality should be addressed holistically and intentionally by focusing on your heart (writing hand-written letters or emails to your family and friends); your soul (developing and following a discipline for praying); your mind (reading); your body (exercising); and your love (serving, praying, advocating, writing and volunteering). Afterwards I told Tim that the activities for the “mind” should be reading, reflecting, studying or researching, writing about these activities and then sharing the writing with others. This is what I strive to do on most subjects of posts to this blog.

On today’s beautiful sunny 70-degree afternoon in Minneapolis my wife and I went for an enjoyable walk up Kenwood Parkway from the Walker Art Center Garden to the north end of Kenwood Park and returning on Mt. Curve Avenue to the western side of the Walker to Kenwood Parkway.

Tomorrow morning I will be having coffee with three friends from our condo building in our entertainment center, a practice I started several weeks ago. We have enjoyable conversations and, I think, all of us welcome this opportunity to have social interaction in this age of social distancing.

Another item on my ongoing agenda is preparing for the October 12th meeting of my men’s book group from Westminster Church. I will be leading the upcoming meeting to discuss the novel, “The Last Trial,” by Scott Turow. Most of our meetings this year have been by ZOOM although last month five of us met in the outdoor patio of one of our members; the other five members could not make the meeting. Reading and discussing books with other men is another important way to have needed social interaction.

These are the thoughts of one day of a human being’s living through the pandemic in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. I am managing to stay healthy in mind and body despite worries about the coronavirus and the headaches caused by Trump and fears over his supporters somehow damaging or disrupting the November 3rd election.

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[1] Covid in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count, N.Y.Times (Sept. 20, 2020); World Health Organization, WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard.

[2] Bream, Minnesota pianist Nachito Herrera on surviving COVID-19: ‘This it the worst thing I’ve had in 54 years of my life, StarTribune (Sept.5, 2020); Nachito Herrera Concert at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 7, 2015); Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Connections with Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (∆an. 13, 2015)

[3] Van Ooy & Smith, Trump’s praise of Robert E. Lee gets pushback from Minnesotans proud of state’s role at Gettysburg, StarTribune (Sept. 19, 2020).

[4] The video of this service is  available in the church’s Archive of services, and a future blog post will examine details of the service.

[5] Joe Davis Poet, joedavispoetry.com; Parent, Poet in Residence at Redeemer Lutheran Church, zionbuffalo.org (March 2014).

Judge David Tatel Honored by Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights 

At its 50th Anniversary Gala on October 24, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights granted its Legal Champion Award to Judge David S. Tatel. Here we will review the Gala Co-Chair’s introduction of the Judge, the latter’s response and the Judge’s recent opinion for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upholding a House of Representatives committee’s subpoena to an accounting firm for certain financial records of Donald Trump and some of his companies. This post will conclude with some personal remarks by this blogger.

Co-Chair’s Introduction of Judge Tatel

 Nate Eimer, a Chicago attorney and Co-Chair of the Gala, introduced the Judge with these remarks, “Fifty years ago, [David Tatel,] a brilliant, dedicated, courageous University of Chicago of Law graduate working as an associate at Sidley & Austin decided to leave the firm and join the newly formed Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law as its founding Executive Director.”

“[Before then, David Tatel already had begun] his life of dedicated service to the cause of civil rights immediately upon his arrival at Sidley doing pro bono work for the Chicago Urban League. [And in] his first year as Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee [Mr.] Tatel initiated almost 50 projects to advance civil rights in the areas of education, housing, community economic development, employment, and police accountability.”

“In that first year the Committee’s efforts led to the federal investigation and indictment of those responsible for the murder of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.  Another effort, reminiscent of the recent school closings in Chicago, was the Committee’s member firms’ successful representation of a group of parents on the South Side whose cooperative school was abruptly closed by the City of Chicago.”

“On leaving the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, . . . [Mr. Tatel] moved to Washington DC where he joined Sidley’s DC office and then served as the  Executive Director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and later as the Director of the Office for Civil Rights of HEW.”

“In 1994, . . .[David] Tatel was nominated by President Bill Clinton to assume the seat held by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the United States Court of Appeals for the D. C. Circuit.  This is Judge Tatel’s 25th year on the bench.  His recent opinion in Trump v. Mazar – which upheld the House Oversight Committee’s subpoena for records relating to President, candidate, and private citizen Trump’s financial records – was widely recognized as ‘meticulous and scholarly.’”

The printed Gala program added these words about the Judge’s background: “Judge Tatel earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and his J.D. degree from the University of Chicago. [After HEW, he returned to private practice in 1979 to join]. . .  Hogan & Hartson, where he founded and headed the firm’s education practice until his appointment by President Clinton to the D.C. Circuit. Judge Tatel currently co-chairs the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Science, Technology and Law, and serves on the boards of Associated Universities , Inc. and the Federal Judicial Center. Judge Tatel is a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Judge Tatel and his wife, Edith, have four children and eight grandchildren.”

 Judge Tatel’s Acceptance Speech

For me, serving as the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee’s first executive director was one of the most formative experiences of my career. I was only twenty-seven years old, yet through the Lawyers’ Committee, I met and worked with some of the most dedicated and gifted members of the Chicago bar. Two of those lawyers, Dick Babcock, of Ross, Hardies, O’Keefe, Babcock, McDugald & Parsons, now part of McGuire Woods, and Bill Haddad, of Bell, Boyd, Lloyd, Haddad & Burns, now part of K&L Gates, were the true founders of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee. It was they who took the baton from the National Committee and laid the foundation for the success you celebrate today.”

“Like the founders of the National Lawyers’ Committee six years earlier, Babcock and Haddad were not civil rights lawyers—far from it. Bill was a tax lawyer and Dick specialized in municipal zoning, but they were community leaders, ‘lawyer-statesmen,’ as it were, committed to the Constitution and the rule of law.”

“Joined by twelve other lawyers, all senior partners in the city’s major law firms, Babcock and Haddad formed the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee to bring the skills, energy, and prestige of the legal profession to bear on the serious civil rights problems facing this city—problems dramatically highlighted just one year earlier during the devastating riots that swept through the south and west sides in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“The Committee began its work in a small office on the 19th floor of the old Monadnock Building at 53 West Jackson—just me, a secretary, and a used Xerox machine. Member firms quickly took on representations involving education, employment, housing, and community development.”

“And then, on a dark, cold December morning just a few months after the Committee opened its doors, fourteen heavily-armed police officers assigned to a special unit of the Cook County State’s Attorney raided an apartment at 2337 West Monroe. When the raid was over, two leaders of the Black Panther Party lay dead, cut down in a hail of bullets. The State’s Attorney called the raid ‘a fierce gun battle’ and congratulated his officers on their ‘bravery and restraint in the face of the vicious Black Panther attack,’ yet a subsequent investigation found that the apartment’s occupants had fired but two shots. In response, Dick Babcock, Bill Haddad, and ten other members of the Lawyers’ Committee sent a telegram to the Attorney General of the United States calling for the appointment of a special grand jury. They warned that the incident had ‘exacerbated to a critically dangerous level the already tense relations between the black community and the police.’ The telegram concluded with these simple but powerful words that Dick added in his own handwriting just before calling Western Union: ‘None of us is accustomed to petitioning government. That we now do is a measure of the depth of our concern.’”

“In calling for a federal investigation, these prominent attorneys were fulfilling the vision President John F. Kennedy articulated in June 1963 when he called on the nation’s lawyers to play a more active role in the fight for racial equality. Deeply troubled about the South’s violent response to the civil rights movement, especially the assassination of Medgar Evers and the firehosing of demonstrators in Birmingham, and having just federalized the Alabama National Guard to enforce court-ordered desegregation at the University of Alabama, the president told 250 leaders of the bar assembled in the East Room that lawyers have a special responsibility to ensure that civil rights issues are resolved ‘in the courts, not the streets.’ Thus was born the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.”

“Like the lawyers who heeded Kennedy’s call, Babcock, Haddad, and the others who signed the telegram to the Attorney General were acting in the very best tradition of the legal profession. Even though they were committing their names and reputations to defending an organization whose tactics they and most Chicagoans deplored, they demanded, as lawyers and officers of the court, that the city confront the Black Panther Party through the legal system, and that it hold accountable those officials who had taken the law into their own hands. The lawyers who signed the telegram to the Attorney General, like the 250 lawyers listening to President Kennedy in the East Room, were Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. But they had no disagreement about the fundamental proposition that in a nation based on the rule of law, civil rights conflicts must be resolved through the legal process.”

“This bipartisan commitment to the rule of law is the key to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. It is what makes the Lawyers’ Committee unique, and now more than ever, it is this precious bipartisan commitment to civil rights that the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee must seek to preserve.”

Judge Tatel’s Opinion in Trump v. Mazars USA LLP [1]

On October 11, just two weeks before this award, Judge Tatel wrote the 2-1 opinion for a panel of the D.C. Circuit upholding the subpoena by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform to the accounting firm Mazars, USA LLP for “records related to work performed for President Trump and several of his business entities both before and after he took office.” The opinion started with its conclusion that was explicated in the balance of the opinion: “the Committee possesses authority both under the House Rules and the Constitution to issue the subpoena, and Mazars must comply.” The opinion then cited many Supreme Court cases and other authorities in the following five sections:

1. The current Congress on January 3, 2019, debated and adopted “a set of rules to govern its proceedings.” It established the previously mentioned Committee, which was charged with “review[ing] and study[ing] on a continuing basis the operation of Government activities at all levels” and which was authorized to “conduct investigations” “at any time . . . of any matter,” “without regard to” other standing committees’ jurisdictions. To “carry[] out . . . [these] functions and duties” the . . . Committee may “require by subpoena or otherwise . . . the production of such . . . documents as it considers necessary.”

The opinion then reviewed the background for this subpoena, including the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 and the district court’s opinion in this case that had upheld this subpoena.

2. Next Judge Tatel’s opinion reviewed the history of legislative subpoenas, starting with the English Parliament and U.S. congressional subpoenas before discussing U.S. Supreme Court cases regarding the latter (as well as the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in a case over a Senate subpoena to President Nixon). These authorities established the following governing principles: (a) the committee must have been delegated the power to conduct investigations; (b) the congressional power to investigate is broad; Congress, however, may not “usurp the other branches’ constitutionally designated functions nor violate individuals’ constitutionally protected rights” or “conduct itself as a law enforcement agency;” (c) “Congress may investigate only those topics on which it could legislate;” and (d) “congressional committees may subpoena only information ’calculated to’ ‘materially aid[]’ their investigations.”                                                      3. The opinion then reviewed the “public record,” including “several pieces of legislation related to the Committee’s inquiry,” regarding this subpoena and concluded that it “reveals legitimate legislative pursuits, not an impermissible law-enforcement purpose.” Moreover, “this subpoena is a valid exercise of the legislative oversight authority because it seeks information important to determining the fitness of legislation to address potential problems within the Executive Branch and the electoral system; it does not seek to determine the President’s fitness for office.” In short, “the categories of information sought are ‘reasonably relevant’ to the Committee’s legitimate legislative inquiry.”                 4. Next the opinion rejected Mazars’ contention that the full House had not authorized the Committee to issue this subpoena. After all, Mazars had not challenged “the most natural reading of the House Rules [that] the full chamber has authorized the Committee to issue the challenged subpoena” and “the House Rules have no effect whatsoever on the balance between Congress and the President.”                                                                                                                            5.Finally, “the constitutional questions raised here are neither “’[g]rave’” nor “’serious and difficult.’” “We therefore have no cause to invoke the canon of constitutional avoidance.” “It is Mazars, a third-party, that will retrieve and organize the relevant information; the subpoena seeks non-confidential records in which the President has asserted no proprietary or evidentiary protections; and it is Mazars, not the President, [that] risks contempt through non-compliance.”

Conclusion

 This blogger is a University of Chicago Law School classmate and friend of Judge Tatel and at our 50th reunion in May 2016, presented our classmates with a booklet containing his biography and a selected list of 10 of his most significant cases as of that date.[2]

In 1957 David was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder causing loss of vision, which happened for him around 1973. I continue to be amazed at his ability to overcome this disorder and do this difficult and important legal work with such intelligence, diligence and grace. Thank you, Judge Tatel!

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[1] Trump v. Mazars and Committee on Oversight & Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives, No. 19-5142 (D.C. Cir. Oct. 11, 2019).   The dissenting opinion of Circuit Judge Neomi Rao is not discussed in this post.

[2] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com mentioning Judge Tatel: My Years at the University of Chicago Law School (Dec. 27, 2011); The D.C. Circuit’s Decision Upholding the Validity of the Voting Rights Act of 2006 (March 11, 2013); Judging on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (April 11, 2013); Federal Appellate Court Allows Lawsuit by Guantanamo Detainees (March 1, 2014).

 

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Criticizes Its Decision on the Voting Rights Act of 2006

John Paul Stevens
John Paul Stevens

 

John Paul Stevens, who served as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly 35 years (1975-2010), has issued a stinging rebuke to its recent decision invalidating an important provision of the Voting Rights Act of 2006.

Stevens’ remarks came in his review of a book about the history of that statute: Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy.[1]

As discussed in a prior post, the court on June 25th in an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts (joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito) held unconstitutional the Act’s formula that determined which states were subject to pre-clearance by the U.S. Department of Justice or a three-judge federal district court of any changes to the state’s voting procedures. The Court concluded that the burdens of such pre-clearance on the jurisdictions covered by the formula were not justified by current needs and, therefore, violated basic principles of equal state sovereignty or autonomy over voting.[2]

First, Stevens disputed the major legal premise of the Roberts’ opinion. Instead, Stevens agreed with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion in the case that “the principle [of equal sovereignty] “applies only to the terms upon which States are admitted to the Union, and not to the remedies for local evils which have subsequently appeared.” (Emphasis in Stevens’ book review.)

Second and more importantly, Stevens strenuously objected to the Court’s not respecting the virtually unanimous congressional support for the 2006 re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act after “thorough evidentiary hearings.” Said Stevens,

  • “The members of Congress, representing the millions of voters who elected them, are far more likely to evaluate correctly the risk that the interest in maintaining the supremacy of the white race still plays a significant role in the politics of those states. After all, that interest was responsible for creating the slave bonus when the Constitution was framed, and in motivating the violent behavior that denied blacks access to the polls in those states for decades prior to the enactment of the [Act].”

Stevens found support for this conclusion in an unlikely source–the dissenting opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia in the case that invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act.[3] According to Justice Scalia,

  • “This [DOMA] case is about power in several respects. It is about the power of our people to govern themselves, and the power of this Court to pronounce the law. Today’s opinion aggrandizes the latter, with the predictable consequence of diminishing the former. We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation. The Court’s errors on both points spring forth from the same diseased root: an exalted conception of the role of this institution [the Supreme Court] in America.”

[1] The Stevens book review is also discussed in The Atlantic and Politico.

[2]  Earlier posts provided important background for the Supreme Court’s decision.

[3] The DOMA case is United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307 (June 26, 2013).

 

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Case That May Decide If Corporations Are Liable Under the Alien Tort Statute

On February 28th the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Sup. Ct. No. 10-1491). The transcript of that hearing is available online.

This case involved claims by a putative class of Nigerians against a corporation (Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. (Shell)) for allegedly assisting in certain human rights violations in Nigeria in 1993-95. Prior posts reviewed the procedural background of this case and the Second Circuit decision rejecting such liability.

The claims in this case were asserted under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute (ATS) that provides that U.S. federal district courts have “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.” (Earlier posts have reviewed the history of the ATS for the periods 1789-1979, 1980, 1980-2004, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2004 and 2004-present.)

 Merits Issue: Are Corporations Liable Under the ATS?

A review of the transcript of the hearing reveals that the entire hour was devoted to only one of the two issues previously identified by the Court as being raised by this case:

  • Whether corporations are immune from tort liability for violations of the law of nations such as torture, extrajudicial executions or genocide, as the court of appeals decisions provides, or if corporations may be sued in the same manner as any other private party defendant under the ATS for such egregious violations, as the [U.S.] Eleventh Circuit [Court of Appeals] has explicitly held.

All of the Justices (except Justice Thomas) actively participated in this argument with comments and questions that make it difficult to make any prediction of the ultimate decision in the case, except that it probably will be a decision by a divided Court. Here are samples of some of the comments and questions.

Justice Samuel Alito asked,  “What business does a case like [this alleging human rights violations in Nigeria] have in the courts of the United States? There’s no connection to the United States whatsoever.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg tried to focus the discussion on the precise issue raised by the case, whether it is only individual defendants [who are liable under ATS] or are corporate defendants also liable?”

Justice Stephen Breyer apparently had difficulty with the Second Circuit’s categorical rule in this case that corporations could never be liable under the ATS. He said he could think of instances where that should not be the case. One he cited was “Pirates Incorporated.”

Justice Elena Kagan also expressed skepticism about an assertion by the attorney for the defendant-respondent that international human rights treaties excluded corporations from liability. Justice Kagan said she thought “the international sources are simply silent as to this question [of corporate liability].” She also observed that such treaties were silent on this issue “mostly because all of these are written to prohibit certain acts,” rather than focusing on who commits such acts.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often is seen as the swing vote when the Court is divided, asked the first question almost before the attorney for the plaintiffs-petitioners could open his mouth. Justice Kennedy said, “For me, the case turns in large part on this,” (quoting from the defendant-respondent’s brief), ‘International law does not recognize corporate responsibility for the alleged offenses here.’ Justice Kennedy immediately followed with this quotation from an amicus brief by Chevron Corporation, which is a defendant in another ATS case, “No other nation in the world permits its courts to exercise universal civil jurisdiction over alleged extraterritorial human rights abuses to which the nation has no connection.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy also noted that international criminal law made a distinction between individuals and corporations with only the former being subject to criminal sanctions. Yet later he mentioned the legal principle of respondeat superior (that a corporation or other principal is legally responsible for the wrongs of its employee or agent under certain conditions) and said that it was a very simple proposition of U.S. law and perhaps implicitly suggested it was applicable in this case.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction Issue

The second issue raised by this case was not discussed at the February 28th hearing. It was the following: Whether the issue of corporate civil tort liability under the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”), 28 U.S.C. § 1350, is a merits question, as it has been treated by all courts prior to the decision below, or an issue of subject matter jurisdiction, as the court of appeals held for the first time.

The Second Circuit in an opinion by Judge Cabranes held, without much discussion, that the ATS incorporates any limitation arising from customary international law on whom may properly be sued as a defendant under the statute and that this was a requirement for subject-matter jurisdiction of the federal courts that was not met in this case.

In my opinion, the Second Circuit was clearly wrong on this conclusion on subject-matter jurisdiction. The ATS states that federal courts have “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.” Thus, to establish subject-matter jurisdiction, (i) the plaintiff must be an “alien” (a non-citizen of the U.S.); (ii) the lawsuit must be for a tort; and (iii) the tort must allegedly be set forth in “the law of nations” (customary international law) or a treaty of the U.S. All of these requirements are met in this case. It then becomes an issue on the merits as to whether the alleged conduct in fact violates the “law of nations” or a treaty of the U.S.

Moreover, the ATS does not specify as to whom the defendant must be, unlike the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA) which states the defendant has to be an “individual.” If the ATS did specify in some fashion what kind of defendant was permissible, then that would make the nature of the defendant an issue for subject-matter jurisdiction. (Whether the word “individual” in the TVPA includes corporations was the issue presented in the other case heard by the Supreme Court on February 28th.)

The procedural posture of this case makes my opinion, if it is correct, an important one for The Supreme Court’s disposition of this case. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction requiring such courts always to determine if they have such jurisdiction and prohibiting the litigating parties from conferring such jurisdiction on the courts by not themselves raising problems over such jurisdiction. This basic principle enabled Judge Cabranes in the Second Circuit to raise, discuss and decide the issue of corporate liability under the ATS in this case even though that issue had not been briefed or argued by the parties themselves.

The failure of the defendant Shell to raise the merits issue of corporate liability at the trial court and at the Second Circuit should mean that it is deemed to have waived the issue.

Under this analysis the Supreme Court should reverse the Second Circuit on procedural grounds and not reach the substantive issue of corporate liability.

Conclusion

A Supreme Court decision in this case is expected by the end of June. I reiterate that this is a case of statutory interpretation and the Court’s development of federal common law, 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.

Under the infamous Citizens United decision the Court treats corporations as individual human beings for purposes of the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the right to make unlimited political contributions. If the Court were to decide that corporations, unlike individual human beings, are not liable under the ATS, this would and should present the Court with at least a public relations problem.