What started out as a case about whether corporations could be held accountable in U.S. courts for human rights abuses against foreigners abroad turned into a case about whether anyone can be held accountable. And on Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the answer is, mostly, no.
In a sweeping holding, Chief Justice John Roberts led a splintered court in ruling that several Nigerians alleging an oil company aided an abetted torture, arbitrary killings, and indefinite detention could not sue, because the corporate conduct occurred outside the United States. Roberts reasoned that what is known as the “presumption against extraterritoriality” applies to a 200-year-old statute that authorizes civil lawsuits by “aliens” for “violations of the law of nations,” meaning courts should err against enforcing a law intended to punish egregious foreign conduct in the frequent instances when that conduct takes place in a foreign country.
“[T]here is no indication that the ATS was passed to make the United States a uniquely hospitable forum for the enforcement of international norms,” Justice Roberts wrote for the majority in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.
Roberts’ conclusion is rebutted by the very conduct the Alien Tort Statute was designed to prevent. Piracy was one of the primary torts targeted by Congress at the time of ATS’ passage — conduct that inherently takes place on the high seas. Justice Stephen Breyer explains in a four-justice concurring opinion that would decide the case on significantly narrower grounds:
As I have indicated, we should treat this Nation’s interest in not becoming a safe harbor for violators of the most fundamental international norms as an important jurisdiction related interest justifying application of the ATS in light of the statute’s basic purposes — in particular that of compensating those who have suffered harm at the hands of, e.g., torturers or other modern pirates. Nothing in the statute or its history suggests that our courts should turn a blind eye to the plight of victims in that “handful of heinous actions.”
Now, that handful of heinous actions will have to find remedy elsewhere. This decision not only means that Nigerians cannot sue foreign corporations for their conduct abroad. On this particular point, the four-justice Breyer concurrence agreed that this case did not pass muster. Roberts’ sweeping pronouncement against extraterritoriality may also mean that foreign nationals subject to abuse, for example, at the hands of a U.S. corporation that houses its factories in places whose laws shield it from liability, or an American citizen who commits human rights violations abroad against foreigners, also could not be subject to suit in the United States.
In two recent federal appeals court decisions, lawsuits that challenged torture abroad by two foreign actors were allowed to proceed in U.S. courts because the defendants had lived or were living in the United States. As Justice Breyer points out, Congress is aware that the ATS is the basis for these sorts of lawsuits, and has not sought to amend the act in any way — likely because they recognize that the act was intended to target foreign conduct that is otherwise difficult to reach. But that did not stop the Roberts majority from inferring the narrowest possible congressional intent.
The scope of the opinion will not become clear until it is interpreted by courts. Extraterritoriality is a legal concept that asks not just whether conduct took place abroad, but also whether the claims “touch and concern the territory of the United States” such that a plaintiff can overcome the presumption against them. The only hint the court gives is that lawsuits against corporations will face a particularly heavy burden, noting, “Corporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices.”
What is clear is that the presumption is exceedingly difficult to overcome, and that both individuals and corporations have a high chance of skirting liability simply by doing their dirty work elsewhere.