The Supreme Court opened its new session Monday morning by debating whether US courts should be allowed to hear lawsuits filed by foreign nationals over human rights abuses committed abroad.
Justices heard new arguments about an obscure 18th century law called the Alien Tort Statute, which was revived in the 1980s when attorneys pursuing international human rights cases dug it up to seek justice in American courts, according to the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic.
The statute is meant to hold perpetrators accountable for atrocities such as torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
It allows foreign nationals to file suits in US court for actions “committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States," reports Scotusblog.
But should an American court deal with crimes committed by foreign corporations on international soil? That's the question at hand, as the judges decide whether or not to limit foreign cases that can be heard in US courts.
The judges so far seem skeptical of arguments made in today's case — Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co.
In the Kiobel case, the justices must decide whether or not corporations, rather than individuals, can be the target of lawsuits filed under the statute, reports Reuters.
The plaintiffs in the case are twelve Nigerian nationals who allege that Dutch, British, and Nigerian corporations arranged with the Nigerian government to kill and torture civilians who were protesting against oil exploration, reports The Wall Street Journal.
Justice Anthony Kennedy asked lawyer Paul Hoffman, who represents Esther Kiobel, the widow of Nigerian victim Barinem Kiobel, whether there was a connection between what happened in Nigeria and matters "that commenced in the United States or that are closely related to the United States," reports Reuters.
Kennedy seemed concerned that the law might open the door for American corporations to face similar lawsuits in foreign courts.
A lower court already threw out the Kiobel suit, claiming that the statute can only apply to humans, not corporations.
In the past, courts have not looked favorably on cases brought under the statute.
The Supreme Court already rejected one case under the Alien Tort Statue in 2004. According to Scotusblog, Mexican national Humberto Alvarez-Machain was seeking damages from Jose Francisco Sosa, another Mexican.
Alvarez-Machain accused Sosa of capturing him and handing him over to the United States at the US Drug Enforcement Administration's request.
He tried to sue for false arrest in US court, but the Supreme Court rejected his claim, saying the statute would only apply to a small list of violations including piracy, slavery and offenses against ambassadors.
Today, the focus of the debate has been how far the court should go in scaling back the Alien Tort Statute, reports Bloomberg:
"Some justices suggested they would continue to allow suits against alleged perpetrators who had taken refuge in the United States, while the Obama administration urged the court to bar claims against foreign units without deciding whether US companies could be sued."
A decision is expected by June.