This is a link to today’s unanimous Supreme Court decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.
In Kiobel, Nigerian refugees currently living in the United States attempted to use the 1789 Alien Tort Statute (ATS) – 28 U.S.C. section 1350 — to sue the Dutch company Royal Dutch Petroleum, the British company Shell Transport and Trading, and the Nigerian company Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria. The plaintiffs maintained that the Dutch and British companies were responsible for their jointly owned subsidiary’s alleged complicity in atrocities which the Nigerian police and military committed against Ogoni villagers in Nigeria.
Since the 1980s, human rights litigants have used the Alien Tort Statute as a jurisdictional basis in United States courts, Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, 630 F.2d 876 (2nd Cir., 1980). Language in the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U.S. 692, indicated that the ATS might also be used to redress some violations of customary international law occurring on foreign soil. The opinion of the Court in Kiobel, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, barred suit because all of the alleged violations took place outside United States territory and the court found no clear indication in the language or history of the statute to rebut a presumption against extraterritorial application of U.S. law. Chief Justice Roberts did not rule out the possibility that the ATS could be used against pirates. A concurring opinion by Justice Kennedy noted that many unanswered questions remained concerning the reach and interpretation of the ATS. A concurring opinion authored by Justice Breyer would allow use of the ATS when one or more of the following criteria is met: conduct occurring within U.S. territory, involving a U.S. national, or affecting an important U.S. interest. However, Justice Breyer and the other (liberal) justices who joined in his opinion concluded that none of these criteria were met in Kiobel.
New York Times: Justices Bar Nigerian Human Rights Case from U.S. Courts by Adam Liptak
Washington Post: Supreme Court Limits Civil Lawsuits Alleging Atrocities Committed Abroad by Robert Barnes
Foreign Victims of Human Rights Abuses Who Sue in US Suffer Supreme Court Setback (Associated Press)