The Supreme Court term begins with a knotty human rights claim against big oil.
Photo by Steve Petteway/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States.
There’s a deep question at the heart of the Supreme Court’s first case of the term today: When can the United States offer a court of last resort to people to whom we’ve granted asylum, who say they’ve suffered human rights abuses abroad? The satisfying aspect of the morning’s argument was that the deep question got a lot of time. The disturbing thing was that even though the morning went better for the Nigerian plaintiffs than I expected, it will be very hard for them to ever get their day in an American court.
Last year, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Company was about whether Esther Kiobel could sue a corporation—the Dutch-British multinational that makes Shell oil and gas—for allegedly colluding with the Nigerian military in the 1990s to crush protesters who were trying to stop oil exploration in the country. The Supreme Court was poised to decide whether companies, as opposed to individuals, may be held responsible under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 federal law that human rights lawyers dug out of storage 30 years ago and have successfully used since then to get their cases into court. The justices asked to rehear the case today, however, so they could consider a more basic question: Can someone like Esther Kiobel sue anyone at all under the Alien Tort Statue? That question appeared to be asked and answered, in a 2004 ruling, Sosa v. Alarez-Machain, in which the court said foreign plaintiffs living in the United States could sue for a “modest set of actions alleging violations of the law of nations.” It is not good news for Esther Kiobel and the other 11 plaintiffs that Sosa now appears to be up for grabs.
What exactly does the Alien Tort Statute say? Not much: It gives courts some power to hear suits brought by aliens—foreigners who are here—over harms “committed in violation of the law of nations.”. In 1789, that probably meant, at a minimum, that the aliens could sue for piracy and attacks on ambassadors. How does this translate in 2012? Or as Justice Stephen Breyer spiritedly puts it, “Who are today’s pirates?”
We’ll get to that in a second. First, Justice Anthony Kennedy wants to know what possible connection there is between Esther Kiobel, the wrongs she says unfolded in Nigeria, and the United States. The answer the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Paul Hoffman, gives is that his clients live here because the U.S. government gave them asylum. Also, Royal Dutch Petroleum does plenty of business here.
Kennedy doesn’t like the sound of that. “Your position is that a U.S. company that allegedly commits a human rights violation could be sued in any court in the world?” he asks. Note the switch—now it’s our homegrown corporation, not a company called Royal Dutch, that’s the pirate.
Justice Antonin Scalia backs up Kennedy, asking whether it will be “some super body that decides what constitutes a violation” of human rights. This is not a superhero kind of super body. It’s the kind that usurps U.S. sovereignty. Hoffman tries to erase the image: The courts of nations around the world have long determined human rights norms, he says. But Scalia is with Kennedy: unhappy about a world in which U.S. corporations can be held liable for human rights abuses in foreign courts. Justice Samuel Alito doesn’t like Hoffman’s notion either, and Chief Justice John Roberts seems skeptical, too.
Hoffman next addresses all the ways his clients could still get kicked out of court, even if they make it past today’s tangle with the Alien Tort Statute. They could be told to file suit in Nigeria, or the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, where Royal Dutch Petroleum is based. Hoffman concedes that it’s not clear from the record whether they’ve done so yet. (This is the doctrine called exhaustion, which is how it feels to be told to go back and start over somewhere else.) Kiobel and the other plaintiffs could also be told that another forum, outside the United States, is simply better. (This is the doctrine called forum non conveniens, the rare Latin phrase that makes sense without translation.)
If Hoffman goes too far in the direction of we-can-be-tossed-later, he could weaken his client’s case in the future. For now, though, his chief task is to make his clients’ suit sound unexotic. Esther Kiobel is just asking for what the court gave in Sosa eight years ago, he argues, and what’s more, her claims could have been brought in state court. In fact, the “obvious reason” that Congress enacted the Alien Tort Statute back in 1789 was to “make sure that the federal courts were available to litigate claims that could be litigated in state court.”
I should say that when Justice David Souter wrote the majority opinion in Sosa, he pointed out that “despite considerable scholarly attention,” to the origins of the Alien Tort Statute “it is fair to say that a consensus understanding of what Congress intended has proven elusive.” This is why the justices are at loggerheads today. It’s also why pirates come up so often—them, at least, we can all grasp.
But Kathleen Sullivan, the former dean of Stanford Law School who is the lawyer for Royal Dutch Petroleum, runs afoul of the pirates when it’s her turn at the podium. Sullivan starts by giving Kennedy what he wanted at the outset: She says that “this case in fact has nothing to do with the United States” because the conduct at issue took place “entirely in Nigeria.” The trouble with this argument is that it may have nothing to do with the Founders’ notion of the Alien Tort Statute. And it definitely has nothing to do with the last 30 years of human rights litigation under the statute, which the Supreme Court essentially accepted in Sosa. Justice Elena Kagan correctly points out that Sullivan is making a broad argument. Sullivan tries another tack: Perhaps the Alien Tort Statute was meant to address only attacks on aliens on U.S. soil or on the high seas.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.