As US Supreme Court opens, all eyes on Chief Justice John Roberts
The US Supreme Court opens its 2012-13 term Monday with Justice Anthony Kennedy again the likely swing vote. But given his vote on the Affordable Care Act, Chief Justice John Roberts may not be predictably conservative either.
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The case pits international human rights advocates against multinational corporations. It is set for oral argument on Monday.Skip to next paragraph
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The dispute involves a law written by the first Congress in 1789. The Alien Tort Statute (ATS) allows noncitizens to sue in US courts for violations of international law.
For the past thirty years, human rights lawyers have used the ATS to file lawsuits in American courts on behalf of oppressed foreign citizens. At first, the suits sought damages from torturers and foreign government officials involved in alleged human rights abuses. Eventually, resourceful lawyers discovered that they could also sue multinational corporations conducting business in troubled areas of the world and seek to hold them financially responsible for allegedly aiding and abetting human rights abuses of foreign governments. At least 150 such suits have been filed and more than a dozen are still pending.
Lawyers for the companies argue that foreign corporations should not be held liable in a US courtroom for acts that allegedly took place overseas with little or no connection to the US.
The appeal stems from a lawsuit filed on behalf of former residents of an oil-rich region of Nigeria. The residents claim they were subject to a government crackdown after they began complaining about pollution and other effects of oil exploration near their villages. They say the Netherlands company Royal Dutch Petroleum, part of Shell, aided and abetted the government in its human rights violations and should pay damages.
Human rights lawyers are urging the high court to embrace a broad interpretation of the ATS to include a wide variety of defendants and plaintiffs around the globe. Lawyers for targeted corporations are asking the court to restrict the scope of the statute.
“It has really become the bane of the existence of corporations who do business in other countries that they will be sued under the Alien Tort Statute for some sort of a human rights violation for working somehow with the government in a bad area,” Washington lawyer and former State Department legal adviser John Bellinger said during a recent Supreme Court preview at the Washington Legal Foundation.
“The Alien Tort Statute and all these lawsuits cause enormous diplomatic friction because it requires our judges to be judging the acts of not only foreign corporations but often of foreign governments,” he said.
Human rights lawyers say that if Shell wins at the Supreme Court, victims of torture and other abuses overseas will lose one of the only avenues available to hold their abusers accountable in a fair court system.