Parsing the Oral Arguments in Kiobel and Mohamad

by Chimene Keitner

[Chimène Keitner is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.]

The oral arguments in Kiobel and Mohamed will doubtless generate a new round of commentary on these cases. A “quick response” panel is planned for Thursday, followed by a Georgetown Law symposium on March 27 and an ASIL annual meeting panel on March 31.

Since I have written on the choice of law question under the ATS, I predictably agree with Kathleen Sullivan’s statement that “The crucial question that is at the threshold is which law determines whether corporations are liable.” (Tr. at 32.) However, I disagree with her argument that “corporate liability” is a “substantive norm,” and that the question of whether a natural person’s conduct can be attributed to a corporation for the purpose of imposing civil liability is necessarily governed by the same source of law as the standard for aiding and abetting, or the state action requirement addressed in footnote 20 of the Sosa opinion. Sullivan argued that all three of these questions (corporate liability, aiding and abetting, and state action) are “substantive questions answered by international law.” (Tr. at 37.) Elsewhere in the argument, she suggested that the proper source of law for theories of attribution, at least in a common law action, would be “the place of misconduct or the place where the corporation is headquartered.” (Tr. at 39.) Punitive damages, by contrast, she would categorize as a remedial matter properly governed by U.S. domestic law. (Tr. at 39.) Paul Hoffman argued on behalf of Petitioners that domestic law applies to the corporate liability question because “international law, from the time of the Founders to today, uses domestic tribunals, domestic courts and domestic legislation, as the primary engines to enforce international law” (Tr. at 6), and that in any event the substantive international legal norms at issue in this case do apply to corporations, as argued more fully by Opinio Juris contributor Oona Hathaway in an amicus brief.

In general, the Justices appeared to endorse a dichotomy between “substantive” rules and rules relating to “enforcement”—a dichotomy advocated by Ed Kneedler in his argument on behalf of the U.S. Government. Justice Kagan articulated this as the dichotomy between the law governing “who has an obligation” vs. “who can be sued.” (Tr. at 37-38.) As I suggested in my 2008 article, following Bill Casto, and in a shorter 2011 symposium piece,  it seems to me that the most coherent approach to the choice of law question distinguishes between “conduct-regulating” and “non-conduct-regulating” rules. Under the ATS, conduct-regulating norms are supplied by international law. Since entities inevitably act through natural persons, these norms govern the conduct of natural persons, but that does not mean that other organizations or entities cannot also bear the legal consequences of natural persons’ conduct in a variety of circumstances. (The reverse is also true—for example, foreign officials generally do not bear the legal consequences of commercial transactions that they enter into on behalf of the foreign state.) Paul Hoffman indicated some sympathy for this view in his final response to Justice Scalia’s question about what source of law he would apply to the standard for aiding and abetting liability (an issue not presented for review in this case), when he responded that “I think that—that aiding and abetting could be viewed as a conduct regulating norm, that it actually applies to the things that can be done to violate the norm. And therefore, international law would apply to that.” (Tr. at 56.) However, the same answer does not necessarily hold true for the corporate liability question presented in Kiobel, because rules of attribution are not conduct-regulating.

As a general matter, I abstain from making predictions in cases. However, in a slight break from my own tradition, I will hazard a guess that there will be at least one opinion supporting corporate liability (on the principle that corporations are routinely held liable for the torts of their agents), one opinion opposing corporate liability and also challenging the ATS’s grant of jurisdiction over extraterritorial conduct and over suits between aliens, and one opinion (perhaps a concurrence) opining on how ATS suits fit (or not) into the evolving global landscape of domestic adjudication of international law violations (whether these are denominated violations of international law, common law, or domestic statutes that codify international law norms).

4 Responses

  1. Isn’t there a third option between substance and enforcement? Can’t we concede for the sake of argument that the substance of international law only binds states and natural persons, but that domestic rules of enforcement recognize that a corporate person can be sued for the wrongful acts of its human agents under the doctrine of respondeat superior? That is, in any case, how I understood the amicus brief of the human rights programs.

  2. Response…
    Daniel: we can’t “concede” that only states and natural persons can have duties under international law because such would be patently unture.  There have been many formal actors in the international legal process other than the state, including nations, peoples, belligerents, tribes, cities.  Moreover, the U.S. Sup. Ct. has ALREADY recognized in 20 cases (much less all of the courts below) that private corporations and companies can have duties and rights under international law.  One of the earliest Opinions of the Attorney General addressing the ATCA (ATS) recognized that there is no doubt that a company injured abroad has a remedy and can sue.  U.S. Sup. Ct. cases have also recognized that vessels and other non-natural persons can have duties under international law.  For all of the above, see, e.g., 51 Va. J. Int’l L. 977 (2011), available on-line at SSRN

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