The Death of Universal Civil Jurisdiction Under the ATS

by Julian Ku

One idea that Kiobel has put to rest (at least here in US courts) is the idea that the ATS could be fairly read as a grant of universal civil jurisdiction.  On this theory, the ATS could be applied to overseas activities if the nature of the alleged action was so heinous as to rise to the level of a universally proscribable crime (see here for Donald Donovan and Anthea Roberts’ take on this).   The Court seemed to take this idea pretty seriously in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain.  At least, Justice Breyer seemed to do so in his concurrence to that decision.

That concurrence hinted that Justice Breyer was untroubled by ATS cases which satisfied the international standards of universal jurisdiction because such cases would be unlikely to cause friction with foreign governments. Here is Justice Breyer back in 2004.

…[R]ecognition of universal jurisdiction in respect to a limited set of norms is consistent with principles of international comity. That is, allowing every nation’s courts to adjudicate foreign conduct involving foreign parties in such cases will not significantly threaten the practical harmony that comity principles seek to protect. That consensus concerns criminal jurisdiction, but consensus as to universal criminal jurisdiction itself suggests that universal tort jurisdiction would be no more threatening. Cf. Restatement §404, Comment b. That is because the criminal courts of many nations combine civil and criminal proceedings, allowing those injured by criminal conduct to be represented, and to recover damages, in the criminal proceeding itself. [citation omitted] Thus, universal criminal jurisdiction necessarily contemplates a significant degree of civil tort recovery as well. 

Indeed, Sosa could have been read as a universal civil jurisdiction decision, although it was grounded in U.S. historical analysis that seemed to coincide with universal civil jurisdiction.  Still, as I noted before, Justice Breyer did not build on the Sosa concurrence in today’s Kiobel opinion.  Instead, he revived the quite rarely invoked “protective” principle to justify the ATS’ extraterritorial reach.  He then added that preventing war criminals from winning a “safe harbor” in the U.S. was within the protective principle (that’s a somewhat dubious interpretation to me).  This is a much narrower approach than I would have expected from his Sosa concurrence.

Indeed, I am somewhat surprised that this narrower Breyer approach, which would still have knocked out most ATS corporate lawsuits, did not manage to win Justice Kennedy’s vote. It certainly looks like it was designed to do so.  But having lost Kennedy, I guess Breyer figured he would simply go forward anyway with his narrower concurrence.  But this also means that the idea of “universal civil jurisdiction” under the ATS, both as a matter of law but also as a matter of justifying the ATS on policy grounds, is dead.  The heinousness of the crime alleged is not as important as identifying a distinctly American interest in the case. This really shifts the ground in the ATS public relations wars, and will be much harder for the ATS advocates to overcome.

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