The Drafters Knew Best: Corporate Liability and the Alien Tort Statute

by Heather Cohen

[Heather Cohen is a Legal & Policy Associate with the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), which harnesses the collective power of progressive organizations to push governments to create and enforce rules over corporations that promote human rights and reduce inequality.]

Can corporations be held accountable in the United States for violations of international law? This question is back before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) this fall. On October 11, 2017, SCOTUS will hear oral arguments in Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC on the question of whether corporations can be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). In the case, the plaintiffs, victims of terrorism in Israel, allege that Arab Bank knowingly and willfully used its U.S. branch to provide financial services to the terrorist organizations that harmed them and their family members.

On August 21, Arab Bank filed its respondent brief in the proceedings, arguing that corporations should not be held liable for violations of international law under the ATS. This argument is inconsistent with the intent of the drafters of the Constitution who enacted the law, as well as with the legal interpretation that has followed.

An analysis of the language and historical context of the ATS demonstrates that the drafters of the Constitution intended for the ATS to be applied broadly to both individuals and legal persons, such as corporations. By placing no categorical limits on who can be sued under the legislation, it is clear that corporations can and should be held liable for violations of international law under the ATS.

The Enactment of the ATS and its Application to Legal Persons

The ATS was passed by the First Congress in 1789 to demonstrate the commitment of the new country to upholding the “law of nations,” thereby granting the United States legitimacy on the world stage. Its enactment was spurred by two incidents of offences against foreign ambassadors, but the law would also provide merchants plagued by piracy with a legal avenue to obtain remedy for the harm and losses suffered.

In passing the ATS, the First Congress chose not to limit who can be sued under the legislation:

The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.

By choosing not to exclude any particular class of defendant, the ATS places no limitation on who can be sued. This is made even more clear by the contrasting restriction on who can sue, i.e. only “aliens.”

Historical context suggests that the First Congress intended the law to hold both legal persons as well as natural ones accountable. Courts have held legal persons liable for their abuses as far back as the 1600s. A number of piracy cases provide a clear example of this. For instance, in 1666, Thomas Skinner sued the East India Company for “robbing him of a ship and goods of great value.” The U.K. House of Lords ruled in favor of Mr. Skinner and held that the company owed him compensation. Even where piracy was not committed by corporations, courts have imputed corporate form to the ships themselves. Similarly, early American courts held that ships, as entities, could be ordered to pay damages for piracy. They reasoned that it made financial sense to direct judgment against a captured ship, which had substantial value, while pirates were unlikely to pay the compensation ordered.

These piracy cases demonstrate that courts during the era of the drafters of the Constitution were not only familiar with the concept of liability for legal persons, but that they regularly imposed it for violations of international law. In light of this familiarity, the fact that the First Congress did not limit the language of the ATS suggests that it intended for legal persons, such as corporations, to be sued under the statute.

A Modern Interpretation of the ATS

This interpretation has been supported by courts in subsequent decisions. For example, the D.C. Court of Appeals, in Doe VIII v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 654 F.3d 11, 48 (D.C. Cir. 2011), vacated on other grounds, 527 F. App’x 7 (D.C. Cir. 2013) held that “[t]he notion that corporations could be held liable for their torts… would NOT have been surprising to the First Congress that enacted the ATS” [emphasis added]. For decades, corporations have been sued under the ATS “without any indication that the issue [of their liability] was in controversy, whether in ruling that ATS cases could proceed or that they could not on other grounds.

Since its passage in 1789, the ATS has remained the law of the United States for more than two hundred years, without ever being limited, narrowed, or amended by Congress. In contrast, Congress has made it abundantly clear when it does mean to exclude a particular class of defendants, namely corporations, from liability. For instance, the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) explicitly excludes suits against corporations. While one can argue that failure to amend the ATS does not necessarily mean acceptance, one cannot negate the fact that both times that the issue of corporate liability under the ATS has come before SCOTUS, the U.S. Government has argued in favor of it. The Government has made it clear that it supports the original words and meaning of the ATS.

Arab Bank’s Interpretation of the ATS

Faced with this evidence of the intent of the drafters of the Constitution, all Arab Bank can do is endeavor to chip away at little pieces of it by attempting to undermine the piracy cases raised by the petitioners and their amici. In Arab Bank’s brief, it attacks the British case by claiming that the East India Company functioned more like a sovereign than a corporation, and that the case was ultimately vacated by King Charles II.

While it is beyond the scope of this blog to offer an analysis of the differences between the East India Company and the modern day corporation, the broad power and scope of today’s multinational corporations suggest that these differences may be much smaller than they initially appear. For example, one often cited variance is the power the East India Company had to “operate its own courts and establish its own law.” However, modern corporations likewise operate their own courts through grievance mechanisms, such as that offered by Barrick Gold in response to sexual violence at its mine in Papua New Guinea. In any event, what is relevant is that “the East India Company was on any number of occasions judged by English courts to be a legal person subject to both English common and civil law.

Also problematic with Arab Bank’s critique of the British case is the weight that it places on the intervention of the monarchy, namely, the decision by King Charles II to vacate the case. This decision is simply emblematic of the politics and the central role the Monarch played at the time. Using this political dynamic to criticize the case is unpersuasive.

To undermine the American piracy cases, Arab Bank argues that a ship is not a corporation and that holding a ship liable for the acts committed by the people operating it is not equivalent to accepting the concept of corporate liability. However, this argument is purely a matter of semantics and ignores the very basic concept of corporate liability, which is to hold a legal entity liable for the acts of individuals operating within it. This is exactly what the court did when imposing liability on the ships in these piracy cases.

Conclusion

If SCOTUS rules that corporations cannot be held liable under the ATS, it will be overturning hundreds of years of legal tradition, as well as undermining the chosen words and understanding of the drafters of the Constitution. Such a ruling would similarly undercut the legal interpretation adopted by numerous courts and policymakers following the First Congress. Furthermore, Arab Bank’s arguments are not convincing and fail to undermine the evidence that the ATS was intended to apply to both legal and non-legal persons.

Will SCOTUS respect the wishes of the drafters of the Constitution by holding Arab Bank liable for providing financial services to terrorist organizations? Those of us who believe in the underlying principles of this Nation certainly hope so.

http://opiniojuris.org/2017/09/14/the-drafters-knew-best-corporate-liability-and-the-alien-tort-statute/

One Response

  1. Heather nice post. The reference to the East India company and the ATS was also referenced in a paper a few years back arguing that many large MNCs have indeed become sovereign like and therefore obligations should be imposed on them. See page 17 specifically for the East India reference.
    http://www.qscience.com/doi/pdf/10.5339/irl.2013.6

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.