[William S. Dodge is Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis, School of Law and Co-Reporter for the Restatement (Fourth) of Foreign Relations Law: Jurisdiction. From August 2011 to July 2012, he served as Counselor on International Law to the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State.]
In RJR Nabisco, Inc. v. European Community, the Supreme Court applied the presumption against extraterritoriality to determine the geographic scope of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). RICO makes it illegal to use a pattern of racketeering activity in particular ways relating to enterprises. Racketeering activity consists of certain state and federal offenses generally known as predicates—money laundering, for example. RICO also creates a civil cause of action for treble damages for “[a]ny person injured in his business or property” by a RICO violation. In RJR, the Court unanimously held that two of RICO’s substantive prohibitions apply extraterritorially to the same extent as their predicates. For example, since the federal money laundering statute, applies to offenses “outside the United States” if the defendant is a U.S. person, RICO also prohibits acquiring an interest in an enterprise or conducting its business through a pattern of money laundering outside the United States if the defendant is a U.S. person. But RJR also held, by a vote of 4-3, that RICO’s civil cause of action requires injury to business or property in the United States. The Court thus preserved RICO as a law enforcement tool for the U.S. Government in a wide range of cases, including terrorism cases, while limiting private damages actions that might have caused friction with foreign nations.
In the process of describing its framework for applying the presumption against extraterritoriality, however, the Court said something that it almost certainly did not mean and that is likely to cause confusion among the lower courts unless nipped in the bud. Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Alito said that a court must ask whether the statute gives a clear indication that it applies extraterritorially “regardless of whether the statute in question regulates conduct, affords relief, or merely confers jurisdiction.” I have previously argued that the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply to jurisdictional statutes, and in this post I explain why that is still true after RJR.
Although Article III of the U.S. Constitution sets the outer limits of subject matter jurisdiction for federal courts, Congress must confer jurisdiction upon the lower federal courts by statute. The U.S. Code contains a number of general subject matter jurisdiction statutes that apply in large numbers of cases. For criminal cases, 18 U.S.C. § 3231 gives district courts jurisdiction “of all offenses against the laws of the United States.” On the civil side, the general federal question statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1331, gives district courts jurisdiction “of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States,” while the diversity statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, gives district courts jurisdiction “of all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75,000” between citizens of different states or between citizens and aliens (subject to a few exceptions). Some federal statutes have more specific grants of subject matter jurisdiction, like § 27 of the Securities Exchange Act, which gives the district courts jurisdiction over both civil and criminal actions “to enforce any liability or duty” created by the Act or its rules and regulations. None of these statutes contains the “clear, affirmative indication” of extraterritoriality that RJR says is necessary to rebut the presumption against extraterritoriality. Thus, if the presumption really applies to statutes that confer jurisdiction, those statutes might be interpreted not to apply extraterritorially. This might mean that federal courts would lack subject matter jurisdiction over criminal offenses committed abroad even if the substantive offense (like money laundering or RICO violations based on money laundering) clearly applies extraterritorially. It might similarly mean that civil suits arising abroad might have to be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction even if they are based on federal statutes that clearly apply extraterritoriality or are brought between diverse parties. Any sensible court would hesitate to reach such results. But how do we know that RJR does not command them.
First, we know that the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply to jurisdictional statutes because RJR applied the presumption to RICO’s substantive provisions and not to the subject matter statute on which the suit was based. RICO lacks a general subject matter provision of its own, so jurisdiction in the civil suit brought by the European Community had to have been based on § 1331, the general federal question statute. The European Community lost its claim because the Supreme Court held that RICO’s civil cause of action required injury to business or property in the United States, but it lost on the merits. The Supreme Court assumed (correctly) that the district court had subject matter jurisdiction under § 1331 to hear the claim in the first place.
Second, we know that the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply to jurisdictional statutes because RJR held that two of RICO’s criminal provisions do apply extraterritorially to the same extent as the predicates on which they are based. This preserves the ability of the U.S. government, in the example that the Court itself gave, to use RICO to prosecute “a pattern of killings of Americans abroad in violation of § 2332(a)—a predicate that all agree applies extraterritorially.” Yet the Court’s holding would be for naught if 18 U.S.C. § 3231, the general subject matter provision for violations of federal criminal law, were limited to the United States.
Third, we know that the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply to jurisdictional statutes because RJR specifically discussed the possibility that the European Community might bring suit for violations of their own laws and “invoke federal diversity jurisdiction as a basis for proceeding in U.S. courts.” This would be impossible if 28 U.S.C. § 1332, the federal diversity statute, were limited to cases arising in the United States.
Fourth, we know that the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply to jurisdictional statutes because Morrison v. National Australia Bank, the decision that RJR elaborates and applies, similarly applied the presumption against extraterritoriality to a substantive provision of the Securities Exchange Act (§ 10(b)) and not to its jurisdictional provision (§ 27). Indeed, the Morrison Court went out of its way to say that “[t]he District Court had jurisdiction under [§ 27] to adjudicate the § 10(b) question.”
So if RJR could not have meant that the presumption against extraterritorially applies to statutes granting subject matter jurisdiction, what did the Court mean when it said the presumption applies “regardless of whether the statute in question . . . merely confers jurisdiction”? The RJR Court was attempting to describe what it had done with the presumption in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., a case involving the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). In Kiobel, the Court held “that the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to claims under the ATS, and that nothing in the statute rebuts that presumption.” Kiobel, however, did not apply the presumption against extraterritoriality to the ATS itself—a statute the Court characterized as “strictly jurisdictional”—but rather to the implied federal-common-law cause of action under the ATS. On page 9 of the slip opinion, RJR accurately describes Kiobel as a case where “we concluded that principles supporting the presumption should ‘similarly constrain courts considering causes of action that may be brought under the ATS.’” And again on page 19, RJR correctly characterizes Kiobel as holding “that the presumption ‘constrain[s] courts considering causes of action’ under the ATS.” Understanding Kiobel to have applied the presumption against extraterritoriality to the implied cause of action and not to the ATS itself also makes sense of Kiobel’s statement that the presumption “is typically applied to discern whether an Act of Congress regulating conduct applies abroad,” for causes of action regulate conduct in a way that purely jurisdictional statutes do not.
In short, RJR’s statement that the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to statutes that “merely confer jurisdiction” must be read in context as describing the presumption’s application to implied causes of action under statutes like the ATS and not to subject matter jurisdiction statutes themselves. Any other reading would be contrary to what the Supreme Court held with respect to subject matter jurisdiction in Morrison and, indeed, to what the Supreme Court did with respect to subject matter jurisdiction in RJR. It would also be contrary to common sense, for it would constrain the jurisdiction of the federal courts over civil cases and criminal prosecutions based on substantive statutes that clearly apply abroad. One can only hope that lower courts do not waste too much time and effort trying to figure this out.