Post-Kiobel, Are We All Ready to Move On From the ATS?

by Julian Ku

The American Journal of International Law has posted electronic excerpts from its “Agora: Reflections on Kiobel”, which will be published in its next issue.  As a contributor to the AJIL Agora myself, I was fascinated to see the different takes that everyone had on the decision.  For the most part, contributors seem to read Kiobel the same way: as sharply cutting back or even eliminating the vast majority of Alien Tort Statute claims that are based on overseas conduct.  In general, the Agora seems to signify that the international legal academy is ready to move on from the ATS: to other jurisdictions like the Netherlands or Europe, to new statutory amendments to the ATS, to other non-litigation based mechanisms, or perhaps to state courts in the U.S.

As for my contribution, I was more interested in taking apart Kiobel’s resounding, unanimous, and surprising rejection of universal civil jurisdiction under the ATS.  I am in partial sympathy with the take of Professor David Moore, another Agora contributor who is more focused on US domestic law aspects of the ATS.  I think scholars and advocates have underestimated the importance of plain-vanilla separation of powers concerns in leading to the Court’s refusal to read the ATS as granting universal jurisdiction to federal courts.  Here is the opening from my essay (and make sure you check out the whole Agora):

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. has not ended future debate about the scope and impact of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS).2 But the Kiobel Court did resolve at least one issue with surprising unanimity: both the opinion for the Court by Chief Justice John Roberts and the main concurring opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer refused to interpret the ATS as authorizing universal jurisdiction. All nine justices rejected decades of lower-court precedent and widespread scholarly opinion when they held that the ATS excluded cases involving purely extraterritorial conduct, even if the alleged conduct constituted acts that are universally proscribed under international law.

In this short essay, I argue that the surprising death of universal jurisdiction reflects the triumph of the “separation of powers” critique of the ATS, which casts a skeptical eye on giving federal courts an independent role in the administration of both ATS lawsuits and cases involving international law more generally. I argue that this separation of powers critique of the ATS, which has found relatively little academic support, is a crucial reason why the Court unanimously rejected universal jurisdiction in Kiobel and why the Court may further restrict the ATS in future cases.

Kiobel and the Resurgence of the Traditional Bases of Jurisdiction in the Alien Tort Statute

by Kenneth Anderson

Reading Roger’s post last week about how lower courts are interpreting the Supreme Court’s ATS ruling in Kiobel made me recall that I’ve fallen down in posting papers to SSRN – including a new one in the Cato Supreme Court Review 2012-2013, “The Alien Tort Statute’s Jurisidictional Universalism in Retreat.”  The article (chatty and speculative, be warned, an essay aimed at a broader audience than ATS specialists or international law scholars) tries to set Kiobel and, for that matter, the ATS itself, in a wider frame of what jurisdiction is supposed to mean beyond its technicalities.  It contrasts the sweeping universalist language of 1980s-era ATS suits, and the belief of people like Judge Irving Kaufman (who wrote the celebrated Filartiga opinion) that they were pronouncing on “international law ” through the exercise of universal jurisdiction, even though it happened to be in a US district court and applying distinctly US concepts through and through, with Kiobel’s return to traditional jurisdictional categories.

Whether the Chief Justice’s application of the presumption against extraterritoriality or Justice Breyer’s more capacious, yet still traditionally grounded, tests for jurisdiction, Kiobel signaled that the traditional grounds found, for example, in the Restatement of Foreign Relations are the ones that matter.  One could say, of course, that this has been true for a while.  After all, arguing that the ATS might require some conduct by someone that constitutes a violation of the law of nations, but doesn’t take into account whether the law of nations recognizes that someone as having the legal capacity to violate the law of nations, and so merely a domestic statute providing a domestic civil remedy for something that need not be international law as such, but merely conduct that would, if done by some actor with legal capacity, violate international law – well, that isn’t making any sweeping assertions about being international law or universal jurisdiction for the application of international law.  It’s just a peculiar American statute that gate-keeps liability with a weirdly counterfactual reference to international law as it might be.

International law in the subjunctive mood, maybe we could say.  But in that case, treating the statute as merely a domestic one with a weirdly constructed trigger, invoking a “law of nations” that we don’t mean the way other people mean it, argues strongly for a traditional approach to jurisdiction – it’s not universal jurisdiction anymore, because we’re not pretending that our reference point is actually universal, but instead merely a claim of extraterritoriality.  So it doesn’t seem quite so strange that the Chief Justice would invoke the presumption against extraterritoriality, because the thing, the statute, that plaintiffs propose to apply extraterritorially isn’t truly a claim of universality, either. (more…)

Supreme Court to Review Bauman v. DaimlerChrysler

by Kenneth Anderson

About the same time (April 2013) that the US Supreme Court released its opinion in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, the Court also granted review of a Ninth Circuit case, Bauman v. DaimlerChrysler. Just ahead of the July 4th weekend, the Obama administration submitted what John Bellinger, in a lucid post over at Lawfare, describes as a “remarkably strong” amicus brief urging the Court to

reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Bauman v. DaimlerChrysler.  The Justice Department argued that the Ninth Circuit’s 2011 decision finding personal jurisdiction in California over Daimler AG, a German company, for the actions of a subsidiary in Argentina, was “seriously flawed” and contrary to the Supreme Court’s subsequent 2011 decision in Goodyear.  The brief faults the Ninth Circuit for trying to hold a foreign corporation with few contacts to California to “answer in that State for any claim against it, arising anytime, anywhere in the world.”

The background to Bauman v. DaimlerChrysler, Bellinger explains, is that in May 2011 a Ninth Circuit panel

held that that Daimler AG, a German parent company with no operations or employees in the United States, could be sued under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act  (as well as common law and state law) by a group of Argentine nationals for human rights abuses allegedly committed by an Argentine subsidiary in collaborating with the Argentine government during the “Dirty War” in the 1970s, solely on the basis that a different U.S. subsidiary now distributes Mercedes Benz vehicles in the United States.  Applying an agency theory, the panel concluded that Daimler AG had sufficient contacts with the state of California by virtue of the actions of its subsidiary Mercedes Benz USA to give California personal jurisdiction over the German parent , even though Mercedes Benz USA had no involvement with the alleged facts in Argentina.

I agree with Bellinger that the likelihood, following Kiobel, is that the Court is moving to restrain jurisdictional assertions by Federal courts, and is pushing back toward stricter grounding in the traditional bases of jurisdiction by national courts.  My own larger, political view is that this is connected to a perception that although broad assertions of US jurisdiction through such vehicles as the Alien Tort Statute over foreign parties for acts on foreign territory can certainly be framed as enforcing universal international law through national courts, it is better understood as assertions of something quite different – what I’ve sometimes called the “law of the hegemon.”  That is an increasingly contested position as a matter of international politics spilling over into international law, and between the rise of new great powers and the Obama administration’s political embrace of decline, it seems to me unsurprising that the Obama administration would embrace a more traditional, much more restrictive understanding of jurisdiction.

But it also seems the Court is also generally on board with this pull-back.  As Bellinger says, many observers (me included) believe that

the Court would not have accepted the case unless it plans to reverse the Ninth Circuit.  Conservative justices are loathe to miss an opportunity to try to curb the Ninth Circuit’s consistent efforts to be a world court, and the more liberal justices may have wanted to demonstrate (as Justice Breyer argued in his concurrence in Kiobel) that the extraterritorial reach of the Alien Tort Statute can be limited by other jurisdictional restrictions.

I agree.  Despite the obvious clash of approaches between the Roberts majority and the Breyer minority in Kiobel, they do have an important common ground – an intention to limit extraterritorial jurisdiction through a stricter application of the traditional bases of jurisdiction. (more…)

International Law, Law of the Hegemon, the ATS, and Kiobel

by Kenneth Anderson

Peter beat me to the punch in commenting on Samuel Moyn’s interesting take on the ATS and Kiobel in Foreign Affairs, but I’m going to add a somewhat different point from Peter’s about what the body of ATS law has meant over the past few decades. I didn’t intervene in the earlier discussion about Kiobel because that discussion seemed to me properly focused mostly on the internal legal aspects of the decision – everything from jurisdiction to state courts, and much else besides.  I want to raise something external to Kiobel and the ATS as “law” – the distinction between international law and what (in various postings here and there) I’ve referred to as the “law of the hegemon.”

One way of looking at the ATS, including the body of cases built up over the years, is that it is “international law.”  Of course that’s not literally true; it is a domestic statute that refers to international law as the basis of some form of liability; violations of treaties or the law of nations.  But in a broader sense – the sense in which its supporters have long seen it – the ATS offers a domestic law vehicle by which to work out, interpret, express and, perhaps most important, make effective the requirements of international law.

This is surely the sense that, for example, Judge Jack Weinstein had when he opened the ATS hearing in the Agent Orange case ten years ago – this court sits, he said, in some fashion as an international court.  Sitting in the courtroom, it was entirely plain that he both took seriously and took real pleasure in seeing this District Court as sitting in judgment on the same types of crimes as raised at Nuremberg. There are several practical problems for this broader view, of course – how to figure out the relationship between the domestic law piece of the statute and the international law piece, for one.

Another, however, is that if this is supposed to be the working out in some broad sense of “international law” in American courts and using the tools available to American law, how does one keep the link between international law and its sources, processes, standards of interpretation, etc., as they exist in the international arena – and the application of this in an American law setting that has its own sources of authority, standards of interpretation, etc.  It’s fine to say that the ATS is the working out of international law in US courts, but international law is made in the international framework and evolves according to things that are different from and quite alien to the American legal system.  A telling example of the problem is found simply in the status of US court cases interpreting the ATS and, in the process, interpreting features of international law in ways that bear little relationship to how the international community might do it, now or in the future.  Yet in an American domestic law system, those distinctively US cases have greater authority than the international authorities.

One can say that this is precisely the problem of the American court system in dealing with human rights cases; it ought to recognize the international law sources and authorities as such, rather than privileging its own processes.  But this is hard, given that plaintiffs want simultaneously to reach to the special features of the US litigation system to achieve their aims; those special features of the US litigation system include many things, such as civil liability, corporate liability, etc., that don’t obviously exist in the international system.  It isn’t likely that one can pick and choose in the most favorable way – whether one is the plaintiff or the defendant – and if you go with the American system, you take its doctrine of sources, methods of interpretation, and much else besides, even as it applies to international law questions.  But those don’t match up very well with how the “international” actors in international law see those fundamental questions.  The questions are not substantive or procedural in the usual sense – they are, rather, the fundamental doctrines of authority, precedent, methods of interpretation.

A better way of seeing the law of the ATS, it has long seemed to me, is to treat it not as a particular state’s working out of international law in its courts, but rather a quite different category.  It seems to me best understood as the hegemonic power working out the law of the hegemon in ways that are intended to be somewhat parallel to “international law” on these issues.  There is a shared impulse rooted in morality, but what the hegemon does is within the terms of its own legal system.  It depends in large part upon the extent to which the hegemonic power is willing to allow the capital of its power to be exercised roughly to these ends – and the extent to which other important actors are willing to go along as a sort of rough way of getting international law actually enforced. (more…)

(More) Spiking the Football on Kiobel

by Julian Ku

In addition to the Ku/Yoo essay in Forbes, I’ll just point out two more positive takes on Kiobel from FOBs (friends of the Blog).

In Lawfare, John Bellinger expresses satisfaction with the Roberts opinion, and takes some credit for raising the presumption against extraterritoriality issue in government briefs during the Bush Administration and in the first round of Kiobel briefing.  He also adds a quick note on Bauman, guessing that the Court will reverse on personal jurisdiction grounds and not reach the ATS issues.

In the WSJ, Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern Law offers a more sweeping take on Kiobel. My favorite line: “Yet many who think the U.S. should not be the world’s policeman nonetheless want it to be the world’s judge.”  (One question: Is the converse also true?)

The whole essay is worth reading. He also offers a cautionary lesson for academic lawyers, most of whom failed to take the extraterritoriality issue more seriously. 

The unanimous vote in Kiobel also shows how the legal academy and bar tend to underestimate the strength of arguments that they politically disfavor. Foreign-cubed suits had proceeded for decades without any serious questions raised about their propriety. Instead, professors largely cheered them on. Nearly everyone anticipating the Kiobel decision (including myself) predicted a Supreme Court vote starkly divided on ideological lines. Yet all nine justices voted unreservedly in favor of ending ATS suits against foreign corporations….

Judge Leval’s Revealing Defense of the Alien Tort Statute

by Julian Ku

Pierre N. Leval, a well-respected judge who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, has published a full-scale no-holds-barred policy defense of the Alien Tort Statute in Foreign Affairs.   The essay, which is adapted from his lecture to the New York City Bar Association, offers the standard argument in favor of the Alien Tort Statute (it gives victims of human rights atrocities the possibility of justice and compensation).  And he offers a pre-rebuttal to a possibly negative ATS ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell: the fact that other countries do not permit similar civil suits does not mean the United States should also close its courthouse doors.  In fact, it is a good reason to keep them open.

But I found Judge Leval’s advice for foreign countries that might enact their own version of the ATS most interesting and revealing.

Human rights advocates should try to allay predictable objections to countries’ opening their courts. They should start by drafting proposed legislation with modest and realistic goals, building in limitations that may disappoint the most ardent activists but hugely increase the chances of success. For example, a proposed bill for a country should require the approval of the foreign ministry before each suit can proceed to trial and specify that a suit will be allowed only if the plaintiff has no access to just relief in the country of the defendant or in the country where the abuse occurred. The bill should also require a court to dismiss a suit when the defendant can show that the plaintiff has forum-shopped and has access to justice in a country far better suited to hear the dispute, on the condition that the defendant agrees to face trial in that other country’s courts. And it should require an initial showing of probable cause to stave off frivolous, politically motivated suits. Limitations such as these would do much to disarm or convert opponents.

I agree!  In fact, any law allowing for civil suits to enforce universal norms must have these kinds of political and foreign policy safeguards. And critics of the ATS in the United States have repeatedly noted that such safeguards do not really exist in the expansive and textually-unsupported interpretation of the ATS first developed by judges on Judge Leval’s court. Put another way, it is hard to imagine that a new bill in the U.S. Congress creating universal civil jurisdiction would pass without similar limitations.  So why should the courts feel comfortable giving the ATS such a widely expansive role if neither Congress nor any foreign legislature would ever enact such a law if given a choice?

The “American Tort” Interpretation of the Alien Tort Statute

by Thomas Lee

[Thomas H. Lee is the Leitner Family Professor of Law at Fordham Law School and a Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School in 2012-13.]

The Alien Tort Statute (ATS), 28 U.S. C. §1350, says that an alien may sue in federal district court “for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” The U.S. Supreme Court recently asked for briefing on the question “whether and under what circumstances the [ATS] allows courts to recognize a cause of action for violations of the law of nations occurring within the territory of a sovereign other than the United States.” Implicit in the question is a seeming concession: an alien tort occurring within foreign sovereign territory is still cognizable under the ATS if the alien plaintiff alleges violation of a U.S. treaty, such as the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT). For instance, if an alien alleges torture against another alien in a foreign country, then presumably the claim would be actionable under the ATS, despite the fact that both plaintiff and tortfeasor are aliens and the tort occurred in the territory of a foreign sovereign. In this limited sense (where a ratified treaty may be pled), even the Supreme Court seems to acknowledge a “universal jurisdiction” angle to the ATS.

In an article I published in 2006 in the Columbia Law Review, I stated the view that the Alien Tort Statute had nothing to do with universal jurisdiction; it was, I argued, a pragmatic measure enacted by the First Congress in September 1789 to let aliens sue in the federal district courts for money damages in the event of harm to their persons or property when the United States had expressly or implicitly promised the aliens that no such harm would come to them. The ATS both provides a right of action and original jurisdiction in federal district court to aliens injured under circumstances implicating U.S. sovereign responsibility; it is therefore a federal law for purposes of Article III arising-under jurisdiction. Translated to a modern context, the ATS would plausibly be available to “extraterritorial” tort actions by alien detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and non-combatant aliens harmed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen in the current war on terror. Such actions would be subject to immunities under the Federal Tort Claims Act, an after-enacted statute, with respect to most U.S. official defendants. And so the answer to the Supreme Court’s question about the extraterritorial application of the ATS is “whenever there is a tort occurring in the territory of a foreign sovereign the commission of which was the result of U.S. sovereign action or inaction when the United States had a duty under international law to prevent the injury to the alien plaintiff.” (more…)

Kiobel (IV): Precedent-setting Dutch Civil Universal Jurisdiction Case

by Eugene Kontorovich

[Eugene Kontorovich is a Professor of Law at Northwestern School of Law]

One of the peculiarities of the Alien Tort Statute is its mix of cosmopolitan conceptions of justice with American exceptionalism. Under the ATS the U.S. has been the only nation in the world allowing for universal jurisdiction (“UJ”) in civil suits. So while enforcing international law has been the justification for these suits, it has been a mode of enforcement otherwise unseen around the world.

That changed a tiny bit today with a precedent-setting decision in the Netherlands, that awarded damages in a civil suit brought by a Palestinian man against Libyan officials for torture that took place in Libya – the notorious and bizarre fraudulent persecution of foreign medical workers for infecting patients with AIDS. (And this is when Qaddafi could still be seen in polite company.)

So what does this ruling mean for the ATS, and particularly the extraterritoriality issue to be argued in Kiobel? At first, it would seem to bolster the plaintiff’s case, by making civil UJ seem (very marginally) less anomalous. But it also cuts the other way, perhaps more strongly. The argument that there is no other forum where these serious wrongs can be redressed has underpinned broad notions of the ATS, both with regards to UJ extraterritoriality and corporate liability. Now, the danger of “impunity” has abated. Now a federal judge must now ask in a UJ ATS case – why wasn’t it brought in the Netherlands? What if the Netherlands is actually physically closer to the conduct (as in Kiobel)? Isn’t the Netherlands where all the international lawyers are? Does plaintiff’s presumptive choice of forum apply to UJ cases?

The ATS and Extraterritoriality, Part II: Universal Civil Jurisdiction and Choice of Law

by Anthony Colangelo

[Anthony J. Colangelo is an Assistant Professor of Law at SMU Dedman School of Law]

I summarized in a previous post my arguments that the presumption against extraterritoriality should not apply to the ATS to the extent courts use international law incorporated into U.S. common law as the rule of decision. The presumption was raised explicitly by the brief of the UK and Dutch Governments in Kiobel and will likely be raised again.

This post addresses three discrete but related issues that may arise going forward:

1. Whether the ATS’s jurisdictional character alters the application of the presumption against extraterritoriality;
2. Whether “universal civil jurisdiction” is sufficiently recognized under international law—an issue that seemed to get attention at oral argument based on Chevron’s amicus brief; and
3. Choice of law, including as to corporate liability.

I’ll address each issue in turn, though I’ll say at the outset that I will also try to tie them together to open up what might be a new route for corporate liability grounded in an old legal discipline historically included as part of “the law of nations”; namely, private international law. Some of these preliminary thoughts will be elaborated and bolstered by other arguments in an amicus brief Anthony D’Amato and I intend to file in support of neither side. (more…)

Kiobel (III): Universality as a Constitutional Question

by Eugene Kontorovich

[Eugene Kontorovich is a Professor of Law at Northwestern School of Law]

The extraterritoriality analysis starts with piracy, which has gotten significant play in the courts of appeals’ extraterritoriality cases like Doe v. Exxon and Rio Tinto (as well as in the Kiobel oral arguments on corporate liability). Because Sosa held that piracy would be actionable under the ATS, it is clear that the battle over extraterritoriality in Kiobel will be a naval engagement. It is true that piracy occurs extraterritorially, and under the current piracy statute, can be prosecuted even with no connection to the U.S. But proponents of foreign-cubed draw precisely the wrong inferences from piracy’s exceptional status.

Piracy was not any old international crime: it has its own separate constitutional provision: Congress can punish “piracies and felonies on the high seas, and Offenses against the law of nations.” Thus whatever is true of “piracy” is not necessarily true of other “Offenses” that can be reached under the ATS: these are separate, though related, Art. I powers. The Constitution’s singling out of piracy is striking and demands explanation, because it creates a double-redundancy. Does anything make piracy different from other high seas felonies and international law offenses? Yes: it was the only universally cognizable offense at the time.

Starting with this textual observation, I have explained that Congress can at most only use universal jurisdiction over offenses that clearly have that status in international law (see The “Define and Punish” Clause and the Limits of Universal Jurisdiction, 103 Northwestern University Law Review 149 (2009)). There is evidence for this not just in the structure of the clause, but in grand jury instructions of Wilson and Story, the pronouncements of Marshall, and important judicial and Congressional precedents from the early Republic. For example, in U.S. v. Furlong, the Supreme Court in 1820 found that a statute that purported to punish “murder” by “any person” on the high seas does not apply universally because it is not a UJ crime.

Because murder was not universally cognizable, such “an offense committed by a foreign upon a foreign ship” is a matter in which “Congress ha[s] nor right to interfere.” The Court suggested this limitation was Constitutional, noting such universal regulation would exceed “the punishing powers of the body the enacted it,” i.e. go beyond the Define and Punish clause. Or as Marshall put it in 1800: “[T]he people of the United States have no jurisdiction over offenses committed on board a foreign ship against a foreign nation. Of consequence, in framing a Government for themselves, they cannot have passed this jurisdiction to that Government.” (more…)

Kiobel (II): Universality, Not Mere Extraterritoriality

by Eugene Kontorovich

[Eugene Kontorovich is a Professor of Law at Northwestern School of Law]

The new issue in Kiobel is not mere extraterritoriality, but rather universality. There are constitutional limits on universal jurisdiction (UJ); at most it can only be used for those “Piracies” and “Offenses” that have UJ status in international law. But Congress has not “defined” any offenses in the ATS. It delegated the task to the courts, but the courts must use this mandate narrowly and cautiously, as the “Define” power was given to Congress precisely because international law was too “deficient and vague” to be a common law rule.

Lower courts have discussed the application of the Alien Tort Statute to so-called “foreign cubed” cases – where the parties are foreigners and the conduct takes place abroad – as a matter of extraterritoriality, a term that suggests the presumption of statutory construction against extraterritorial application. While there is a presumption against extraterritoriality, the application of U.S. law to conduct abroad is not uncommon. Yet even the most controversial or aggressive use of extraterritoriality typically involves the regulation of American conduct abroad, or at least conduct that has substantial effects in American or on particularly American interests. But this is not the extraterritoriality of Kiobel, which like many ATS cases have no connection to the U.S. whatsoever. Such universally extraterritorial scope is certainly only found in the face of the clearest statement of congressional intent, such as in the unusual Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act.

Universal jurisdiction, of the kind asserted in Kiobel, is exceedingly rare and poses much greater problems than mere extraterritoriality. It raises the question of where the federal government, supposedly one of limited powers internally, gets the authority to regulate conduct with no domestic nexus, and have federal courts sit as little world courts.

As shall be seen, Supreme Court precedents clearly apply presumptions of extraterritoriality to statutes dealing with international law violations, even universal ones. Some have argued that the Supreme Court implicitly OK’d ATS extraterritoriality in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, its previous major encounter with the statute. Sosa itself involved conduct in Mexico –but it was the abduction from that country by the D.E.A. and its local contractors of a man involved in torturing a federal agent to death, so that he could stand trial in the U.S. Foreign-cubed that is not: few cases could have a tighter nexus with America.

In the oral arguments on corporate liability, Justice Ginsburg suggested that Sosa OK’d extraterritoriality by citing favorably Filartiga, the break-out 1980 Second Circuit case that turned to the ATS into a tool for human rights litigation. Sosa quoted Filartiga’s famous analogy between modern human rights UJ and its precursors: “the torturer has become-like the pirate and slave trader before him-hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind [a phrase that was law of nations shorthand for piracy’s universal cognizability].” Never mind that piracy serves as poor model for modern UJ; Sosa’s quote from Filartiga is hardly decisive. The issue was not before the Court, and secondly, it could be that the ATS allows for UJ for a few norms like torture, but perhaps not for others like extrajudicial killing.

Kiobel (I): ATS Arguments Make for Strange Bedfellows

by Eugene Kontorovich

[Eugene Kontorovich is Professor of Law at Northwestern School of Law]

Today the Supreme Court takes on the scope of the Commerce Clause in the historic healthcare cases. The case raises the question of whether there are any substantive limits to the federal government’s domestic regulatory power. But another case soon to be (re)argued before the Court, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell, manages to raise an even broader question: Are there any substantive limits to the federal government’s power to regulate matters occurring outside and having nothing do with the United States? Surprisingly, the latter question has not been generally regarded as a constitutional one.

The Supreme Court has expanded the issues under consideration in Kiobel, originally about corporate liability under the Alien Tort Statute, to include the extraterritorial application of the law. Like corporate liability, extraterritoriality had for decades just been assumed by the lower courts hearing ATS cases: now it will be fully explored.

These posts cross-posted on Volokh Conspiracy, will focus on the constitutional/federal courts issues involved, and of course explore the early piracy precedents of the Supreme Court to get traction on the issues. In short: before thinking about the ATS, one must consider the constitutional basis for universal jurisdiction – which is quite narrow. Furthermore, there are some good reasons derived both from the constitution and precedent for interpreting the ATS narrowly, as not exercising whatever universal jurisdiction power the federal government does have.

Before turning to the merits, it is amusing to note the strange bedfellows ATS doctrine makes. The litigation and accompanying academic debate over the meaning and scope of the Alien Tort Statute has been a marvel of surprising ideological transpositions, and more reversals of traditional roles than All’s Well That Ends Well. On the issue of corporate liability, liberals (crudely speaking) urge the Court look to parochial U.S. law, and conservatives (still crudely speaking) favor the adoption of a rule from international law and practice. Then the Court asks for new arguments on extraterritoriality. Now the conservatives point to U.S. law – the judge-made presumption against extraterritoriality – and liberals point to the international status of the offenses. It is like a game of Twister.

Neither position is fully correct. There may be a place for extraterritoriality in ATS cases, but in a much narrower class of cases then where it is currently applied. The following two posts will draw on much of my prior work, and I hope the reader forgives me not recapitulating the entire argument of those articles here.