Did the Supreme Court Implicitly Reverse Kiobel’s Corporate Liability Holding?

by Julian Ku

Way back in 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Second Circuit held that corporations cannot be held liable under customary international law in ATS lawsuits.  That decision, which was the original basis for the Supreme Court’s consideration of the Kiobel case, has remained the law of the Second Circuit (New York, Connecticut, Vermont) though no other circuit court in the U.S. has followed it.  The Supreme Court was initially going to review that original Kiobel decision, but then decided Kiobel on other grounds, namely, that the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to claims brought under the Alien Tort Statute.  In recent cases, ATS plaintiffs have raised questions about the viability of the original Kiobel corporate liability holding. Did the Supreme Court leave that question open or had it reversed the lower court’s corporate liability decision sub silentio?

The argument that the Kiobel corporate liability holding no longer stands has two parts.  First, a plain reading of the Supreme Court’s Kiobel decision turns up language suggesting that corporations could be liable under the Alien Tort Statute.  In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts stated that ““[c]orporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices [to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application].”  The argument here is that although “mere corporate presence” is not enough, corporations with other, deeper connections might displace the presumption against extraterritoriality. (Since the Court in other places explicitly stated it was not reaching the corporate liability question, I am skeptical of this argument).

Second, and more persuasively, you might argue that because the Supreme Court dismissed the Kiobel case on the grounds that the presumption against extraterritoriality applied to the Alien Tort Statute and that the presumption only applies if the court has reached the merits (e.g. whether the statute applies to the facts at hand).  Because the corporate liability defense was a jurisdictional ruling, this line of reasoning goes, then the Supreme Court must have implicitly found that it had jurisdiction over corporations in order to dismiss the case on the merits.

This second argument has some force to it (it was previewed in our insta-symposium last spring), and it was accepted by Judge Shira Scheindlin in a separate New York district court ATS case even though she ended up dismissing that case on other grounds.   It looks like the plaintiffs in another ATS case, Jesner v. Arab Bank, will get the appeals court to consider the issue as well, according to this NY Law Journal write up of oral argument in that case.

I think it is unlikely that the panel will conclude that the Kiobel corporate liability holding has been implicitly reversed, but I do think there is enough of an argument here to attract review of the full en banc Second Circuit. The tricky part here is that the ATS is itself a “jurisdictional” statute, and as the Supreme Court in Kiobel acknowledged, the presumption against extraterritoriality doesn’t typically apply to jurisdictional statutes.  So the Kiobel presumption is a little different and its application to causes of action that can be brought under the ATS is not exactly the same as when the standard presumption against extraterritoriality is applied to a regular non-jurisdictional statute. But it is unclear whether it is different enough to matter.

I am still coming to my own point of view on this issue. I don’t think the defendants in Jesner really addressed this issue effectively in their brief, but it is a complex issue.  At the very least, I think it will be resolved in the near future by the Second Circuit, either by this panel or by the full court. Corporate liability under the Alien Tort Statute is not quite a dead issue, but ti will take some time to figure out how alive it is.

The Case That Won’t Die: U.S. Court Revives South Africa Apartheid Alien Tort Statute Lawsuit

by Julian Ku

So maybe the use of the Alien Tort Statute against corporations for overseas activities isn’t fully dead. Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has revived In re South Africa Apartheid Litigation, a twelve-year-old litigation that just won’t die. A copy of the opinion can be found here.

Most of the opinion deals with whether a corporation may be sued under the Alien Tort Statute, an issue most thought was settled within the Second Circuit (the federal appeals circuit that includes New York). As a lower court within that circuit, the district court should have been bound to follow that court’s 2010 opinion Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell, which held that corporations cannot be sued under the ATS.  The lower court judge, Shira Scheindlin, decided that since the Supreme Court had ended up dismissing the Kiobel plaintiffs on other grounds (e.g. extraterritoriality), the Court had sub silentio reversed the original Kiobel decision’s ruling on corporate liability.  That is quite a stretch, and appears based almost solely on the Supreme Court’s reference to “mere corporate presence” as being insufficient to overcome the statutory presumption against extraterritoriality.  This language, and the Supreme Court’s decision not to otherwise mention the corporate liability issue, was enough for Judge Scheindlin to revisit the corporate liability issue.  I don’t really buy this sub silentio interpretation of Kiobel, but to give credit where credit is due, this argument was previewed in our Kiobel insta-symposium by Jordan Wells, a third year law student.  Let’s just say Judge Scheindlin really went out of her way to re-open this question.  

My views on the corporate liability issue haven’t changed since I published my full length attack on it back in 2010.  In my view, the Supreme Court’s decision in Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, finding that the Torture Victim Protection Act does not allow torture claims against corporate defendants, provides an unappreciated boost to the policy rationale for limiting these kinds of lawsuits to natural persons.  But other circuits, and apparently Judge Scheindlin, refuse to agree with me (I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true).

Putting aside the corporate liability issue, it is perhaps more surprising that Judge Scheindlin did not simply dismiss all of the defendants on Kiobel extraterritoriality grounds.  The Second Circuit appeals panel in this case held that all of the defendants (U.S. and foreign) should be dismissed because all of the alleged relevant conduct occurred in South Africa.  The U.S. corporate defendants (Ford and IBM) did not overcome the Kiobel presumption because the complaints only allege vicarious liability as parent corporations to their South African subsidiaries.   Yet Judge Scheindlin only dismissed the foreign defendants and will allow the plaintiffs to re-file their complaints against the US defendants to overcome the new Kiobel extraterritoriality presumption.  This means that she is willing to explore in greater detail the Kiobel requirement that plaintiffs’ claims “touch and concern” the territory of the U.S. with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritoriality.  Will knowledge by the US parent of the subsidiaries’ activities in South Africa be enough? Will receiving profits from the subsidiaries be enough? I assume that is the best the plaintiffs will be able to plead is knowledge by the U.S. parent.

I assume this is going back to the appeals panel in this case, and we should expect some rather testy reactions. Judge Jose Cabranes (the author of the appeals court panel decision) and Judge Scheindlin have recently tangled over a local NY case against aggressive police tactics resulting in the controversial removal of Judge Scheindlin from that case (Judge Cabranes was one of three judges involved in that removal order).  This latest Scheindlin order seems a double-insult at Judge Cabranes.  It “reverses” his earlier Kiobel decision on corporate liability (from a lower court no less!), and then it ignores his subsequent opinion holding that all defendants should be dismissed via a motion for judgment on the pleadings.   A little tension brewing at 40 Foley Square, perhaps?

Guest Post: Colangelo–Kiobel and Conflicts of Law

by Anthony Colangelo

[Anthony Colangelo is Associate Professor of Law at SMU Dedman School of Law.]

As my comment to Roger’s initial post noted and my forthcoming piece in the Cornell Law Review explains, like Bill Dodge I view the presumption against extraterritoriality’s operation in Kiobel as going principally to the cause of action allowed by the ATS as opposed to the ATS proper. Though as Roger points out, the Supreme Court did find itself construing the ATS in order to discern whether the presumption applied to the cause of action, making an already messy area of law incoherent in light of the Court’s own most recent precedent, as I noted in an OJ Insta-Symposium contribution last spring.

What I’d like to explore now is another question raised by this terrific series of posts: the extent to which state law incorporating international law may authorize suits for causes of action arising abroad after Kiobel. This question is both especially urgent because it involves a potential alternative avenue for litigating human rights abuses abroad in U.S. courts, and especially vexing because it juxtaposes different doctrinal and jurisprudential conceptualizations of the ability of forum law to reach inside foreign territory. On the one hand, the question can be framed as whether forum law applies extraterritorially; on the other, it can be framed as a choice of law among multiple laws, of which forum law is one. These different ways of framing the question are not necessarily mutually exclusive, yet they can lead to radically different results. Namely, Supreme Court jurisprudence stringently applying a presumption against extraterritoriality to knock out claims with foreign elements stands in stark contrast to a flexible cadre of state choice-of-law methodologies that liberally apply state law whenever the forum has any interest in the dispute.

The result is a counterintuitive disparity: state law enjoys potentially greater extraterritorial reach than federal law. The disparity is counterintuitive because the federal government, not the states, is generally considered the primary actor in foreign affairs. Indeed, the presumption against extraterritoriality springs directly from foreign affairs concerns: its main purpose is to avoid unintended discord with other nations that might result from extraterritorial applications of U.S. law. If the federal government is the primary actor in foreign affairs, and if the presumption operates to limit the reach of federal law on a foreign affairs rationale, it follows that state law should have no more extraterritorial reach than federal law.

Yet at the same time there is a long and robust history stretching back to the founding of state law providing relief in suits with foreign elements through choice-of-law analysis. Hence, not only does the disparity between the reach of federal and state law bring into conflict federal versus state capacities to apply law abroad (or entertain suits arising abroad), it also brings into conflict the broader fields that delineate those respective capacities: foreign affairs and federal supremacy on the one hand, which argue in favor of narrowing the reach of state law to U.S. territory, and private international law and conflict of laws on the other hand, which argue in favor of allowing suits with foreign elements to proceed in state court under state law. (more…)

Guest Post: Dodge–The Presumption Against Extraterritoriality Does Not Apply to Jurisdictional Statutes

by William S. Dodge

[William S. Dodge is The Honorable Roger J. Traynor Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Research at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. From August 2011 to July 2012, he served as Counselor on International Law to the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State, where he worked on the amicus briefs of the United States in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the State Department or of the United States.]

The Supreme Court held in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., 133 S. Ct. 1659 (2013), that the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to suits brought under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). In a recent post, Roger Alford asks whether a federal court sitting in diversity or a state court of general jurisdiction may still hear the federal common law claims for torts in violation of the law of nations that the Court recognized in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U.S. 692 (2004). The answer depends on whether Kiobel applied the presumption against extraterritoriality to the ATS itself or to Sosa’s federal common law cause of action.

As a general matter, the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply to jurisdictional statutes. Putting Kiobel to one side for the moment, I know of only two cases in which the Supreme Court has used the presumption to interpret statutes that might be characterized as jurisdictional. In Argentine Republic v. Amerada Hess Shipping Corp., 488 U.S. 428, 440-41 (1989), the Court applied the presumption to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, and in Smith v. United States, 507 U.S. 197, 203-04 (1993), it applied the presumption to the Federal Tort Claims Act. But both the FSIA and the FTCA codify rules of immunity, which the Court has characterized as substantive, and so neither statute is purely jurisdictional. No one suggests that the presumption against extraterritoriality limits 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (the federal question statute), or 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (the diversity and alienage jurisdiction statute), or 18 U.S.C. § 3231 (the subject matter jurisdiction statute for federal criminal offenses). Yet none of these jurisdictional provisions contain the clear indication of extraterritoriality that would be necessary to rebut the presumption. To take one example, if the presumption against extraterritoriality were applied to 18 U.S.C. § 3231, a federal court would have to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction a federal prosecution for bombing U.S. government facilities abroad despite the fact that the substantive criminal statute (18 U.S.C. § 2332f) expressly applies when “the offense takes place outside the United States.” That makes no sense, and is not a result that any sensible court would reach.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank, 130 S. Ct. 2869 (2010), confirms the distinction between substantive statutes to which the presumption against extraterritoriality applies and jurisdictional statutes to which it does not. In Morrison, the Court used the presumption to limit a substantive provision of the Securities Exchange Act, finding “no affirmative indication in the Exchange Act that § 10(b) applies extraterritorially.” Id. at 2883. But notably, the Court did not apply the presumption against extraterritoriality to the Exchange Act’s jurisdictional provision. To the contrary, the Court specifically held in Part II of its opinion that “[t]he District Court here had jurisdiction under 15 U.S.C. § 78aa to adjudicate the question whether § 10(b) applies to National’s conduct,” id. at 2877, despite the fact that § 78aa contains no clear indication of extraterritoriality, which would be needed to rebut the presumption if it applied.

Kiobel is consistent with the distinction that courts applying the presumption against extraterritoriality have long drawn between jurisdictional and substantive statutes. “We typically apply the presumption to discern whether an Act of Congress regulating conduct applies abroad,” the Court noted. 133 S. Ct. at 1664 (emphasis added). The ATS was not such a statute; the Sosa Court had held that it was “strictly jurisdictional.” But Sosa also held that the ATS authorized courts to recognize federal common law causes of action for torts in violation of the law of nations, and it was to those causes of action that the Supreme Court applied the presumption in Kiobel. “[W]e think the principles underlying the canon of interpretation similarly constrain courts considering causes of action that may be brought under the ATS.” Id. (emphasis added). Thus, after reviewing the text and history of the ATS, the Court concluded “that the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to claims under the ATS, and that nothing in the statute rebuts that presumption.” Id. at 1669 (emphasis added).

To be clear, (more…)

Does the Presumption against Extraterritoriality Apply to the ATS or the Underlying Federal Common Law Claims?

by Roger Alford

I just completed a draft essay on Kiobel for the Notre Dame Law Review (the symposium will include luminaries such as A.J. Bellia, Doug Cassel, William Castro, Bradford Clark, Bill Dodge, Eugene Kontorovich, Thomas Lee, Michael Ramsey, Ralph Steinhardt, Beth Stephens, and Carlos M. Vázquez). To my surprise after careful reflection there remains an important question that I have not seen discussed anywhere thus far: Does the presumption against extraterritoriality apply to the statute only or also to the underlying federal common law claims recognized in Sosa? If it only applies to the ATS, then does it follow that the underlying federal common law claims can be pursued elsewhere, such as in federal courts exercising diversity jurisdiction or in state courts exercising general jurisdiction?

To test the hypothesis, let’s assume that following Kiobel Congress immediately amended the ATS to make it clear that the statute applied extraterritorially. The amendment made no mention of the underlying common law claims one way or another. What impact would that amendment have on the extraterritorial application of the federal common law claims? If the jurisdictional statute suddenly applied extraterritorially by congressional mandate, would the underlying federal common law claims be cognizable for extraterritorial conduct and injury?

If the answer to that question is yes, then does it also follow that the only extraterritorial limitation that Kiobel recognized was with respect to the statute, not the underlying federal common law claims? Reading Kiobel in light of Sosa presents the following possible syllogism: if (1) there is a limited category of federal common law claims actionable for violations of the law of nations; and (2) the statutory canon limits the extraterritorial reach of the ATS, not the underlying common law claims; then (3) the common law claims may be pursued in federal courts exercising diversity jurisdiction or state courts exercising general jurisdiction.

The first uncontroversial premise is that the ATS does not create a cause of action for violations of the law of nations, the common law does. In Sosa the Court held that the ATS, although only a jurisdictional statute, was “enacted on the understanding that that the common law would provide a cause of action for the modest number of international law violations with a potential for personal liability….” It then held that “no development in the two centuries from the enactment of § 1350 … has categorically precluded federal courts from recognizing a claim under the law of nations as an element of common law. Congress has not in any relevant way amended § 1350 or limited civil common law power by another statute.” For such a common law claim to be actionable, however, it must be “based on the present-day law of nations” and “rest on a norm of international character accepted by the civilized world and defined with a specificity comparable to the features of the 18th-century paradigms we have recognized.” The Court in Kiobel reinforced this understanding of a “modest number” of “federal common law claims” actionable for violations of the law of nations. In other words, both Sosa and Kiobel confirm that the ATS is not the source or the limit for common law claims involving international law violations.

The second more controversial premise is that the ATS is a jurisdictional statute and that the presumption against extraterritoriality applies only to the statute, not to the underlying federal common law claims. In Kiobel the Court declared that “the presumption against extraterritoriality constrains courts exercising power under the ATS.” That presumption, the Court said, is “a canon of statutory interpretation” that assumes “when a statute has no clear indication of an extraterritorial application, it has none.” The purpose of the canon is to avoid unintended clashes between our laws and those of other nations by requiring Congress to manifest a clear intent to regulate conduct abroad. Although the ATS “does not directly regulate conduct or afford relief” the Court concluded that “we think the principles underlying the canon of interpretation similarly constrain courts considering causes of action that may be brought under the ATS.” The Court then looked to the text, history and purpose of the ATS to determine whether Congress intended for the ATS to apply abroad, and found “nothing in the statute to rebut the presumption.” Had there been such evidence, the jurisdictional statute would apply extraterritorially without altering the content or reach of the underlying common law claims. Likewise, as noted above, should Congress amend the ATS so that it applies extraterritorially, this too would not alter the content or reach of the underlying common law claims. Thus, the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to limit Congress’ grant of jurisdictional authority to adjudicate federal common law claims for violations of the law of nations.

The surprising conclusion one draws from these two premises is that federal common law claims actionable for violations of the law of nations still may be pursued in federal courts exercising foreign diversity jurisdiction or state courts exercising general jurisdiction. As for the former, foreign diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 requires a $75,000 amount in controversy and the inclusion of a U.S. citizen either as a plaintiff or defendant. The typical “foreign-cubed” facts pursued in ATS claims would be foreclosed under this grant of jurisdiction. However, where a U.S. citizen is involved in a diversity action, the federal common law claims recognized in Sosa may survive Kiobel’s presumption against extraterritoriality. The presumption against extraterritoriality will apply to the diversity jurisdiction statute as well, but as Anthony Bellia and Bradford Clark argue in their forthcoming essay “[i]t is uncontroversial that federal courts may exercise foreign diversity jurisdiction over tort claims by aliens against U.S. citizens for acts occurring outside the United States.”

This conclusion also means that state courts sitting as courts of general jurisdiction may resolve the federal common law claims recognized in Sosa. Unless one interprets the presumption against extraterritoriality articulated in Kiobel as limiting the underlying common law claims rather than the jurisdictional statute, the international law claims that heretofore were pursued in federal court under the ATS still could be pursued in state court as federal common law claims. There is nothing unusual in suggesting that federal common law claims may be adjudicated in state courts. State courts routinely apply and make federal common law, including claims involving admiralty and implicating the rights and obligations of the United States.

But let’s assume that this syllogism is wrong. If the Court’s application of the presumption against extraterritoriality applies both to the ATS and the underlying federal common law claims, there remains the possibility that state courts could fashion state common law claims based on the criteria established in Sosa. State law routinely mirrors comparable federal law. There is nothing in Sosa or Kiobel that prevents a state court from recognizing a state cause of action for violations of “a norm of international character accepted by the civilized world and defined with a specificity comparable to the features of the 18th-century paradigms,” such as piracy, violations of safe conducts, or offenses against ambassadors. Courts applying the common law already have established gradations of torts that embrace negligence, gross negligence, intentional torts and strict liability. There is no logical reason that an international law violation could not be a state common law cause of action, or at a minimum a critical factor in the determination of liability or damages under state law.

To suggest that the statutory presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply to federal common law claims (or similar state common law claims) is not to suggest the absence of territorial limits. As with the extraterritorial application of state laws, the constitutional limits of the Due Process Clause set forth in Allstate Ins. Co. v. Hague prevent state courts from applying common law claims in the absence of any “significant contact or significant aggregation of contacts, creating state interests, with the parties and the occurrence or transaction.” Nor is there any reason to think courts resolving common law claims for international law violations would go so far as to violate international limits of prescriptive jurisdiction. Both constitutional and international law impose obligations of a territorial nexus separate and apart from the statutory presumption against extraterritoriality. The territorial limits of common law claims for international law violations are derived from constitutional and international law, not canons of statutory interpretation.

I’m not convinced that all of this reasoning is correct, and even less convinced that lower courts will buy these arguments. But I thought it was important enough to flag for our readers.

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.

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…)

Will the Supreme Court Revisit Dormant Foreign Affairs Preemption in California’s Armenian Genocide Law?

by Julian Ku

Armenian-American groups are up in arms over the U.S. government’s decision to file an amicus brief against a California law allowing claims against insurance companies by “Armenian genocide victims.”  But they shouldn’t be. The law really involves an ongoing constitutional powers debate between the states and the federal government over foreign affairs, and the U.S. government is siding (not surprisingly) with its own powers.  What is more interesting about this case, in the wake of Kiobel, is how human rights groups will increasingly support state autonomy in foreign affairs (to allow human rights lawsuits) and how business and conservative groups will likely oppose it.

The California law had been struck down by a unanimous Ninth Circuit en banc panel on the grounds that it was preempted by federal government policies and constitutional powers over foreign affairs. The law extended a statute of limitations on insurance claims against insurance companies that do business in California for residents or non-residents who are found to be “Armenian genocide victims.”  Both the district court and the initial appellate court panel had found at least some parts of the law could survive a federal preemption challenge (as Roger described here), so the unanimous en banc panel decision was quite surprising.

The Solicitor General’s brief focuses mostly on the “field preemption” theory developed most recently in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in American Ins Association v. Garamendi. Field preemption describes a conflict between a state’s actions and the federal government’s “field”, such as foreign affairs.  Conflict preemption focuses on the idea that the federal government has made an express legal determination with which the state law conflicts (e.g. through a statute or treaty, or maybe an “executive foreign policy”). Where the federal government’s policy on the Armenian genocide is a fairly complex muddle, I don’t think there is much of a case for conflict preemption.

(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….

Kiobel Roundtable: The ATS Was About Protecting Safe-Conducts

by Thomas Lee

[Thomas H. Lee is Leitner Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law. He is currently a visiting professor of law at Harvard.]

I agree with Meir that piracy is a “red herring”  and am writing to elaborate on his thoughtful remarks.  The thing that troubles me most about how the Court is thinking about this case is that it continues to accept the Sosa statement that the ATS is 2/3 about piracy and ambassadorial infringements, but not thinking at all about the 1/3 nebulous “safe conduct” violation which I have argued was the real purpose of the ATS.  106 Columbia Law Rev. 830 (2006).  Other scholars have agreed in the past that the ATS was likely not about ambassadorial infringements or piracy (e.g., Anne-Marie Slaughter in 1989 re ambassadorial infringements; Curt Bradley re piracy in 2002).

This conclusion becomes crystal clear when the Judiciary Act’s jurisdictional provisions are read as a unit.  Regardless whether holistic reading makes sense for the Constitution or other statutes, it surely makes sense for the First Judiciary Act, which was largely the work of Oliver Ellsworth and enacted by the first session of the First Congress to set up the federal courts for the first time.  Ambassadors can sue in the Supreme Court, with concurrent jurisdiction in state court under section 13 of the Judiciary Act (pages 851-64 of my article explain why), and piracy falls within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the district courts under clause 2 of section 9 of the Judiciary Act, two clauses before the ATS which is the fourth clause in section 9.  People often seem to forget that the ATS is not a free-standing statute but just a clause in a section of a much bigger, iconic enactment.

The admiralty and maritime grant in clause 2 was exclusive with the exception of the saving to suitors clause to state courts; the ATS grant in clause 4 is concurrent with state and the federal circuits.  The admiralty jurisdiction would have been territorially limited because most actions (called “libels”) were in rem, but if a pirate ship were brought to a US port, it could be condemned and its captain and crew tried for piracy.  This is all explained in pages 866-71 of my article, and the tension with Bradford’s construction of the ATS in 1795 is explained at pages 889 to 895.

In my view, all of this is explicit from a careful reading of the Judiciary  Act.  It then raises the question of what exactly the ATS is about, and the safe-conduct is all that is left.  My article was an attempt to understand what exactly the late eighteenth century safe conduct was at international law, how it was understood by the First Congress, and what it means today.  My conclusion for what it means today was that the ATS was enacted “to redress common law torts brought by friendly or neutral aliens [thus, the tort was in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States” promising safety] committed by private actors — including aliens– with a United States sovereign nexus, not for international law violations committed by anyone anywhere.”

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…)