The Obama administration on Thursday filed a brief [text, PDF] in the US Supreme Court [official website] asking the justices to limit corporate liability for human rights violations occurring overseas. The government argued that the court should dismiss the lawsuit in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. [docket]. The issue in the case is whether three oil companies are immune from US lawsuits under the Alien Tort Statute of 1789 (ATS) [text] for alleged torture and international law violations. In a brief order in March [JURIST report], the court "directed [the parties] to file supplemental briefs addressing the following question: 'Whether and under what circumstances the Alien Tort Statute ... 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.'" In its brief, the government argued that US courts can recognize such suits, but only in limited circumstances. They said that the court should only accept such cases when the plaintiffs have exhausted all other viable options of relief, including domestic litigation. The brief concludes that the current case does not meet this narrow standard, and asks the court to dismiss the suit. The government's brief marks a change in position from an earlier brief in which it supported the plaintiffs in this case.
The victims of the alleged torture and international law violations in this case filed their supplemental brief [JURIST report] in the Supreme Court Monday, arguing that the ATS is not limited to torts that occur in the US. While accepting that international law is the proper authority to define human rights violations, the petitioners, Nigerian plaintiffs suing foreign-based oil companies, argued in February that domestic US common law should fill in the blank in ATS over who could actually be sued for such atrocities. The US government originally sided with the petitioners, with Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler providing the additional argument that international law does not independently foreclose foreign corporate liability the way that it immunizes a foreign government from liability for official wrongdoings. The government's new brief still supports this position but argues that the courts should only accept limited foreign lawsuits. The respondent oil companies argued that international law is wholly controlling in such a situation and that domestic US common law has no bearing on the proceedings. Respondents pressed the fact that not only does international law not recognize corporate responsibility for the alleged offenses, but the world community has never recognized corporate liability for the misdeeds of individuals.