WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court opened its new term with a high-stakes dispute between businesses and human rights groups over accountability for foreign atrocities that could have far-reaching implications.
Human rights groups are warily watching the case because it would be a major setback if the court rules that foreign victims cannot use American courts, under a 1789 law, to seek accountability and money damages for what they have been through.
The justices appeared ready, as arguments began Oct. 1, to impose some limits but it was unclear how far the court would go to shield businesses and perhaps individuals, as well, from human rights lawsuits under the 223-year-old Alien Tort Statute.
Justice Samuel Alito said the Nigerian case has no connection to this country because the businesses, the victims and the location of the abuse all are foreign. “Why does this case belong in the courts of the United States?” Alito asked.
Among other concerns raised by the justices was the prospect that U.S. firms could “be sued in any country in any court in the world,” in Justice Anthony Kennedy's words.
The Obama administration is partly on the oil company's side in this case. “There just isn't any meaningful connection to the United States,” Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. said.
But Verrilli also said the court should not issue a broad ruling that would foreclose all similar lawsuits even when the corporation being sued is American.
The administration is not endorsing such lawsuits but argues that the broader question should wait for an appropriate case. U.S. allies also oppose a broad interpretation of the law.
The Alien Tort Statute went unused for most of American history until rights lawyers dusted it off beginning in the late 1970s.
Lawsuits have been brought against individuals who allegedly took part in abuses and, more recently, against companies that do business in places where abuses occur, as well as in the United States.
Paul Hoffman, a Venice, Calif.-based lawyer who represents the Nigerian victim, drew a parallel to Nazi Germany and the role played by chemical giant I.G. Farben in supplying Nazi death camps with poison gas.
“Is it the case that a modern-day I.G. Farben would be exempt from the Alien Tort Statute?” Hoffman said.
Business interests argue they are being subjected to claims over the bad behavior of foreign regimes, which are shielded from lawsuits here under U.S. law.
The court first heard the case in February to consider whether businesses could be sued under the law.
But the justices asked for additional arguments about whether the law could be applied to any conduct that takes place abroad.
A decision is expected by spring.