This week the Supreme Court will take another look at the Alien Tort Statute to answer the question whether corporations can be sued in the United States for alleged complicity in human rights abuses abroad. It’s a case drawing a lot of attention and given the evolution of corporate rights under the Roberts Court, with good reason.
The Alien Tort Statute dates back to 1789 but it has only recently (well, recently by legal standards) come back in fashion when human rights lawyers started suing foreign government officials under it and then eventually started suing multinational corporations under it.
The case the Supreme Court will consider has the Obama administration joining forces with human rights advocates in pursuing allegations that Royal Dutch Shell Plc helped Nigeria squash oil exploration protests in the 1990s and engage in widespread human rights abuses.
Attorneys for the Obama administration and human rights attorneys argue that corporations can be held liable in U.S. courts for committing or assisting foreign governments in torture, executions or other human rights abuses. Attorneys for Shell Oil argue that only individuals, like a specific company employee can be sued.
U. S. federal courts have split on the issue of corporate liability for human rights abuses which is why the Roberts Court has taken up this appeal. The Alien Tort Statute from 1789 grants U.S. courts jurisdiction over any civil lawsuit “by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” In 2004 the Supreme Court held it could be used to pursue certain international law violations but did not hold who could be held liable under the statute.
A decision by the Roberts Court that corporations are immune from liability under the statute would only bolster the case for re-visiting corporate rights under Citizens United. But let’s be clear here- finding corporate liability under the Alien Tort Statute has, by legal standards, nothing to do with 14th Amendment corporate personhood except that as corporate rights have expanded under the Constitution based on the legal fiction of personhood so has the possibility of taking the argument from one area of law and applying it to another. Some would say this is only fair–corporations should not have the benefit of corporate personhood without the corresponding responsibility.
The question is, does the Roberts Court agree?
A ruling on the case should come by the end of June.
Photo from Sarah G via flickr.