WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday morning appeared divided along party lines, with a conservative majority ready to hold that corporations cannot be held accountable in federal courts for international human rights violations.
The Court was hearing oral argument in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which was brought under a founding-era law, commonly called the Alien Tort Statute, that allows foreign nationals to bring civil lawsuits in U.S. federal courts “for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” The 12 Nigerian plaintiffs contend that Shell Oil’s parent company aided and abetted the Nigerian government in its torture and extrajudicial killing of environmental and human rights protesters resisting Shell’s operations in Nigeria in the 1990s.
At the very start of the argument, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that “the case turns in large part” on Royal Dutch Petroleum’s argument in its brief that “international law does not recognize corporate liability.” He then pulled a quote from Chevron’s brief in support of its fellow multinational oil company, which said, “No other nation in the world permits its court to exercise universal civil jurisdiction over alleged extraterritorial human rights abuses to which the nation has no connection.”
“I was trying to find the best authority you have to refute that proposition,” Kennedy told the Nigerians’ lawyer, Paul Hoffman.
Hoffman responded that the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have somewhat similar laws on their books. Problem is, those two countries submitted briefs opposing Hoffman’s position in this case.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia also expressed hostility to the notion of corporate liability under the Alien Tort Statute. This lawsuit, Alito noted, was brought by foreign plaintiffs against a foreign defendant for acts that