Course Notes – IL: ATS and Corporate Persons

As I mentioned in class on Monday, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week on two cases Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum and Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority. These cases concern the Alien Tort Statute, an almost-forgotten law that allows foreigners who violate serious international legal rules and norms to be held accountable in the US.

Kiobel involves Shell’s complicity in the torture of Nigerian nationals. Mohamad involves complaints against the Palestinian Authority and the PLO for torture of Mohamad’s father, a naturalized American who was in the West Bank at the time.

Here are some of the big themes in the case:

1. Are corporations people?

As Peter Weiss (NY Times h/t my student, Micky Capper) notes, the Supreme Court is faced with an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, in Citizens United it granted corporations certain rights as corporate persons. On the other hand, the Second District Court has said–in essence–that corporations are not individual persons when it comes to the Alien Tort Statute. How will they reconcile these two positions? Will they?

2. The human rights angle.

Over at Erga Omnes, the human rights dimension of the case is front and center. Kiobel involves claims against Royal Dutch Shell for its role in the torture of activists in the Niger Delta (or at least helping the Nigerian government in this).

3. Comparative Foreign Law and the Risk of Political Tensions

Following the excerpts in John Bellinger’s post at Lawfare, it is clear that the issue of extraterritorial application of the ATS is of great interest to the justices. Kennedy seems concerned that the ATS is giving the US jurisdiction that no other country attempts to exercise. Alito is concerned about how this might exacerbate international tensions.

I think the petitioner’s attorney, Hoffman, makes a great – if perhaps not original – point when he states:

“I think one of the most important principles in this case is that international law, from the time of the Founders to today, uses domestic tribunals, domestic courts and domestic legislation, as the primary engines to enforce international law.”

Indeed, if international law is going to matter, it does rely on mechanisms such as the ATS.

The Obama Administration is in favor of corporate liability in these cases, reports Reuters.

For more on these cases, see:

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