Alien Tort Statute

Stop Press: Supreme Court Orders Kiobel Reargued to Address Extraterritoriality

By John Bellinger
Monday, March 5, 2012, 7:03 PM

In a surprising development, less than a week after last Tuesday's oral argument in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, the Supreme Court has ordered the case to be rebriefed and reargued to address the extraterritorial application of the Alien Tort Statute.  The Court's order directs the parties to file supplemental briefs on whether the ATS "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.”   The plaintiff-petitioners brief is due May 3.  Shell's brief is due June 4.  Presumably the case will be reargued sometime in October or November.  At the same time, the Court took no action on the cert petition in the Rio Tinto case (which had directly raised the issues of extraterritoriality and aiding-and-abetting).  On this timetable, a final decision in Kiobel is unlikely before early 2013.

The Court's order may reflect that a majority or plurality of the justices would like to decide the case on the larger issue of whether the Alien Tort Statute even applies to torts committed in other countries, rather than on the narrower issue of corporate liability, and that other justices want to have more briefing on the issue, which was not addressed by the Second Circuit.   As I noted in my post about last week's oral argument, Justices Kennedy, Roberts, and Alito focused almost all of their questions on the diplomatic tensions and problems under international law caused by extraterritorial application of the ATS.   This was also the issue that I addressed in my own amicus brief, and that was the focus of the amicus briefs of the Netherlands, Britain, and Germany.

Addendum:  This development will put the Obama Administration in a difficult position.  In its original amicus brief in support of the petitioners, the Administration argued in favor of corporate liability, but made no mention of the numerous diplomatic complaints about the ATS filed by other countries.  Assuming that the Administration files a new amicus brief, it will face a dilemma.  It will either have to argue against extraterritorial application, contrary to the position of human rights groups and undercutting its prior argument in favor of corporate liability.  Or it will have to argue in favor of extraterritorial application of the ATS (at least in some circumstances), which is contrary to the position of many foreign governments and inconsistent with international law principles of jurisdiction.  As three members of the International Court of Justice said in the Congo Arrest Warrant case,  "[w]hile this unilateral exercise of the function of guardian of international values has been much commented on, it has not attracted the approbation of States generally."  Moreover, the Obama Administration would have to reverse the arguments against extraterritorial application of the ATS made by the Bush Administration in its brief to the Supreme Court in 2008 in the Apartheid case (which the Solicitor General may be reluctant to do).  This may be one reason why the Administration asked the Supreme Court not to address the issue of extraterritoriality in its original amicus brief.