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Justices to Weigh Foreigners’ Lawsuits


The Supreme Court indicated Monday that it may scale back an 18th-century federal law that permits foreigners to sue in U.S. courts over violations of international law.

Last week, the justices heard arguments over whether the Alien Tort Statute, passed by Congress in 1789, allows suits against corporations. The case involves Nigerian citizens who allege human-rights violations in Nigeria by the Anglo-Dutch oil company Royal Dutch Shell PLC. Shell denies the allegations.

But several justices clearly had a bigger question in mind. On Monday, the court ordered the case reargued, directing parties to submit new briefs before July addressing whether the statute permits suits for international-law violations occurring outside the U.S. The case is likely to be reargued after the court returns from its summer recess in October. Previously, a decision had been expected by the end of the current term in July.

The law at issue authorizes federal courts to hear “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” Dormant for most of its history, the statute was rediscovered in the 1970s by human-rights lawyers who helped political refugees file suits against alleged torturers and others for violating international law.

In 1980, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in New York, found that the Alien Tort Statute permitted a Paraguayan refugee to sue a former Paraguayan police official, also living in the U.S., for the alleged torture and murder of her brother. Since then, other federal courts also have permitted suits over alleged international-law violations committed overseas.

Diane Amann, an international-law professor at the University of Georgia, said the Supreme Court has been increasingly willing to limit the application of U.S. laws overseas, as it did in a 2010 ruling that foreign shareholders couldn’t sue under the Securities and Exchange Act for misconduct related to shares traded on foreign exchanges.

Separately, Rio Tinto has an appeal pending at the Supreme Court, arguing that the statute doesn’t cover its actions in Papua New Guinea.

There, residents allege the company helped suppress a rebellion against its copper-mining operations, resulting in thousands of deaths.

In that case, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, ruled that certain universally recognized international-law violations—alleged genocide and war crimes, in the Rio Tinto case—were covered by the Alien Tort Statute, while dismissing other allegations, such as racial discrimination.

A Rio Tinto spokeswoman said at the time, “We intend to vigorously defend ourselves against these improper claims.”

Write to Jess Bravin at [email protected]

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