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Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum Company, Monday, Oct. 1

Published: September 25, 2012 8:13 PM

Next Monday, the Supreme Court will begin what promises to be an action-packed fall. I’m looking forward to three cases in the first half of October.

Here they are, in the order they’ll be argued:

Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum Company, Monday, Oct. 1: The term opens with a case held over from last year — in a way that doesn’t bode well for Esther Kiobel. She sued Royal Dutch Shell in 2002 on behalf of her late husband and 11 other Nigerians, saying that the company colluded with the Nigerian military in the 1990s to silence protesters — going so far as torturing and killing them — who were trying to halt oil exploration. Last term, when the court first heard the case, the question was whether corporations could be sued for human rights abuses. Cue lots of bitterness on the left about how the court could treat companies as people for the purposes of campaign donations, but not when it comes to accusations of murder.

Now the case is back to resolve a more basic question: Can Esther Kiobel sue in the United States over this alleged breach of international law on foreign soil? The law at issue is the Alien Tort Statute, passed in 1789 to combat piracy, among other things. No one much used it until the 1980s, when it became a weapon for fighting human rights abuses. In 2004, in a case out of Mexico, the court said it was OK to use the statute for claims based in “universally condemned human rights violations,” as the plaintiffs put it. Genocide, torture and human trafficking should count along with piracy. Will a majority of justices now retreat from that position, foreclosing the American courts to people like Esther Kiobel? Or will conservative justices like Antonin Scalia prefer to read the law based on its historical roots, thus keeping this 1789 statute alive?

Emily Bazelon writes about law, family and kids for

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