SCOTUS: U.S. can’t play tortmaster-general to the world

This morning’s big Supreme Court decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum was a huge win for good sense. While splitting 5-4 on reasoning, the nine justices unanimously rejected the lefty view of the Alien Tort Statute that had been popular on campus, in the foundation world, and so forth. Here’s my Cato take:

Just as the United States should not play policeman to the world, so our courts should not play tort-suit venue to the world. Today the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously and decisively buried the misguided, decades-long hope of some lawyers and academics that they could turn the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) into a wide-ranging method of hauling overseas damage claims into American courts. All nine Justices agreed with the Second Circuit that the statute does not grant jurisdiction for our courts to hear a controversy over alleged assistance in human rights violations outside the U.S. against non-U.S. plaintiffs by a non-U.S. business. A majority of five justices reiterated and relied on our law’s strong traditional presumption against extraterritoriality, that is to say, presumption against applying the law to actions that take place in other countries. While parting from this reasoning, four concurring justices nonetheless endorsed a view of ATS as applicable extraterritorially only to very extreme misconduct comparable to piracy, and also as sharply limited by considerations of comity with foreign sovereigns.

It is a good day for a realistic and modest sense of what United States courts of justice can successfully do, namely: do justice within the United States.

Notably, all nine Justices sidestepped the issue that had caused extensive angst among many popular commentators, namely whether the statute could be applied to corporations as distinct from natural persons. Other views: Ilya Shapiro, Cato (“an exceedingly complicated case with a relatively simple solution”); SCOTUSBlog; Julian Ku/Opinio Juris (“this means that the ATS wars over corporate liability are almost over…. A theory that the ATS can be justified in universal civil jurisdiction cases has been rejected, 9-0.”) and more (death of “universal civil jurisdiction” idea, and speculation that Breyer’s shift of ground to a narrower ATS rationale was an unsuccessful attempt to pick up Kennedy); Sarah Altschuller (reading opinions, “struck by amount of time that must have been dedicated to debate re: pirates and shipdecks”); Josh Blackman (getting all nine justices to agree on a personal jurisdiction question isn’t easy, but it happened here); Hans Bader; Roger Alford (ATS “as we know it is dead… [Kiobel] has destroyed an entire cottage industry”; transnational state-court torts and choice of law likely to rise in importance as replacement); Eugene Kontorovich (academics scoffed when “foreign-cubed” ATS lawsuits were called into question, yet all nine justices have now embraced that position); earlier here; Cato’s amicus brief. Disapproving reactions on the left from Alliance for Justice, Center for Constitutional Rights (which unsuccessfully invoked the ATS to sue bulldozer maker Caterpillar Tractor over the death of anti-Israel protester Rachel Corrie, a story mentioned in Schools for Misrule, which discusses law-school and foundation enthusiasm for the ATS), and Human Rights First. More on the recent ATS defense by Judge Pierre Leval, cited by Justice Breyer in his concurrence for the four liberals.