WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday limited the ability of U.S. courts to hear civil lawsuits alleging corporate complicity in human rights atrocities committed abroad, but not all the justices agreed on how tightly to shut the door.
The justices were unanimous in stopping a case filed by about a dozen Nigerians now living in the United States who allege that Royal Dutch Petroleum, parent company of Shell Oil, aided and abetted the Nigerian government in torturing and killing people protesting the company's operations in the Ogoni region during the 1990s.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote that one of the "oldest laws on the books" -- the 1789 Alien Tort Statute -- did not sanction such a suit, and "relief for violations of the law of nations occurring outside the United States is barred."
The law, passed by the first Congress, has been used by human rights lawyers to sue individuals who took part in abuses abroad along with corporations that do business in this country as well as the foreign nations where the abuses occurred.
Chief Justice Roberts said courts must presume that laws passed by Congress do not have extraterritorial reach. His opinion was joined by the rest of the court's conservatives -- Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr.
The liberals agreed that the suit brought by Esther Kiobel and others could not go forward. But they disagreed with Chief Justice Roberts' reasoning.
Justice Stephen Breyer disagreed with the chief justice's reliance on the "presumption against extraterritoriality." He believed that the statute could still be used in some cases.
Specifically, Justice Breyer said, when the defendant's conduct "substantially and adversely affects an important American national interest, and that includes a distinct interest in preventing the United States from becoming a safe harbor [free of civil as well as criminal liability] for a torturer or other common enemy of mankind."
Justice Breyer was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
There were two other concurring opinions, which seemed to render the opinion a less-than-crisp delineation of when the Alien Tort Statute may come into play.
In oral arguments, Ms. Kiobel's lawyer, Paul Hoffman, appeared to face an uphill task in trying to persuade the justices to allow such suits. The United States has been a leader in a worldwide trend toward "universal justice" for people and corporations that engage in human rights atrocities, he said. Allowing U.S. courts to consider such suits "should be given the chance to work," Mr. Hoffman said.