On April 17, 2013, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., __ U.S. __ (2013), addressing the scope of the Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1350 (“ATS”). In Kiobel, the Court sharply limited the availability of U.S. courts to hear claims brought by foreign nationals against other foreign nationals for human rights violations committed outside the United States. Although the decision was unanimous, the Justices’ reasoning divided. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, concluded that the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to claims under the ATS and that nothing in the ATS itself rebuts that presumption. The Chief Justice’s opinion, joined by Justices Alito, Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas, casts doubt on the viability of ATS claims arising from foreign acts, but leaves open the possibility that the presumption against extraterritoriality might be rebutted if claims “touch and concern the territory of the United States” with “sufficient force to displace” that presumption. A foreign defendant’s “[m]ere corporate presence” in the United States, however, does not suffice. Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan, filed a concurrence in the judgment rejecting the application of the presumption against extraterritoriality and instead proposing that claims for violations of international law can be recognized under the ATS even for violations committed abroad either where the defendant is an American national or where the case sufficiently implicates a U.S. interest.
The Court’s analysis in Kiobel will likely have far-reaching repercussions for foreign nationals alleging that they have been the victims of human rights abuses outside the United States, for corporations potentially subject to expensive and difficult-to-predict ATS suits, and for foreign countries whose policies and actions might become the subject of ATS suits.