Keitner on Kiobel and the future of the Alien Tort Statute


The following post, cross-posted on Opinio Juris, continues to analyze the import of the Second Circuit’s recent decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, holding that corporations may not be sued under the Alien Tort Statute for violations of customary international law.  Our thanks to Professor Keitner for sharing her thoughts.

Not Dead Yet: Some Thoughts on Kiobel
Chimène I. Keitner, UC Hastings College of the Law

The Second Circuit’s recent panel opinion in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum has justifiably spurred much talk in the blogosphere, including posts by Trey Childress, Ken Anderson, Julian Ku, and Kevin Jon Heller Here are my preliminary thoughts.

First, it is premature to hail the “end of the ATS.” It may be true that some plaintiffs have sought to hold corporations accountable for their complicity in human rights abuses under the ATS’s jurisdictional grant. But not all ATS litigation is about corporate liability. To the contrary, the Second Circuit’s landmark opinion in Filartiga v. Pena-Irala involved an individual human rights violator, and cases against individuals continue to be filed under the ATS and the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991. It is important not to lose sight of these cases, which the Supreme Court explicitly approved in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain (2004).

Second, whether or not the ATS is good policy, the jurisdictional grant it embodies must be interpreted within the context of U.S. law. This does not mean that U.S. law governs all aspects of ATS litigation—in my 2008 article on Conceptualizing Complicity in Alien Tort Cases, I argued that international law provides the “conduct-regulating” rules applied under the ATS, whereas U.S. law governs other aspects of ATS litigation. Although I focused on the standard for aiding and abetting, I also suggested that “the most coherent approach would look to U.S. law on the question of personal jurisdiction, including the type of entity against which a claim can be asserted, [while] international law would supply the substantive, conduct-regulating rules that apply to private actors” (p. 72).

Kiobel misconstrues language in Sosa about whether private actors can violate international law to conclude that corporations cannot be held liable for certain conduct in U.S. courts. In terms of my proposed framework, Kiobel miscategorizes the question of whether corporations can be named as defendants as a conduct-regulating rule akin to aiding and abetting. This is wrong because aiding and abetting liability, unlike corporate liability, does not involve the attribution of the principal’s conduct to the accomplice by virtue of a preexisting legal relationship. Rather, it prohibits the accomplice’s conduct in providing substantial assistance to the principal. Consequently, under the ATS, the accomplice’s (and the principal’s) conduct is governed by international law. By contrast, whether or not the accomplice’s (or the principal’s) conduct can be attributed to a corporate entity is governed by U.S. law. Corporate liability is thus possible under the ATS whether or not corporate entities have themselves been subject to the jurisdiction of international tribunals or found liable for international law violations by such tribunals.

Kiobel indicates that “[t]he singular achievement of international law since the Second World War has come in the area of human rights, where the subjects of customary international law—i.e., those with international rights, duties, and liabilities—now include not merely states, but also individuals” (p. 7). In fact, this is not such a novel development: the paradigm violations of piracy, violations of safe conducts, and offenses against ambassadors identified in Sosa also would typically have been committed by private actors, rather than by states (see Conceptualizing Complicity, p. 70). The ATS’s jurisdictional grant should be understood in this context. In an amicus brief filed on behalf of professors of federal jurisdiction and legal history in Balintulo v. Daimler AG (2d Cir., No. 09-2778-cv), my colleague William Dodge documents that “[l]egal actions for violations of the law of nations were not limited to natural persons in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries” (p. 15), and that “no distinction would have been drawn between individual and corporate defendants” (p. 14) in these early cases. Any serious consideration of jurisdiction under the ATS needs to grapple with these historical foundations, and with the relationship between the law of nations and U.S. law, not simply “international law” in the abstract.

Looking at the big picture, there certainly need to be—and are—robust mechanisms to contain cases that are non-meritorious or vexatious, that impinge excessively on the Executive’s conduct of foreign relations, or that should be heard in a non-U.S. forum that is willing and able to provide redress. At the front end, I would hazard that, although the increasing involvement of plaintiffs’ law firms (as opposed to human rights lawyers associated with non-profits, or attorneys working strictly pro bono) in bringing ATS cases may have some benefits in terms of reaching a greater swath of deleterious conduct, it may foster less coherence and restraint in case selection. At the back end, certain judges may be tempted to overcompensate by creating doctrinal barriers to entire categories of cases. This impulse might be understandable, but it does not justify judicial rewriting of the ATS.

1 reply
  1. pabelmont says:

    Curious, indeed, that corporations are considered persons for purposes of First Amendment rights but not suable under ATS even though their officers and employees might be sued.

    If, as I presume, that in Kiobel, the CEO of Royal Dutch Petroleum was not named as a defendant, it is a shame. The corporation presumably insures its officers and thereby creates a fairly deep pocket.

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