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Law School Case Brief

Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petro. Co. - 569 U.S. 108, 133 S. Ct. 1659 (2013)


The Supreme Court typically applies the presumption against extraterritorial application to discern whether an Act of Congress regulating conduct applies abroad. The Alien Tort Statute (ATS), on the other hand, is “strictly jurisdictional.” It does not directly regulate conduct or afford relief. It instead allows federal courts to recognize certain causes of action based on sufficiently definite norms of international law. The principles underlying the canon of interpretation similarly constrain courts considering causes of action that may be brought under the ATS.


After residents in Nigeria began protesting the environmental effects of the corporations' practices, Nigerian military and police forces allegedly attacked the residents, and the corporations allegedly violated the law of nations by aiding and abetting the Nigerian Government. Petitioner Nigerian nationals sued respondents, Dutch, British, and Nigerian corporations, under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), alleging that the corporations aided and abetted the Nigerian Government in committing violations of the law of nations in Nigeria. The District Court dismissed several of petitioners' claims, but on interlocutory appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit dismissed the entire complaint, reasoning that the law of nations does not recognize corporate liability. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Does the presumption against extraterritoriality apply to claims under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS)?




The Supreme Court affirmed, concluding that the Nigerian nationals' case seeking relief for violations of the law of nations occurring outside the United States was barred because the presumption against extraterritoriality applied to claims under the ATS, and nothing in the ATS rebutted that presumption. Nothing about the historical context suggested that Congress intended federal common law under the ATS to provide a cause of action for conduct occurring in the territory of another sovereign. There was no clear indication of extraterritoriality here, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence sufficed to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application.The presumption against extraterritoriality is a canon of statutory interpretation that provides there is no extraterritorial application of a statute unless there is a clear indication otherwise. While the presumption applies to merits questions and the ATS is strictly jurisdictional, the canon should still apply to the statute because of the danger of judicial interference in foreign policy. The Court further reasoned that nothing in the text, history or purposes of the ATS rebuts the presumption.

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