[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] in two cases on Monday. In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. [transcript; JURIST news archive], the court heard new arguments on whether three oil companies are immune from US lawsuits under the Alien Tort Statute of 1789 (ATS) [text] for alleged torture and international law violations that took place overseas. The court initially heard arguments in February and then directed the parties to file briefs on a new question [JURIST reports] for this term, which asked if the ATS can ever be used against against non-state citizens for atrocities committed in that state, and under what circumstances. The petitioners, a group of Nigerian refugees who allege torture and murder at the hand of several US-incorporated oil companies active in Nigeria, argued the standard should be based on the principle of universal jurisdiction:
[I]f, in fact, the US corporation committed a violation of the universal jurisdiction norm, for example, as we believe these norms are in this case, there are many jurisdictions in which US corporations could be—could be sued. … [I]t is possible that the plaintiffs could have sued in other places. They sued here because this is where they live. This is their adopted homeland because of that. The United States, under international law, clearly has jurisdiction to adjudicate claims between parties properly before them.
The respondents, an attorney representing several Dutch and American oil companies, argued that the ATS only applies to “extraterritorial application of US law” and should not be extended to violations of other territories’ laws that the US could enforce. The Solicitor General, representing the federal government’s stance on the issue, argued for an interpretation that does not allow the prosecution of foreign companies committing extraterritorial acts “when the allegation is that the defendant aided and abetted a foreign sovereign.”
The court also heard arguments in Lozman v. Riviera Beach [transcript; JURIST report] on whether a permanently and indefinitely docked structure is a vessel for the purposes of 1 USC § 3 [text], thus triggering federal maritime jurisdiction [DOJ backgrounder]. In this case, petitioner Faze Lozman’s docked houseboat came under scrutiny [Palm Beach Post report] when Riviera Beach wanted to redevelop the marina in which he had it stationed. To do this, they used maritime law to put a lien against his property, alleging that he had to register the houseboat as a “vessel.” Lozman, for whom the US government also argued, stated that the houseboat is not a vessel, as it is not practically suited for any maritime transportation. The attorney for Riviera Beach argued that the houseboat is a vessel because it “floats, moves, and carries people or things on water.” The justices appeared to hinge the distinction on whether any floating object is a vessel for the purposes of the statute, querying if this would also apply to objects including an inner tube, an inflatable raft, a floating casino, an aircraft carrier and a log.