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Supremes Will Consider Overseas Corporate Acts

Human rights claims by alleged victims of corrupt foreign regimes against complicit  corporations haven’t succeeded in U.S. courts.

But two cases on the United States Supreme Court’s docket this week could change that.

The justices will consider the right of overseas torture victims to sue companies in the U.S. One case arose under the Alien Tort Statute, which dates back to 1789, and the other under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1992.

The OECD last year issued corporate guidelines that linked chronic graft and human rights. A year earlier, the Obama Administration said it views widespread corruption as a violation of basic human rights.

But so far, foreign victims of graft haven’t been able to sue companies in U.S. courts for human rights abuses.

If the Supreme Court uses the torture cases to expand corporate liability for overseas behavior, will suits against American and other companies by alleged graft victims be far behind?

In a fine post over the weekend on the SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston framed the issue:

As the two new cases reached the Supreme Court last year, they both centered on a simple core issue: do either of the two laws allow lawsuits in U.S. courts against corporations, or are both restricted to imposing potential liability only on individual human beings. (Foreign governments usually have immunity as sovereign states.) Lurking in one of the cases are a variety of what might be considered side issues — such as the authority of Congress to give U.S. courts the authority to reach beyond the nation’s borders to judge foreigners’ conduct, and the specific kinds of human rights abuses that might give rise to a lawsuit in an American court — but the Justice Department has urged the Justices to stay focused on the basic issue of corporate (or political organization) liability.

The Supreme Court has scheduled back-to-back arguments in the cases starting in the morning on February 28.

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