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April 30, 2018

Jesner v. Arab Bank: The Supreme Court Preserves the Possibility of Human Rights Suits Against U.S. Corporations

by William S. Dodge

[Cross-posted from Just Security]

On April 24, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Jesner v. Arab Bank, a case raising the question whether corporations can be sued for human rights violations, including acts of terrorism, under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). For a preview of the arguments in the case, see here.

Justice Kennedy delivered the judgment of the Court, writing a broad and rambling opinion that might have foreclosed ATS liability for all corporations. But only Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas joined Kennedy’s opinion in full. Justice Alito and Justice Gorsuch joined only those parts of the opinion that were limited to foreign corporations, and their separate concurring opinions emphasized the differences between ATS suits against foreign defendants and those against U.S. defendants. The four other Justices would have permitted ATS suits against both U.S. and foreign corporations, with Justice Sotomayor writing a devastating dissent on their behalf. So while the Supreme Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims against Arab Bank, the question of corporate liability in suits against U.S. corporations remains to be decided.

The ATS gives federal district courts jurisdiction over “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” The First Congress passed the ATS in 1789 with the eighteenth century law of nations in mind. But in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain (2004), the Supreme Court held that federal courts could recognize causes of action under the ATS for violations of modern human rights law that are as generally accepted and specifically defined as the eighteenth century paradigms (infringement of the rights of ambassadors, violations of safe-conducts, and piracy). In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. (2013), the Supreme Court applied the presumption against extraterritoriality to ATS causes of action, holding that plaintiffs could only bring suits that “touch and concern” the United States. The plaintiffs in Jesner alleged that Arab Bank, a foreign corporation, had financed terrorist attacks in Israel by funneling money through its New York branch. The Second Circuit dismissed the claims under circuit precedent holding that only natural persons and not corporations can be sued under the ATS.

Framing the International Law Question

Writing only for three in Part II.A, Justice Kennedy seemed to accept the Second Circuit’s framing of the corporate liability question as whether there was a “norm of corporate liability under currently prevailing international law” that would meet the Sosa standard (p. 15). As Justice Sotomayor pointed out in dissent, however, this framing of the question “fundamentally misconceives how international law works” (p. 2). (I should disclose that I wrote the amicus brief of International Law Scholars in Jesner, on which Justice Sotomayor relied in this part of her opinion.)

The dissent correctly observed: “Although international law determines what substantive conduct violates the law of nations, it leaves the specific rules of how to enforce international-law norms and remedy their violations to states, which may act to impose liability collectively through treaties or independently via their domestic legal systems” (p. 3). Thus, Sosa’s requirement of a generally accepted and specifically defined norm of international law refers to norms of “substantive conduct,” not “forms of liability” (pp. 3-4). Because of this distinction, the plurality’s reliance on jurisdictional limits found in the charters of international criminal tribunals (pp. 14-15) was also misplaced, the dissent explained, because it “confuses the substance of international law with how it has been enforced in particular contexts” (p. 8). In other words, limits on jurisdiction are not limits on substantive law. Assuming that the international law prohibition against terrorist financing met the Sosa standard—a question the dissent would have remanded to the Second Circuit to resolve in the first instance—“nothing in international law suggests a corporation may not violate it” (p. 7).

Perhaps because of the power of the dissent, Justices Alito and Gorsuch did not join the part of Justice Kennedy’s opinion claiming that “there is a distinction in international law between corporations and natural persons” (p. 17). And even Justice Kennedy seemed to back away from his own argument in the end, concluding that “the Court need not resolve . . . whether international law imposes liability on corporations” (p. 17-18). This makes Justice Kennedy’s mistaken approach to international law nothing more than dictum in a plurality opinion.

Limiting the Holding to Foreign Corporations

The only analytical parts of Justice Kennedy’s opinion that commanded a majority of the Supreme Court were those invoking separation of powers concerns against creating new causes of action (pp. 18-19) and foreign relations difficulties (pp. 25-27). Significantly each of these parts was expressly limited to suits against foreign corporations. The first concluded with the observation that “absent further action from Congress it would be inappropriate for courts to extend ATS liability to foreign corporations” (p. 19). The second said even more explicitly: “the Court holds that foreign corporations may not be defendants in suits brought under the ATS” (p. 27).

The reasons for this limitation to foreign corporations may be found in the concurring opinions written by Justices Alito and Gorsuch. Justice Alito emphasized the foreign relations implications of suits against foreign corporations: “Creating causes of action under the Alien Tort Statute against foreign corporate defendants would precipitate exactly the sort of diplomatic strife that the law was enacted to prevent” (p. 1). In a footnote, Justice Alito expressly stated, “Because this case involves a foreign corporation, we have no need to reach the question whether an alien may sue a United States corporation under the ATS” (p. 3). He could not have been clearer.

As he telegraphed at oral argument that he might, Justice Gorsuch interpreted the ATS “to require a domestic defendant” (p. 6). Here, Justice Gorsuch largely followed the approach of A.J. Bellia and Brad Clark, which I have previously criticized. But of course, this approach to the ATS does not preclude suits against U.S. corporations for violating the law of nations. Justice Gorsuch explained: “It is one thing for courts to assume the task of creating new causes of action to ensure our citizens abide by the law of nations and avoid reprisals against this country. It is altogether another thing for courts to punish foreign parties for conduct that could not be attributed to the United States and thereby risk reprisals against this country” (p. 13). ATS suits against U.S. corporations clearly fall into the former category.

After the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Kiobel, my colleague Anupam Chander observed that the impact of that decision would be to free foreign corporations, but not U.S. corporations, from the risk of being sued under the ATS. In a sense, Jesner simply makes this point explicit.

I do not want to be overly sanguine about the prospects for corporate liability in ATS suits against U.S. corporations. Justice Gorsuch wrote that Sosa’s decision to give the ATS continuing relevance by permitting a limited class of human rights claims to proceed was a mistake (pp. 2-5). Justice Alito agreed (p. 3). And even Justice Kennedy strangely suggested that “there is an argument that a proper application of Sosa would preclude courts from ever recognizing any new causes of action under the ATS” (p. 19)—a position that the majority in Sosa (including Justice Kennedy) expressly rejected. ATS suits against U.S. corporations also face a host of other obstacles, from the fact that such corporations often operate abroad through foreign subsidiaries to the standard for aiding and abetting liability. My point is simply that Jesner does not settle the question of corporate liability for U.S. corporations, and such cases constitute the bulk of litigation against corporations under the ATS. 

March 9, 2018

The Customary International Law of Jurisdiction in the Restatement (Fourth) of Foreign Relations Law

by William S. Dodge

[Cross-posted from Opinio Juris.)

In a recent post, Dean Austen Parrish took issue with some statements about the customary international law governing jurisdiction in the Restatement (Fourth) of Foreign Relations Law. The occasion for his comments was United States v. Microsoft, a case currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in which Dean Parrish has filed an amicus brief. I have given my thoughts on the case and on the amicus brief elsewhere and will not repeat them here. In this post, I seek to correct a few misimpressions about the Restatement (Fourth) and the customary international law governing jurisdiction.

First, it may be helpful to sketch briefly the process for producing the Restatement (Fourth). In 2012, the Council of the American Law Institute (ALI) authorized three projects—on treaties, jurisdiction, and state immunity—under the umbrella of the Restatement (Fourth). A team of reporters was assigned to each project. I was made a co-reporter for the jurisdiction project, along with Anthea Roberts and Paul Stephan.

The ALI process begins with a Preliminary Draft prepared by the reporters, which is discussed at a meeting with the project’s counselors, advisers, and members consultative group. Based on this feedback, the reporters prepare a Council Draft, which is discussed at a meeting of the ALI Council. Based on this further feedback, the reporters prepare a Tentative Draft for discussion with the ALI membership at its annual meeting. For the jurisdiction project, three tentative drafts, covering different topics, were approved by the membership and now represent the ALI’s official position. The reporters are currently in the process of combining all the tentative drafts for the three projects together into one volume, which (as indicated below) has resulted in renumbering many of the provisions. Final publication of the Restatement (Fourth) is expected later this year.

On questions of customary international law, the Restatement (Fourth) was blessed with a great deal of expertise from U.S. and foreign lawyers and scholars. Our counselors included three former Legal Advisers of the U.S. State Department, one former Legal Adviser to the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and one Judge of the International Court of Justice. Our advisers included designated representatives from the State Department Legal Adviser’s Office. We also had the benefit of a separate international advisory panel of academics and lawyers from outside the United States. A full list of the counselors, advisers, foreign advisers, and members consultative group for the Restatement (Fourth) is here. Not all of these people will agree with every statement in the Restatement (Fourth). The point is that every question of customary international law addressed in the Restatement (Fourth) was vetted with a broad group of U.S. and foreign experts, and the statements about the customary international law of jurisdiction in the Restatement (Fourth) represent the best judgment of the ALI as to what that law is today.

The first misimpression to correct is Dean Parrish’s statement that “the Fourth Restatement does not purport to set out international law.” Quite the opposite is true. Sections 407-413 of the Restatement (Fourth) (Section 211-217 in Jurisdiction Tentative Draft No. 2) restate the customary international law governing jurisdiction to prescribe. Section 432 of the Restatement (Fourth) (Section 402 in Jurisdiction Tentative Draft No. 3) restates the customary international law governing jurisdiction to enforce. The Restatement (Fourth) does not have a corresponding section restating the customary international law on jurisdiction to adjudicate because, as the Introductory Note to Chapter 2 (Introductory Note, Part III, in Jurisdiction Tentative Draft No. 2) observes, “[w]ith the significant exception of various forms of immunity, modern customary international law generally does not impose limits on jurisdiction to adjudicate.” (The Restatement (Fourth) does have a chapter on state immunity, although its focus is U.S. domestic law under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act rather than customary international law.)

With respect to jurisdiction to prescribe, Section 407 states the basic rule: “Customary international law permits exercises of prescriptive jurisdiction if there is a genuine connection between the subject of the regulation and the state seeking to regulate.” Sections 408-413 set forth the most common bases establishing a genuine connection: territory, effects, active personality, passive personality, protection, and universal jurisdiction. These sections discuss foreign practice at length, citing the practice of more than 50 other countries. The specific bases for prescriptive jurisdiction set forth in the Restatement (Fourth) are largely the same as those found in Sections 402 and 404 of the Restatement (Third).

The Restatement (Fourth) does not continue the position of Restatement (Third) Section 403, which stated that customary international law requires an assessment of the reasonableness of exercising prescriptive jurisdiction in each case. As the reporters’ notes to Section 407 of the Restatement (Fourth) explain, “state practice does not support a requirement of case-by-case balancing to establish reasonableness as a matter of international law.” The Restatement (Fourth) does contain a provision on “Reasonableness in Interpretation”—Section 405 in the Restatement (Fourth) (Section 204 in Jurisdiction Tentative Draft No. 3). This is a domestic principle of statutory interpretation, like the presumption against extraterritoriality and the Charming Betsy canon, under which U.S. courts may “interpret[] a statute to include other comity limitations if doing so is consistent with the text, history, and purpose of the provision.”

With respect to jurisdiction to enforce, Section 432 states the traditional rule that enforcement jurisdiction is strictly territorial: “Under customary international law . . . a state may not exercise jurisdiction to enforce in the territory of another state without the consent of the other state.” To apply this rule, of course, one must determine where enforcement occurs in various situations. When a U.S. court requires a person in the United States to produce information located abroad, as in the Microsoft case for example, does the enforcement occur in the United States or abroad? As the reporters’ notes to Section 431 (dealing with U.S. practice with respect to jurisdiction to enforce) explains, U.S. court orders to produce information located abroad “have not provoked the protests from other states that might be expected if such orders constituted extraterritorial exercises of jurisdiction to enforce.” In the Microsoft case, the fact that none of the foreign governments filing amicus briefs—including Ireland—has characterized the warrant in question as an extraterritorial exercise of jurisdiction to enforce seems conclusive.

Dean Parrish directs most of his criticism at the Restatement (Fourth)’s statement that, “[w]ith the significant exception of various forms of immunity, modern customary international law generally does not impose limits on jurisdiction to adjudicate.” Dean Parrish’s says this is inconsistent with the Restatement (Third), but in fact the Restatement (Third)’s position was more ambiguous than is commonly appreciated. Its Introductory Note for the chapter on jurisdiction to adjudicate, the Restatement (Third) admitted “it is not always clear whether the principles governing jurisdiction to adjudicate are applied as requirements of public international law or as principles of national law.” It characterized the provisions that followed as “international rules and guidelines.” The substance of Section 421 strongly resembled the U.S. domestic law of personal jurisdiction as of 1986, and the reporters’ notes relied heavily on U.S. practice with some reference to U.K. law and the Brussels Regulation. There was no analysis of opinio juris—whether any of the practice was followed out of a sense of international legal obligation.

An honest look at state practice and opinio juris today reveals no limitations on jurisdiction to adjudicate outside the area of immunity. Some bases for adjudicative jurisdiction are certainly considered exorbitant—tag jurisdiction in the United States or jurisdiction based on the nationality of the plaintiff in France, for examples—but these bases are not considered to violate customary international law. The clearest evidence of this is the Brussels I Regulation (Recast) in the European Union, which prohibits the use of exorbitant bases against defendants from other EU member states, but expressly permits the use of exorbitant bases against defendants from non-EU member states and requires EU member states to enforce judgments against such defendants resting on such bases. If states do not refrain from exercising jurisdiction on exorbitant bases of jurisdiction out of a sense of legal obligation, there can be no rule of customary international law prohibiting their use.

The Restatement (Fourth) of Foreign Relations Law also discusses many rules of U.S. domestic law addressing different aspects of jurisdiction, including the presumption against extraterritoriality, personal jurisdiction, forum non conveniens, the act of state doctrine, the doctrine of foreign state compulsion, and the recognition of foreign judgments. (For an overview written for a private international law audience, see here.) The Restatement (Fourth) also tries to distinguish clearly between rules of domestic law and rules of customary international law, and to state rules of customary international law only when they are supported by state practice and opinio juris. But Restatement (Fourth) does address the customary international law of jurisdiction, and it draws on a deep well of expertise in doing so.

 

February 21, 2018

Symposium: Advancing International Law Under the Trump Administration–Some Cautionary Thoughts About Litigation

By William S. Dodge

[Cross-posted from Opinio Juris.]

[William S. Dodge is Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law at the UC Davis School of Law. From 2011 to 2012, he served as Counselor on International Law to the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State.]

Among Harold Koh’s many academic achievements, perhaps his most influential has been to articulate a theory of transnational legal process that explains why nations obey international law. According to this theory, public and private transnational actors generate interactions that lead to interpretations of international law that in turn become internalized in domestic law. Once internalized, such interpretations become difficult to change.

In a recent lecture at Washburn University School of Law, Harold used the lens of transnational legal process to examine “The Trump Administration and International Law.” His tour d’horizon is a tour de force, examining the entrenchment of international law with respect to immigration and refugees, human rights, climate change, Iran, North Korea, Russian hacking and cybersecurity, Ukraine, al Qaeda and IS, and Syria. As he writes, “no single player in the transnational legal process—not even the most powerful one—can easily discard the rules that we have been following for some time.”

Harold’s purpose is not simply descriptive. He also sets forth a “counter-strategy” to resist Trump’s assault on international law and international institutions. This strategy includes an “inside strategy” that government officials can use to engage other states, translate international law norms, and leverage those norms as smart power to advance U.S. interests. And it includes an “outside strategy” that non-governmental actors can use “to generate interactions that force interpretations that promote internationalizations of international norms even by resisting governments.”

I want to focus on the “outside strategy,” and particularly its reliance on litigation. “Lawsuits are the paradigmatic example” of the outside strategy, Harold explains. “[I]f a government policy moves in a legally noncompliant direction, an outside nongovernmental group can sue (generate an interaction) that yields a judicial ruling (an interpretation) that the government defendant must then obey as a matter of domestic law (norm internationalization).” There is no doubt that litigation is a critical tool to promote compliance with international law. But litigation can also serve as a catalyst for interpretations that constrain international law.

In an insightful article that should be required reading for any lawyer entering government service, Professor Rebecca Ingber has examined how different interpretation catalysts shape executive branch interpretations in the area of national security. She writes: “Once the government is implicated in a lawsuit, particularly over a matter of national security, nearly all forces align to push the executive to advocate an expansive view of its own authority, to defend past action, and to request a judgment in favor of the government on the broadest possible grounds so as to preserve executive flexibility to the greatest extend possible.” After the executive branch takes a position in the context of litigation, that interpretation can be quite difficult to change.

I witnessed this dynamic first hand when I served as Harold’s Counselor on International Law at the State Department and participated in the interagency process that produced the two amicus briefs for the United States in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. With respect to the question of corporate liability for human rights violations, which posed no direct litigation risk to the United States or its officials and on which the United States had not previously taken a position, it was possible to reach consensus on a position that advanced international law (a position that became entrenched and that the Trump administration repeated in its amicus brief in Jesner v. Arab Bank). But with respect to questions of extraterritoriality, it proved difficult to move away from positions adopted by the Bush Administration in the shadow of the “War on Terror” and allegations of human rights violations by U.S. government actors.

In her article, Rebecca gives the example of the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror” policies. “The Bush years are often cast as a time of momentous Supreme Court pushback against administration policies in areas where presidents had previously been awarded great deference. That is one narrative, and there is truth in it.” But she explains that there is another narrative in which “repeated years of litigation . . . did not radically alter the legal architecture for the Bush Administration’s policies in its ‘War on Terror.’ Instead, this litigation entrenched it.” Despite the desire of the Obama Administration to move in a different direction, the existing executive interpretations made it “exceedingly difficult for the new Administration to change course and suddenly take new positions in litigation, above all those that might constrain government action or fail to defend past government policies.”

Litigation can be an important interaction in the transnational legal process framework. But it can produce narrow interpretations of international law by the executive, which are only sometimes overturned by broader interpretations in the courts. And narrow executive interpretations can become internalized, just as broader judicial interpretations can.

One may be more likely to get broader judicial interpretations when the courts do not trust a particular administration, at least not on a particular issue. That factor may have played some role in the Bush Administration’s losses at the Supreme Court in the “War on Terror” cases, and it could certainly be relevant in litigation challenging some of the Trump Administration’s policies. The probability of a good interpretation from the courts may offset the probability of a bad interpretation from the executive.

Whether litigation is the right counter-strategy also depends, of course, on the alternatives. As Rebecca rightly notes, “litigation may well be the only way to force the executive’s hand.” This may be particularly true for the Trump Administration, in which other potential catalysts (like reports to treaty bodies) are likely to have less impact and other potential interpreters of international law (like the State Department) have already been marginalized.

Finally, one must consider the impact of litigation not just on the executive branch and the courts but also on the broader public mind. A case in point is the litigation challenging the Trump Administration’s Travel Bans, in which the clinics at Yale Law School have played an important role. One by-product of the litigation was a devastating declaration of former national security officials, which later became an amicus brief, confirming that the Travel Ban would likely harm counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts. The litigation has also helped galvanize resistance from members of Congress and state and local governments. Even if this litigation generates narrow executive branch interpretations of international law, and even if courts uphold some of those interpretations, the political impacts of the litigation may yet prove worthwhile.

Transnational legal process provides an important framework for understanding why nations obey international law and how to frame strategies to ensure that the Trump Administration does as well. But it is wise to remember that executive branch interpretations tend to be most regressive when made in the context of defensive litigation, and that internalization can apply to bad interpretations as well as to good ones.

February 20, 2018

United States v. Microsoft: Why the Government Should Win the Statutory Interpretation Argument

By William S. Dodge

[Cross-posted from Just Security.]

In United States v. Microsoft, the U.S. Supreme Court will determine the geographic scope of Section 2703 of the Stored Communications Act (SCA), which allows the government to obtain disclosure of communications in electronic storage upon a showing of probable cause. Three canons of statutory interpretation are potentially relevant: (1) the presumption against extraterritoriality; (2) the principle of reasonableness in interpretation; and (3) the Charming Betsy canon of avoiding conflicts with international law. The Fourth Restatement of Foreign Relations Law, to be published later this year, restates these three canons in Sections 404, 405, and 406.

(The provisions appear as Sections 203, 204, and 205 in the Tentative Drafts of the Fourth Restatement approved by the membership of the American Law Institute [ALI]. Although I served as a co-reporter for the Fourth Restatement, I write here in my personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the ALI.)

Applying these three canons leads to the conclusion that Section 2703 reaches the electronically stored communications that the government seeks in this case.

The Presumption Against Extraterritoriality

Section 404 restates the presumption against extraterritoriality: “Courts in the United States interpret federal statutory provisions to apply only within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States unless there is a clear indication of congressional intent to the contrary.” In RJR Nabisco, Inc. v. European Community, the Supreme Court articulated a two-step framework for applying the presumption. At RJR step one, a court looks to see if the presumption has been rebutted by “a clear, affirmative indication” that the provision applies extraterritorially. If so, the court does not proceed to step two but rather applies the provision according to its terms. If the presumption against extraterritoriality has not been rebutted at step one, then a court must determine at RJR step two “whether the case involves a domestic application of the statute . . . by looking to the statute’s ‘focus.’” If whatever is the focus of the provision occurred in the United States, then the case involves a “permissible domestic application even if other conduct occurred abroad.”

The brief for the United States concedes that there is no clear indication of extraterritoriality at RJR step one (p. 16). Microsoft sees a clear indication of non-extraterritoriality in Section 2703’s use of the word “warrant,” which it claims is “a legal term of art that carries a territorial limitation” (p. 15). When Congress has clearly indicated the geographic scope of a provision, the analysis should end there and a court should apply the provision as Congress directed. But there is no clear indication of geographic scope in Section 2703. As the United States persuasively argues, Congress used the word “warrant” in Section 2703 not to indicate its geographic scope but to require a rigorous showing of probable cause (p. 39).

At RJR step two, a court must determine the focus of the provision. The Second Circuit “conclude[d] that the relevant provisions of the SCA focus on protecting the privacy of the content of a user’s stored electronic communications.” The United States argues instead that the focus of Section 2703 is “disclosure” (pp. 21-26), while Microsoft says that its focus is “communications in electronic storage” (pp. 11-12). Determining the “focus” of a statute is more an art than a science, and courts should undertake it with an eye towards reaching sensible results.

Making the applicability of Section 2703 turn on where the communication is stored, as Microsoft urges, would not be a sensible result. It would make it easy for criminals to evade the provision, raising the sort of “troubling consequences” that the Court found relevant to determining the geographic scope of RICO in RJR.

It does not really matter whether the Court concludes that the focus of Section 2703 is on privacy or on disclosure, for they just really just two sides of the same coin. As the United States notes, it is not the transfer of data from one Microsoft server to another that potentially invades a user’s privacy, but rather the disclosure of communications to the government (pp. 26-28). That disclosure occurs in the United States, making the application of Section 2703 a permissible domestic application at RJR step two.

Microsoft’s strongest argument is that because Section 2703 is an exception to the unauthorized access and unauthorized disclosure provisions of the SCA, its geographic scope cannot extend beyond the geographic scope of those provisions (p. 19). But there are precedents for a statutory exception to have a broader geographic scope than the substantive provisions of the same law. It is well settled that both the Copyright Act and the Patent Act do not apply extraterritorially. Yet in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. and then again in Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc., the Supreme Court held that exceptions to each act, created by Congress’s adoption of the “first-sale doctrine,” applied to sales occurring outside the United States.

It is certainly open to the Supreme Court to conclude that ordering a provider of electronic communications in the United States, upon a showing of probable cause, to retrieve and disclose information in the United States is a domestic application of Section 2703, even if the provider stores the information outside the United States.

Reasonableness in Interpretation

The presumption against extraterritoriality does not preclude courts from interpreting a statute to include other limitations on its geographic scope if doing so is consistent with the text, history, and purpose of the provision. As Section 405 of the Fourth Restatement puts it, “[a]s a matter of prescriptive comity, courts in the United States may interpret federal statutory provisions to include other limitations on their applicability.”

To be clear, this principle of reasonableness in interpretation is not the multifactor-balancing test found in Section 403 of the Third Restatement. There are statutes under which multifactor balancing may be appropriate, like the Bankruptcy Code. But neither the Supreme Court nor the lower federal courts have adopted such an approach to extraterritoriality more generally.

The principle of reasonableness in interpretation is instead the principle that the Supreme Court articulated in F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd. v. Empagran S.A. of avoiding “unreasonable interference with the sovereign authority of other nations.” As Empagran made clear, however, not all interference with the sovereign authority of other nations is unreasonable. Extrapolating from Empagran, Section 405 says: “Interference with the sovereign authority of foreign states may be reasonable if application of federal law would serve the legitimate interests of the United States.”

There is no doubt that the United States has a legitimate interest in the disclosure of electronically stored communications where there is probable cause to believe that the communications relate to criminal activity. Even if this case risks some interference with Ireland’s sovereign authority, applying Section 2703 is clearly reasonable.

The Charming Betsy Canon

Finally, there is the Charming Betsy canon that “an act of Congress ought never to be construed to violate the law of nations if any other possible construction remains.” But applying Section 2703 to require a U.S. internet-service provider to produce information in the United States violates no rule of international law, even if the information in question is stored abroad.

Customary international law limits the jurisdiction of States in certain respects. For a customary international law rule to exist, there must be a general and consistent practice of States followed out of a sense of legal obligation. As Section 401 of the Fourth Restatement (Section 101 in the Tentative Draft) explains, customary international law imposes different rules on different kinds of jurisdiction. Only jurisdiction to enforce is strictly territorial. Customary international law permits jurisdiction to prescribe if there is a genuine connection between the subject of the regulation and the State seeking to regulate. And customary international law does not limit jurisdiction to adjudicate at all, except for certain rules of immunity.

The amicus brief of International and Extraterritorial Law Scholars claims that “the electronic seizure of electronic records physically located in another country is an exercise of extraterritorial enforcement jurisdiction . . . no different than if FBI agents had set foot on Irish soil to retrieve the data themselves” (p. 3). That is simply wrong as matter of international law. States do not view orders to produce information located abroad as equivalent to physical searches by law enforcement officials.

In both civil and criminal cases, U.S. courts have long ordered parties to produce information located abroad. Discussing these cases in the Reporters’ Notes to Section 431 (Section 401 in the Tentative Draft), the Fourth Restatement observes: “Such orders have not provoked the protests from other states that might be expected if such orders constituted extraterritorial exercises of jurisdiction to enforce. In the event of noncompliance with such an order, a court may impose sanctions constituting enforcement, but such sanctions are typically imposed within the territory of the United States in compliance with customary international law’s territorial limits on jurisdiction to enforce.”

Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the European Commission all filed amicus briefs in this case. None of them asserts that using Section 2703 to require the production of information located abroad violates international law. Indeed the United Kingdom says that it does not (p. 5). It notes that under U.K. law telecommunications providers may be required to disclose electronic communications without regard to where the data is stored (pp. 5-6). Ireland observes that Irish courts have the power to order the production of documents located abroad (pp. 5-7). And the brief for the United States identifies other countries that authorize access to data stored abroad (pp. 46-47). Without a general and consistent practice of states that treats accessing data stored abroad as an impermissible exercise of jurisdiction to enforce, there can be no customary international law rule prohibiting it.

The European Commission brief worries about the possibility of conflicts with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but it discusses a number of ways the GDPR might permit compliance with a Section 2703 warrant (pp. 8-16). In any event, the answer to these concerns is not found in international law, which does not prohibit conflicting sovereign commands, but rather in a doctrine of international comity. Specifically, the doctrine of foreign state compulsion—restated in Section 442 of the Fourth Restatement (Section 222 of the Tentative Draft)—allows a U.S. court to excuse violations of U.S. law, or to moderate the sanctions imposed for such violations, when a person’s conduct is compelled by foreign law. The Supreme Court recognized such a defense to orders requiring the production of information abroad almost 60 years ago in Societe Internationale pour Participations Industrielles et Commerciales, S.A. v. Rogers, and the brief for the United States concedes that such a defense would be available in cases where foreign law prohibited disclosure (pp. 51-52).

In sum, none of the canons of interpretation relevant to determining the geographic scope of a statute leads to the conclusion that Section 2703 is limited to electronic communications stored in the United States. Under the presumption against extraterritoriality, an order to a provider to produce information in the United States is a permissible domestic application, even if the information is stored abroad. Under the principle of reasonableness in interpretation, the legitimate law enforcement interests of the United States make the application of Section 2703 reasonable, even if it risks some interference with other nations’ sovereign authority. And the Charming Betsy canon simply is inapplicable because applying Section 2703 is not an extraterritorial exercise of jurisdiction to enforce. The government should win the statutory interpretation argument in United States v. Microsoft.

November 2, 2017

The Original Meaning of the Alien Tort Statute

By William Dodge

[Cross-posted from Just Security]

At oral argument in Jesner v. Arab Bank, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch raised a theory about the about the original meaning of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a provision of the First Judiciary Act of 1789 that gave the district courts cognizance “of all causes where an alien sues for a tort only in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” Relying on the work of Professors Anthony Bellia and Bradford Clark, Justice Gorsuch suggested that the ATS was originally intended to grant jurisdiction only when the defendant was a U.S. citizen. In a post on Lawfare, Bellia and Clark try to explain why Justice Gorsuch is right. Here, I try to explain why Bellia and Clark are wrong.

The Supreme Court has examined the history of the ATS before. In Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, relying on the amicus brief of professors of federal jurisdiction and legal history that I wrote, the Court traced the origins of the ATS to a 1781 resolution of the Continental Congress recommending that the states punish offenses against the law of nations and authorize suits for damages by the injured parties. The Court noted that the issue was given fresh urgency by the 1784 Marbois incident, in which a French adventurer assaulted the Secretary of the French Legation in Philadelphia, François Barbé-Marbois. The Court concluded that Congress passed the ATS to cover the three offenses against the law of nations that Blackstone had listed in his Commentaries on the Laws of England—offences against ambassadors, violations of safe-conducts, and piracy. Finally, the Court held that ATS claims based on modern international law should be limited to norms as generally accepted and as specifically defined as those eighteenth century paradigms. 

Bellia and Clark’s theory of the ATS’s coverage is narrower than Sosa’s in some ways and broader in others. Their theory is narrower because it is limited to torts committed by U.S. citizens. As Bellia and Clark explain, the eighteenth-century law of nations “required the United States (like all nations) to redress acts of violence by its own citizens against citizens of foreign nations (with whom the United States was at peace) by imposing criminal punishment, extraditing the offender, or providing a civil remedy. Failure to redress such violence in one of these ways gave the offended nation just cause to retaliate against the United States, including through war.” Their theory is broader because it is not limited to the three paradigms that Blackstone identified but encompasses all “acts of violence by a citizen of one nation against the citizen of another.” Indeed, Bellia and Clark deny that the ATS was intended to reach offenses against ambassadors, violations of safe conducts, and piracy at all. Congress addressed these violations of the law of nations separately, and apparently exclusively, by making them criminal offenses in the Crimes Act of 1790. They write, “the ATS was not duplicative of other federal statutes.” Thus, if Justice Gorsuch really wants to follow Bellia and Clark, he would have to abandon the Sosa test for actionable norms, for it makes no sense to tie the ATS cause of action to eighteenth-century paradigms that the ATS was not supposed to cover. He would have to conclude instead that all acts of violence committed by U.S. defendants, natural persons and corporations alike, are torts in violation of the law of nations for which aliens may bring suit in federal court under the ATS.

There is no doubt that the founding generation was concerned about violations of the law of nations for which the United States might be held responsible by other nations. But the text and history of the ATS show that Congress’s concerns were not limited to violations committed by U.S. citizens. The text and history of the ATS also refute just about every other aspect of Bellia and Clark’s theory.

The 1781 Resolution

First, take the 1781 resolution of the Continental Congress that Sosa recognized as the forerunner of the ATS. (As Sarah Cleveland and I have noted, this resolution was also the forerunner of the Offenses Clause in the U.S. Constitution.) The resolution recommended that the states “provide expeditious, exemplary and adequate punishment” for “offences against the law of nations.” Contrary to Bellia and Clark’s theory, the resolution did not refer generally to all acts of violence by U.S. citizens against citizens of foreign nations but specifically listed violations of safe conducts, infractions of the immunities of ambassadors, and infractions of treaties to which the United States was party. This enumeration tracks Blackstone’s list of offenses against the law of nations, with the addition of treaties (which were commonly understood to be part of the law of nations) and the omission of piracy (which the Continental Congress already had authority to punish by itself under the Articles of Confederation).

Contrary to Bellia and Clark’s theory, the 1781 resolution also shows that the Continental Congress saw no inconsistency in providing a civil remedy on top of criminal punishments. The resolution further recommended that the states “authorise suits to be instituted for damages by the party injured.” It is this recommendation that the First Congress later implemented by passing the ATS.

The 1781 resolution does support Bellia and Clark’s theory in one respect. The report of the committee that prepared the resolution expressed concern about offenses against the law of nations “by a citizen of the United States.” But this limitation did not make it into the text of the ATS, and the Marbois incident explains why.

The Marbois Incident

Although the violence against Marbois in 1784 was not inflicted by a citizen of the United States, the French Ambassador considered it a “violation of the laws of Nations” and formally complained to the Continental Congress. Although the national government had no authority to redress this violation, the State of Pennsylvania did, and the assailant was tried and convicted for “an infraction of the law of Nations.”

Bellia and Clark argue that the First Congress addressed the Marbois incident in other ways, by giving the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over cases involving ambassadors and by making assaults on ambassadors a criminal offense. But the fact that a replay of the Marbois incident would have been covered by Section 13 of the Judiciary Act because it involved a foreign diplomat does not mean that such an incident would not also have been covered by Section 9 of the Judiciary Act because it involved a tort in violation of the law of nations. Jurisdictional grants often overlap. Nor does the fact that Congress provided criminal punishment for assaults on ambassadors and other public ministers show that Congress would not also have wanted to allow the injured minister to bring a civil suit in federal court (as Bellia and Clark appear to concede by invoking Section 13’s provision allowing civil suits).

In light of this history, it seems implausible that the First Congress would not have understood the ATS’s reference to “all causes where an alien sues for a tort only in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States” to include a case like the Marbois incident. After all, Blackstone had listed infringement of the rights of ambassadors as an offense against the law of nations. The Continental Congress had done the same in 1781, urging the states to punish such violations and permit suits for damages. And when such an event had actually occurred in Philadelphia, both the French ambassador and the Pennsylvania court had condemned it as a violation of the law of nations, despite the fact that it had not been committed by a citizen of the United States.

The Text of the ATS

The text of the ATS also refutes Bellia and Clark’s theory—both their attempt to narrow the ATS to torts by U.S. citizens and their attempt to broaden it to all acts of violence. As originally enacted, the ATS gave the district courts cognizance “of all causes where an alien sues for a tort only in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”

One will notice immediately that, while the ATS limits potential plaintiffs to aliens, it does not limit potential defendants to U.S. citizens. Bellia and Clark argue that “the ATS did not need to spell out that suits by an alien for ‘a tort only in violation of the law of nations’ meant a tort committed by a U.S. citizen.” This limitation would have been obvious, they assert, “[b]ecause the United States’ obligation under the law of nations was limited to redressing harms by U.S. citizens against aliens.” But if it was unnecessary to spell out that the defendant must be a U.S. citizen, it should have been equally unnecessary to spell out that the plaintiff must be an alien. Under their theory, both limitations would have been implicit in the concept of “a tort only in violation of the law of nations.” The fact that Congress imposed one limitation, and not the other, shows that the ATS is not limited to suits brought against U.S. citizens, and the Marbois incident explains why.

It is also telling that early courts did not read the ATS as limited to suits brought against U.S. citizens. Both Moxon v. The Fanny (1793) and Bolchos v. Darrel (1795) involved claims against foreign defendants. If the limitation to U.S. defendants was as obvious as Bellia and Clark suggest, it is odd that neither court mentioned it.

The text of the ATS also refutes Bellia and Clark’s argument that the ATS was intended to reach all acts of violence. Under their theory, the United States would violate the law of nations by failing to provide redress to an injured alien. But the text of the ATS describes the tort itself as being “in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” In an earlier post, I relied on the word “committed,” which appears in the current codification of the ATS but not in the original statute. But the basic argument is the same. Under both the original text and the modern text, the ATS requires that the tort violate the law of nation, not that the failure to provide redress does. Blackstone had identified three offenses that would qualify: infringement of the rights of ambassadors, violations of safe-conducts, and piracy. The Continental Congress relied on this list in 1781 when it urged the states to punish offenses against the law of nations and permit suits for damages. There is no reason to think that the First Congress adopted a broader focus when it made good on the 1781 resolution by passing the ATS.

Article III

Bellia and Clark’s final argument is that suits between two aliens violate Article III because they exceed the limits of diversity jurisdiction. The modern answer to that concern is that ATS suits today arise under the federal-common-law cause of action recognized in Sosa. The original answer is that the law of nations was considered part of “the Laws of the United States” for purposes of Article III’s grant of “arising under” jurisdiction. For a full examination of the evidence on both sides, readers should consult Professor Curtis Bradley’s 2002 article and my response. Here, I will limit myself to just four points.

First, Article III’s reference to “Laws of the United States” is broader than Article VI’s reference to “Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance [of this Constitution].” The difference in text suggests that there is at least one category of laws that are “Law of the United States” but not made under the Constitution, and the law nations would seem to be the most likely candidate. Second, many of the plans and drafts at the Constitutional Convention on which the final Constitution was based provided for federal jurisdiction over cases arising under the law of nations. Third, during the ratification debates, a number of people read Article III as extending to cases arising under the law of nations. John Jay praised the breadth of Article III in Federalist No. 3, arguing that “[u]nder the national government, treaties and articles of treaties, as well as the law of nations, will always be expounded in one sense,” while William Grayson criticized it at the Virginia ratifying convention for covering “all cases depending on the law of nations.”

Finally, interpreting Article III’s “arising under” grant to include the law of nations will not open the floodgates to suits under international law. Article III is not self-executing. Congress must pass a statute to give lower federal courts jurisdiction. The general federal question statute is narrower than the Article III grant, and Sosa suggested in a footnote that the statutory grant should not be interpreted reach claims arising under the law of nations.

But interpreting Article III’s “arising under” grant to include the law of nations would allow ATS to cover cases between two aliens that involve torts in violation of the law of nations—cases like Marbois’s in the eighteenth century, and cases like Filartiga and Jesner today. That is plainly what Congress intended.

October 16, 2017

Oral Arguments in Jesner v. Arab Bank: Supreme Court May Favor Two Steps to Corporate Liability for Human Rights Violations

By William Dodge

[Cross-posted from Just Security]

Ed. note. This article is the latest in our series on the U.S. Supreme Court case Jesner. v. Arab Bank, a case that is slated to resolve the question of whether corporations can be sued under international law for human rights violations and terrorism.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC, which presents the question whether corporations can be sued for human rights violations in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). The plaintiffs alleged that Arab Bank knowingly funneled millions of dollars through its New York branch to finance terrorist attacks in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. In a parallel suit brought by U.S. citizens under a separate federal statute, the Antiterrorism Act, Arab Bank was found liable for doing just that. The Second Circuit rejected the plaintiffs’ claims, however, on the ground that corporations can never be sued under the ATS. I previewed the arguments made in the briefs here. I also filed a brief on behalf of International Law Scholars in support of the plaintiffs.

At oral argument, the Justices seemed to be looking at the question in two steps: (1) whether customary international law permits corporate liability; and (2) assuming it does, whether the ATS cause of action should be interpreted to permit corporate liability. Arab Bank’s lawyer Paul Clement joked about Chevron, the Supreme Court’s doctrine for deference to administrative agencies, which famously has two steps (p. 53). And the Supreme Court has recently articulated a two-step framework for applying the presumption against extraterritoriality. So perhaps the ATS will be next.

Justice Kennedy suggested that “what parties are bound” by a norm of international law should be part of the question at “Sosa step 1, where we ask if there’s a specific universal norm” (p. 24). (Sosa is the 2004 case in which the Supreme Court recognized a cause of action for claims brought under the ATS.) Plaintiffs’ counsel Jeffrey Fisher responded that rules of corporate liability, like respondeat superior, are questions of domestic law (p. 25). While that is true, it may be useful to distinguish two different corporate liability questions. Whether a particular norm of international law applies to corporations is a question of international law to be addressed at step one, as Justice Kennedy suggested. And as the U.S. government argued in its amicus brief, the norms that are actionable under the ATS do not distinguish between natural persons and corporations. As a second-order question, precisely what form corporate liability should take (Justice Kennedy mentioned strict liability, vicarious liability, and respondeat superior as examples) is a matter of domestic law. Indeed, Arab Bank’s counsel seemed to concede in a later exchange with Justice Kagan that the particular form of corporate liability—whether joint and several liability is available, for example—“might get you closer to a remedial question” to be addressed at step two of the analysis (p. 55).

Justice Breyer spent some time discussing various treaties that impose liability on corporations with Mr. Clement, Arab Bank’s lawyer (pp. 43-45, 47, 50-51, 56-57). But the details of these treaties are really beside the point. This is not just because the treaties are designed to operate through domestic law, as Mr. Clement pointed out (p. 57). It is also because plaintiffs have not brought their claims under the treaties but rather under customary international law. To be sure, some of these treaties may be relevant as evidence of customary international law. But the key question at step one of the ATS analysis is whether the customary international law norms that are actionable under the ATS distinguish between natural persons and corporations. As the amicus brief for the Yale Law School Center for Global Legal Challenges shows in detail, none of these norms do.

At the second step in the analysis, some of the Justices expressed concern about the foreign relations implications of holding corporations liable for human rights violations. Chief Justice Roberts noted that the ATS was passed “to avoid foreign entanglements” but wondered “if extending it to corporate liability is, in fact, going to have the . . . problematic result of increasing our entanglements” (p. 7). Justice Alito suggested that at “step 2 of Sosa,” on “the question of whether we should recognize a federal common law claim under particular circumstances,” the Court might “balance the international repercussions” of allowing suits against corporations against the repercussions of not doing so (p. 10). Mr. Fisher, lawyer for the plaintiffs, agreed that ATS suits could have “international implications,” but responded that the Court could address those concerns with “other kinds of doctrines that more directly deal with those concerns” like extraterritoriality, forum non conveniens, and political question (p. 11). Justice Sotomayor also mentioned personal jurisdiction under Daimler as a limitation (pp. 5-6), and Justice Ginsburg added the possibility of an exhaustion requirement (pp. 23-24). Denying corporate liability, Fisher argued, was simply “a mismatch” with concerns about foreign relations (p. 13).

Arguing for the United States as amicus, Brian Fletcher agreed with plaintiffs that the Second Circuit’s “categorical rule” against corporate liability was “wrong” (p. 27). He pointed out that this case would not have produced “less friction if it had been brought against the high-ranking officers and employees of the bank rather than against the bank itself” (p. 28). Later in the argument, Justice Kagan described the question of corporate liability as “completely orthogonal” to the foreign relations concerns raised by Arab Bank (p. 64). Mr. Clement responded that corporate liability and foreign relations overlapped in practice because “the real impact of corporate liability” is on foreign corporations in which foreign governments have an interest, “like Arab Bank” (p. 65). In fact, the suit against Arab Bank is an unusual one; foreign corporate defendants are the exception not the rule today. The Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel to limit the geographic scope of the ATS cause of action to cases that “touch and concern” the United States has resulted in a large number of dismissals, as Mr. Fisher pointed out (p. 5), including virtually all of the suits against foreign corporations.

Justice Gorsuch repeatedly asked whether the ATS cause of action should be limited to U.S. defendants (pp. 16, 34, 71-72). He invoked an argument by Professors Anthony Bellia and Bradford Clark that the First Congress was concerned that “some action by an American citizen . . . might be tagged to the United States itself and be cause for just war by a foreign power” (p. 16). Justice Gorsuch also suggested that “you need an American defendant in order to have diversity jurisdiction” under Article III (p. 16).

With respect to Bellia and Clark’s argument, both Mr. Fisher for the plaintiffs (p. 16) and Mr. Fletcher for the U.S. government (p. 34-37) noted that limiting the ATS to American defendants would fail to account for the 1784 Marbois incident, which the Supreme Court in Sosa recognized as one of the events that inspired the provision. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito accepted in their own questions that the ATS was intended to reach cases like the Marbois incident (pp. 7, 14). Justice Sotomayor noted that the nationality of the defendant would also have been irrelevant in cases of piracy (pp. 37-38). And Mr. Fisher concluded by referring to the text of the ATS, which limits the citizenship of plaintiffs to aliens but places no limits on the citizenship of defendants (pp. 70-71).

There are other problems with the Bellia-Clark theory that were not mentioned at oral argument. Under their theory, the ATS was intended to address only situations where the United States would be in breach of international law if it did not provide redress to aliens injured by U.S. citizens. In such situations, the violation of the law of nations would occur not at the time of the tort but later, when the United States failed to provide redress. But this is hard to square with the text of the ATS, which refers to suits “by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” The word “committed” suggests that the international law violation occurs at the time of the tort, rather than some time later. Another problem with the Bellia-Clark theory is that the United States’ obligation under international law to provide redress would have been fully satisfied by other statutes (including the 1790 law mentioned by Mr. Clement (p. 35)), which provided criminal liability for assaults on ambassadors and the like. The ATS was clearly designed to go beyond what was necessary to satisfy the United States’ obligations under international law. None of the other Justices seemed interested in the Bellia-Clark theory at oral argument, and it will be surprising if it garners more than one vote.

Justice Gorsuch’s concern over Article III is also misplaced. First, there is strong historical evidence that the phrase “Laws of the United States” in Article III’s arising-under grant was understood at ratification to include the law of nations. Among other things, the phrase in Article III is broader than the corresponding phrase in the Supremacy Clause of Article VI, which refers more narrowly to laws of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution. But the Supreme Court would not have to adopt this interpretation to satisfy Article III, because ATS suits now arise under the federal-common-law cause of action that Sosa recognized. Both of the Supreme Court’s prior cases under the ATS have involved one alien suing another, as have most of the successful cases across the federal courts since the landmark ATS decision by the Second Circuit in Filartiga over 35 years ago.

If the Justices stick to the question of corporate liability, the Second Circuit may be reversed by a large margin. The concerns expressed at oral argument by the more conservative Justices have little to do with corporate liability. But if the vote is a close one, it is likely to be decided by Justice Kennedy, whose concurring opinion in Kiobel stressed the narrowness of that decision and aimed to keep the door open both for suits against corporations and for suits where some of the relevant conduct occurred abroad.

Justice Kennedy was surprisingly quiet at oral argument, asking just two questions about whether the identity of the party bound by the customary-international-law norm should be part of the analysis at step one. The question is a good one, and I believe the answer is yes—the particular norm of customary international law must apply to a corporation before a corporation may be sued under the ATS for violating that norm. And as the amicus brief for the United States explains, all of the norms actionable under the ATS do apply to corporations. Recognizing this fact should lead Justice Kennedy to adopt the position urged by the United States on the question of corporate liability and to reverse the Second Circuit.

January 20, 2017

The UK Supreme Court’s Landmark Judgment Belhaj v. Straw: A View From the United States

Cross-posted from Just Security.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom gave its judgment in Belhaj v. Straw and Rahmatullah v. Ministry of Defence, two human rights cases brought against UK officials in UK courts. Plaintiffs did not claim that UK officials were the main actors in the alleged human rights violations, which included unlawful detention, rendition, and torture. Rather, plaintiffs claimed that UK officials had assisted other countries-principally, the United States and Libya-in committing such violations. The UK officials argued that a court could not decide the assistance claims without ruling on the legality of other countries' actions and that the cases should therefore be dismissed on grounds of state immunity or under the foreign act of state doctrine. But the UK Supreme Court unanimously rejected these arguments. This means that the claims may proceed to trial where the actions of the United States, Libya, and other countries may be reviewed.

Lord Mance gave the leading judgment, with concurring judgments by Lord Neuberger and Lord Sumption. The state immunity question was whether the suits against UK officials indirectly impleaded foreign states because, in order to maintain their claims against the former, the plaintiffs would have to show that the latter acted unlawfully. The act of state question was whether an English court should abstain from adjudicating upon sovereign acts committed by a foreign state, even outside its own territory.

How does the reasoning in Belhaj compare to the approach taken in the United States? What insights might we derive from the UK Supreme Court's treatment of these areas of law and the role of the judiciary in adjudicating questions that implicate international relations? 

State Immunity

The UK Supreme Court found the state immunity question to be quite straightforward. No foreign states had been directly impleaded because no claims had actually been brought against them. No foreign states had been indirectly impleaded "because the legal position of the foreign states" would not be affected by the suits. Para. 31 (emphasis added). The Court distinguished past cases in which foreign states were indirectly impleaded because the claims involved property in which the states had an interest. "The present appeals involve no issues of proprietary or possessory title. All that can be said is that establishing the appellants' liability in tort would involve establishing that various foreign states through their officials were the prime actors in respect of the alleged torts." Para. 29. Such "reputational" harm was not sufficient. Para. 29. As Lord Sumption put it in his concurring opinion: "No decision in the present case would affect any rights or liabilities of the four foreign states in whose alleged misdeeds the United Kingdom is said to have been complicit. The foreign states are not parties. Their property is not at risk. The court's decision on the issues raised would not bind them." Para. 197.

Although the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) differs substantially from the UK State Immunity Act, the approach of the UK Supreme Court on this question was similar to what one would expect in the United States. In Republic of Philippines v. Pimentel, 553 U.S. 851 (2008), the US Supreme Court held that a suit to determine the ownership of property allegedly stolen by Philippine President Marcos could not proceed because the Philippines had a legal interest in the property. This is equivalent to the indirect impleading of a foreign state that the UK Supreme recognized is barred under the State Immunity Act. But in Samantar v. Yousuf, 560 U.S. 305 (2010), the US Supreme Court held that a suit against a foreign official is not necessarily a suit against a foreign state to which state immunity attaches. It would follow a fortiori that a suit a against a domestic official is not necessarily a suit against a foreign state to which state immunity attaches, which is essentially what the UK Supreme Court held in Belhaj. (Parenthetically, it is worth remembering that, in contrast to the US Supreme Court's interpretation of the FSIA in Samantar, the House of Lords has interpreted the State Immunity Act as extending state immunity to foreign officials acting in that capacity. See Jones v. Saudi Arabia, paras. 31 & 69.)

Act of State Doctrine

The foreign act of state doctrine in the United Kingdom, on the other hand, has historically been quite different from the act of state doctrine in the United States. To give two obvious examples: (1) one strand of the UK act of state doctrine is not limited to acts performed within the foreign sovereign's own territory, see Buttes Gas and Oil Co. v. Hammer (No. 3) [1982] AC 888, while the US act of state doctrine is so limited; and (2) the UK act of state doctrine contains a public policy exception, see Oppenheimer v. Cattermole [1976] AC 249; Kuwait Airways Corp. v. Iraqi Airways Co. [2002] 2 AC 883, which the US act of state doctrine does not. Each of these differences played a key role in Belhaj.

The three reasoned judgments did not entirely agree about how to organize the past cases-Lord Mance divided the foreign act of state doctrine into three types, Lord Neuberger into four, and Lord Sumption into two-nor did they agree about the proper terminology. But in the end, all members of the Court agreed on the key points and on their application to these cases. Certain strands of the UK act of state doctrine are territorially limited (specifically the first two types identified by Lords Mance and Neuberger, which Lord Sumption called the "municipal law act of state doctrine"). These strands were thus inapplicable to those claims that involved acts-particularly those of the United States-outside the foreign sovereign's own territory. But each of the judgments also identified a strand of the act of state doctrine that is not territorially limited (specifically the third type identified by Lords Mance and Neuberger, which Lord Sumption called the "international law act of state doctrine"). This strand originated in Buttes Gas and applies to cases "where an issue is said to be inherently unsuitable for judicial determination by reason only of its subject matter." Para. 43 (quoting Shergill v. Khaira [2015] AC 359).

Critically, however, Lords Mance, Neuberger, and Sumption agreed that each strand of the foreign act of state doctrine was subject to a public policy exception and that the exception should apply in these cases. (Lord Mance preferred to view the exception as a limitation on the ambit of the doctrine, but did not think the distinction between ambit and exception was critical. Para. 89.) Thus, Lord Mance wrote: "The critical point in my view is the nature and seriousness of the misconduct alleged in both cases before the Supreme Court, at however high a level it may have been authorized. Act of state is and remains essentially a domestic law doctrine, and it is English law which sets its limits. English law recognizes the existence of fundamental rights, some long-standing, others more recently developed." Para. 98. Lord Neuberger similarly reasoned that, "assuming that the claimants were detained, kidnapped and tortured as they allege, the public policy exception would apply." Para. 168. And Lord Sumption said that the foreign act of state doctrine could not be applied to detention and torture because both "exhibit the same combination of violation of peremptory norms of international law and inconsistency with principles of the administration of justice in England which have been regarded as fundamental since the 17th century." Para. 278.

Differences in Approach Among the Judgments

Despite their agreement on the most important aspects of the case, there were some notable differences in approach. Lord Mance thought that "[t]he concept of foreign act of state needs to be disaggregated, or broken down, and approached at a more particular level of enquiry." Para 11(ii). For him, too much generalization "blurs the distinctions between different types of foreign act of state" and "impedes the important task of identifying the scope and characteristics of each type of foreign act of state." Para. 40. Lord Sumption was more inclined to generalize: "It is always possible to break down the cases into different factual categories, and deconstruct the law into a fissiparous bundle of distinct rules. But the process is apt to make it look more arbitrary and incoherent than it really is. I think that it is more productive to distinguish between the decisions according to the underlying principle that the court is applying." Para. 227. Lord Sumption's approach made him somewhat less likely to insist on all of the limitations to the act of state doctrine that might be found in past cases, for example the limitation of the territorial strands of the act of state doctrine to rights in property. See para. 231.

In approaching the question of public policy, the judgments also laid different emphases on domestic and international law. Lord Mance preferred to look "to individual rights recognized as fundamental by English statute and common law, rather than to tie them too closely to the concept of jus cogens." Para. 107. Lord Neuberger agreed that the public policy exception should "depend ultimately on domestic law considerations," but added that "generally accepted norms of international law are plainly capable of playing a decisive role." Para. 154. Lord Sumption, on the other hand, looked primarily to whether international law had been violated in deciding whether to apply the public policy exception, see paras. 249-80, though even he acknowledged that "the influence of international law does not mean that every rule of international law must be adopted as a principle of English public policy." Para. 257.

The three reasoned judgments also took different views on the relevance of foreign act-of-state decisions. Lords Mance and Sumption each discussed the US cases at length, see paras. 47-56, 209-212, as well as cases from Germany, France, and the Netherlands, see paras. 67-72, 201. Lord Mance cautioned that US law was "not necessarily transposable to English law," para. 57, but also said "we should be unwise not to take the benefit of it." Para. 57 (quoting Buttes Gas and Oil Co. v. Hammer (No. 3) [1982] AC 888). Lord Sumption disapproved of the flexible US approach expressed in Sabbatino, see para. 212, without mentioning the US Supreme Court's more recent decision in Kirkpatrick, which is rather less flexible. He seemed to prefer the "instructive" approach of the French and Dutch courts. Para. 201. But Lord Neuberger advised "great caution before relying on, let alone adopting, the reasoning of foreign courts in connection with the Doctrine." Para. 133. He found the US decisions "to be of very limited assistance." Para. 134.

Act of State as International Comity

One thing that all three judgments agreed on, however, was that the act of state doctrine is a doctrine of domestic rather than international law. Drawing a distinction with state immunity, Lord Mance noted early in his judgment that "foreign act of state in most if not all of its strands has been developed doctrinally in domestic law." Para. 7. Lord Neuberger wrote that "the Doctrine is purely one of domestic common law." Para. 118. And Lord Sumption added that "[t]he act of state doctrine . . . does not reflect any obligation of states in international law." Para. 261. As I have noted in other writing, the act of state doctrine is a doctrine of international comity rather than international law. I wrote there (p. 2077) that international comity "describes an internationally oriented body of domestic law that is distinct from international law and yet critical to legal relations with other countries."

The fact that a particular doctrine is based on international comity does not mean that it must give a decisive role-or indeed any role-to the executive branch; many comity doctrines, from the conflict of laws to the enforcement of foreign judgments to the doctrine of forum non conveniens, are administered entirely by courts (pp. 2132-40). With respect to the act of state doctrine, one US Court of Appeals has recognized an exception allowing the executive to waive the doctrine, see Bernstein v. Nederlandsche-Amerikaansche, 210 F.2d 375, 376 (2d Cir. 1954), but the US Supreme Court has never approved it and has rejected a broader role for the executive in determining when the doctrine applies. See W.S. Kirkpatrick & Co., Inc. v. Environmental Tectonics, Intern., 493 U.S. 400, 405, 408-09 (1990). Before we leave the three judgments in Belhaj, it is worth noting that each of them rejected the possibility that the act of state doctrine should apply whenever the Foreign Office indicated that the case would embarrass the United Kingdom in the conduct of its foreign relations. Lord Neuberger was willing to list this as his "possible fourth rule," para. 124, but found "little authority to support the notion that the fourth rule is part of the law of this country." Para. 132. Allowing the executive to dictate to the judiciary, he thought, "would be quite unacceptable." Para. 149. Lord Mance similarly saw "little attraction in and no basis for giving the Government so blanket a power over court proceedings." Para. 41. And Lord Sumption felt that allowing the act of state doctrine to turn on the degree of embarrassment to the government "would not be consistent with the accepted principles governing the relations between the courts and the executive in England." Para. 212.

The fact that a particular doctrine is based on international comity does mean that each country is free to shape the doctrine as it thinks best. Whether one feels that it is instructive to look to the experiences of other countries or not, the simple fact is that the act of state doctrine is quite different in different countries. In contrast to the United Kingdom, the United States does not recognize a non-territorial strand of the act of state doctrine and limits the doctrine to "the official act of a foreign sovereign performed within its own territory." W.S. Kirkpatrick & Co., Inc. v. Environmental Tectonics, Intern., 493 U.S. 400, 405 (1990). On the other hand, the US version of the doctrine has no public policy exception; if the act of state doctrine applies, a US court must accept its validity "[h]owever offensive to the public policy of this country" it may be. Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino, 376 U.S. 398, 436 (1964). Still, it seems likely that US courts would not recognize fundamental violations of human rights as acts of state to begin with. See Kadic v. Karadzic, 70 F.3d 232, 250 (2d Cir. 1995) ("we doubt that the acts of even a state official, taken in violation of a nation's fundamental law and wholly unratified by that nation's government, could properly be characterized as an act of state"). These differences among nations make the act of state doctrine a fascinating topic for comparative study. They also reinforce the point that the act of state doctrine is one of international comity rather than international law.

September 30, 2016

Does JASTA Violate International Law?

Cross-posted from Just Security.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) is now the law of the United States, Congress having overridden President Obama's veto of the bill. Among other things, JASTA amends the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) by adding a new terrorism exception that is not limited to designated state sponsors of terrorism. The European Union has claimed that JASTA "conflict[s] with fundamental principles of international law and in particular the principle of State sovereign immunity." Because the version of JASTA that is now law differs significantly from the version I considered back in April, it is worth taking a fresh look at whether JASTA violates international law.

The United States has had a terrorism exception in the FSIA since 1996, the current version of which is found at Section 1605A of Title 28 of US code. Section 1605A provides that a foreign state shall not be immune from suits seeking money damages for personal injury or death caused by certain acts like torture and extrajudicial killing-or material support for such acts-by foreign government officials. But this provision is limited to countries designated by the United States as state sponsors of terrorism (currently Iran, Sudan, and Syria).

The new terrorism exception added by JASTA is not limited to state sponsors of terrorism, but it is limited in other ways. The new Section 1605B provides that a foreign state shall not be immune from suits seeking money damages for personal injury or death, or for injury to property, occurring in the United States that is caused by (1) "an act of international terrorism in the United States;" and (2) a tortious act of a foreign state or its officials "regardless where the tortious act or acts of the foreign state occurred." The tortious act of a foreign state may not, however, be an omission or "constitute mere negligence." 

It is clear that customary international law requires states to recognize foreign sovereign immunity in at least some cases. In the Jurisdictional Immunities Case (Germany v. Italy), for example, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held that international law requires immunity with respect to torts committed by armed forces during an armed conflict (para. 78). Customary international law rules of immunity-like customary international law rules more generally-must be based on a general and consistent practice of states followed out of a sense of legal obligation or opinio juris (para. 55). States may, of course, go further than international law requires and grant foreign states more immunity from suit as a matter of comity. But "the grant of immunity in such a case is not accompanied by the requisite opinio juris" and therefore does not establish rules of customary international law. See id. Looking at the practice of states with respect to foreign sovereign immunity, it is not always easy to tell where international law stops and international comity begins.

Like many other nations, the United States follows a restrictive theory of foreign sovereign immunity, under which the immunity of foreign states does not extend to their private and commercial acts (acta jure gestionis) but generally does extend to their governmental acts (acta jure imperii). But "generally" does not mean "invariably." The FSIA contains a number of exceptions to immunity that may apply to the governmental acts of foreign states, including the expropriation exception (Section 1605(a)(3)) and the territorial tort exception (Section 1605(a)(5)). The ICJ has also been careful not to hold that the line between immunity and no immunity neatly tracks the line between governmental and non-governmental acts. In Jurisdictional Immunities, it noted at paragraph 64 that "none of the national legislation which provides for a 'territorial tort exception' to immunity expressly distinguishes between acta jure gestionis and acta jure imperii."  And at paragraph 65, the ICJ limited its holding in that case to armed forces during armed conflict, leaving open the question whether other governmental acts might not be covered by immunity. So even if acts of terrorism or providing material support for acts of terrorism were properly considered governmental, such a classification would not by itself entitle those acts to immunity under international law.

Focusing on the new terrorism exception more specifically, there appears to be no general and consistent practice of states followed out of a sense of legal obligation establishing that foreign states are entitled to immunity for acts of terrorism or material support of such acts. To be sure, most states that have statutes governing foreign sovereign immunity do not have exceptions for terrorism. But it is not clear that the states extending foreign sovereign immunity to cover terrorist acts do so out of a sense of legal obligation. Again, as the ICJ noted at paragraph 55 in Jurisdictional Immunities, unless state practice is "accompanied by the requisite opinio juris," it does not establish a rule of customary international law. Significantly, there are two states-the United States and Canada-that do have terrorism exceptions in their foreign sovereign immunity laws. A terrorism exception has been part of U.S. law since 1996 and part of Canadian law since 2012, and neither exception, to my knowledge, has provoked the sort of widespread protests from other nations that one might expect in the case of a clear violation of customary international law. Perhaps that will change with JASTA's new terrorism exception, and such protests would provide new evidence relevant to the international law question. But the lack of protests prior to JASTA is more evidence that a terrorism exception does not violate customary international law.

Critics might point out that Canada's terrorism exception and the old U.S. exception were both limited to designated state sponsors of terrorism, while JASTA's new exception is not. Certainly this difference may be relevant to whether the new exception is good policy, as President Obama pointed out in his veto message. And this difference might also provoke new protests from other states, which would provide more evidence of customary international law regarding terrorism exceptions. But it is hard to see how this difference determines whether JASTA violates customary international law or not. Foreign sovereign immunity typically turns on the nature of the act, and international law does not typically dictate the particular processes a state must use to grant or deny such immunity. If customary international law allows the United States and Canada to deny foreign sovereign immunity when they have designated a particular country as a state sponsor of terrorism, it is not because the United States and Canada have satisfied some customary international law requirement with respect to designation. It is rather because customary international law does not require foreign sovereign immunity for terrorist acts in the first place.

Although new Section 1605B is written as a terrorism exception, it also finds support in the exception-well established under customary international law-for territorial torts. Recall that while Section 1605B does permit a suit for damages to be based on the tortious acts of a foreign state or its officials outside the United States, it also requires both conduct and injury inside the United States-specifically, "an act of terrorism in the United States" and injury or death "occurring in the United States." In Jurisdictional Immunities, the ICJ recounted the extensive state practice establishing an exception to foreign sovereign immunity for torts occurring in the forum state, although the Court also found that this exception did not extend to the activities of armed forces during armed conflicts. (See paragraphs 64-79.) Specifically, the ICJ noted that while the territorial tort exception had "originated in cases concerning road traffic accidents and other 'insurable risks,'" national legislation codifying the exception was written in more general terms (para. 64). Prior to JASTA, U.S. courts had adopted an "entire tort" interpretation of the FSIA's territorial tort exception (§ 1605(a)(5)), requiring that not just the injury but also all of the tortious conduct have occurred in the United States. But it is not clear that such a limitation is required by customary international law. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Properties, for example, would apply the territorial tort exception if the act or omission occurred "in whole or in part" in the territory of the state exercising jurisdiction. And it may be that the U.N. Convention is in fact more generous with immunity than customary international law requires.

In a previous post, I noted that there are various approaches to organizing state practice with respect to foreign sovereign immunity. The results may depend heavily on the baselines from which one begins and the levels of generality at which one reads state practice. Fully addressing those questions would require far more space than this post allows, but perhaps one observation may be made. In determining the customary international law of foreign sovereign immunity with respect to armed forces during armed conflict in Jurisdictional Immunities, the ICJ considered that "the most pertinent State practice is to be found in those national judicial decision which concerned the question whether a state was entitled to immunity in proceedings concerning acts allegedly committed by its armed forces in the course of an armed conflict" (para. 73). The Court found an almost unbroken practice of judicial decisions extending such immunity, even when the acts were committed on a state's own territory (paras. 73-77). There is no similarly unbroken practice of forum states extending immunity to foreign states that provide support for terrorist acts causing injury and death within the forum state.

Powerful arguments have been made that JASTA is bad policy, that it will not in fact help the victims of the 9/11 attacks, and that it will hurt our relations with important allies. I am not disputing those points. My only claim here is that JASTA does not clearly violate customary international law.

September 27, 2016

What’s the Right Comity Tool in Vitamin C?

Cross-posted from Opinio Juris.

American law has many doctrines based on international comity-doctrines that help mediate the relationship between the U.S. legal system and those of other nations. The Second Circuit's decision last week in the Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation case correctly identified an international comity issue. But did it choose the right comity tool to address that issue?

Plaintiffs alleged that defendants, two Chinese companies, participated in a cartel to fix the price of vitamin C exported to the United States in violation of U.S. antitrust law. Defendants did not deny the allegations, but argued that Chinese law required them to coordinate export prices. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce backed the defendants in an amicus brief explaining Chinese law. The district court, however, declined to defer to the Ministry's interpretation of Chinese law, awarding the plaintiffs $147 million in damages and permanently enjoining the defendants from further violations of U.S. antitrust laws.

On appeal, defendants argued that the district court should have dismissed on grounds of foreign state compulsion, international comity, act of state, and political question. While the political question doctrine rests on separation of powers, the other three grounds are all doctrines of prescriptive comity. As I have explained in a recent article, American law is full of international comity doctrines, each with its own specific requirements.

To avoid confusion, it is worth noting at the outset that although the Second Circuit repeatedly framed the question as whether the district court should "abstain from exercising jurisdiction," Vitamin C was clearly not an international comity abstention case. International comity abstention is a doctrine of adjudicative comity, or deference to foreign courts. The Second Circuit has held that it is available only if parallel proceedings are pending in a foreign court. See Royal & Sun Alliance Ins. Co. of Canada v. Century Intern. Arms, Inc., 466 F.3d 88, 93-94 (2d Cir. 2006). The same is true in most other circuits that have adopted the doctrine (the cases are collected here at pp. 2112-14). The main exception is the Ninth Circuit, whose decision in Mujica v. Airscan Inc., 771 F.3d 580 (9th Cir. 2014), applied a broad and uncertain comity abstention doctrine that conflicts with its own precedents, those of other circuits, and even the Supreme Court's. Because no parallel antitrust claims against these defendants were pending in Chinese courts, international comity abstention would not have been an appropriate ground on which to dismiss this case.

Instead, the Second Circuit properly viewed the Vitamin C case as raising questions of prescriptive comity-deference to foreign lawmakers-which U.S. law has developed a number of different doctrines to address (for discussion see here at pp. 2099-2105). The court relied particularly on an interest-balancing, comity doctrine commonly associated with Timberlane Lumber Co. v. Bank of America, 549 F.2d 597 (9th Cir. 1976), Mannington Mills, Inc. v. Congoleum Corp., 595 F.2d 1287 (3d Cir. 1979), and Section 403 of the Restatement (Third) of Foreign Relations Law. In the court's view, this doctrine authorized it to "balance the interests in adjudicating antitrust violations alleged to have harmed those within our jurisdiction with the official acts and interests of a foreign sovereign in respect to economic regulation within its borders" (slip op. at 4). The idea that U.S. courts are institutionally capable of balancing the interests of foreign governments against our own has the subject of significant criticism over the past three decades.

Moreover, it is hard to see how this particular prescriptive comity doctrine survives the Supreme Court's later decisions in Hartford Fire Insurance Co. v. California, 509 U.S. 764 (1993), and F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd. v. Empagran, S.A., 542 U.S. 155 (2004), both of which declined to apply a multi-factor balancing approach in antitrust cases. The Second Circuit read Hartford "narrowly" (slip op. at 20) not to preclude such an approach, particularly when compliance with both U.S. and foreign law was impossible. But the Second Circuit did not even mention Empagran, which expressly rejected case-by-case balancing as "too complex to prove workable." Empagran recognized that ambiguous statutes should be construed "to avoid unreasonable interference with the sovereign authority of other nations," but it also said in no uncertain terms that "application of our antitrust laws to foreign anticompetitive conduct is nonetheless reasonable, and hence consistent with principles of prescriptive comity, insofar as they reflect a legislative effort to redress domestic antitrust injury that foreign anticompetitive conduct has caused." Plaintiffs unquestionably alleged domestic antitrust injury in Vitamin C, making the application of U.S. law reasonable and consistent with prescriptive comity, at least has the Supreme Court has understood these concepts in the antitrust context.

The act of state doctrine is a separate and distinct manifestation of international comity, requiring that the acts of foreign sovereigns performed within their own territories be deemed valid. But the Supreme Court has made clear that the act of state doctrine applies only when a U.S. court must "declare invalid, and thus ineffective as 'a rule of decision for the courts of this country,' the official act of a foreign sovereign." W.S. Kirkpatrick & Co. v. Environmental Tectonics Corp., International, 493 U.S. 400, 405 (1990). To find that the defendants fixed the price of vitamin C, the district court did not have to find any part of Chinese law invalid or even to evaluate the conduct of the Chinese government. It only had to find that Chinese law did not immunize the defendants' own conduct from liability under U.S. law.

The best fitting tool to address the prescriptive comity issue in Vitamin C would seem to be the doctrine of foreign state compulsion (also known as foreign sovereign compulsion), which sometimes allows a U.S. court to excuse violations of U.S. law on the ground that the violations were compelled by foreign law. That is precisely what defendants had argued in this case. Although the exact contours of this doctrine are uncertain, the U.S. government has recognized it as a defense in antitrust cases. See Antitrust Enforcement Guidelines for International Operations ¶ 3.32 (1995). China represented that its law compelled the defendants to coordinate export prices for vitamin C, and the Second Circuit considered itself bound by China's interpretation of its own laws (slip op. at 30), which seems reasonable at least in these circumstances.

Unfortunately for the defendants, there are at least two potential problems with foreign state compulsion in this case. First, it appears that defendants may have asked the Chinese government to mandate their price fixing. See slip op. at 36-37. At least some authority suggests that a defendant wishing to claim foreign state compulsion as a defense must try in good faith to obtain relief from the compulsion from the foreign state. See, e.g., Societe Internationale v. Rogers, 357 U.S. 197, 208-09, 213 (1958). Second, it appears that defendants may have fixed prices at levels higher than those mandated by the Chinese government. See slip op. 38. The Second Circuit found this irrelevant to its "comity" analysis but seemed to acknowledge that such facts would preclude a foreign compulsion defense. See id.

U.S. courts have many tools at their disposal to address international comity issues. But sometimes no tool fits. "International comity" is not a universal wrench offering unlimited judicial discretion to dismiss cases that seem problematic. It is a principle underlying specific doctrines, with specific requirements, developed over many years to keep judicial discretion within bounds.

July 1, 2016

The Presumption Against Extraterritoriality Still Does Not Apply to Jurisdictional Statutes

The Presumption Against Extraterritoriality Still Does Not Apply to Jurisdictional Statutes

by William S. Dodge

[Cross-posted from Opinio Juris.]

In RJR Nabisco, Inc. v. European Community, the Supreme Court applied the presumption against extraterritoriality to determine the geographic scope of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). RICO makes it illegal to use a pattern of racketeering activity in particular ways relating to enterprises. Racketeering activity consists of certain state and federal offenses generally known as predicates-money laundering, for example. RICO also creates a civil cause of action for treble damages for "[a]ny person injured in his business or property" by a RICO violation. In RJR, the Court unanimously held that two of RICO's substantive prohibitions apply extraterritorially to the same extent as their predicates. For example, since the federal money laundering statute, applies to offenses "outside the United States" if the defendant is a U.S. person, RICO also prohibits acquiring an interest in an enterprise or conducting its business through a pattern of money laundering outside the United States if the defendant is a U.S. person. But RJR also held, by a vote of 4-3, that RICO's civil cause of action requires injury to business or property in the United States. The Court thus preserved RICO as a law enforcement tool for the U.S. Government in a wide range of cases, including terrorism cases, while limiting private damages actions that might have caused friction with foreign nations.

In the process of describing its framework for applying the presumption against extraterritoriality, however, the Court said something that it almost certainly did not mean and that is likely to cause confusion among the lower courts unless nipped in the bud. Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Alito said that a court must ask whether the statute gives a clear indication that it applies extraterritorially "regardless of whether the statute in question regulates conduct, affords relief, or merely confers jurisdiction." I have previously argued that the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply to jurisdictional statutes, and in this post I explain why that is still true after RJR.

Although Article III of the U.S. Constitution sets the outer limits of subject matter jurisdiction for federal courts, Congress must confer jurisdiction upon the lower federal courts by statute. The U.S. Code contains a number of general subject matter jurisdiction statutes that apply in large numbers of cases. For criminal cases, 18 U.S.C. § 3231 gives district courts jurisdiction "of all offenses against the laws of the United States." On the civil side, the general federal question statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1331, gives district courts jurisdiction "of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States," while the diversity statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, gives district courts jurisdiction "of all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75,000" between citizens of different states or between citizens and aliens (subject to a few exceptions). Some federal statutes have more specific grants of subject matter jurisdiction, like § 27 of the Securities Exchange Act, which gives the district courts jurisdiction over both civil and criminal actions "to enforce any liability or duty" created by the Act or its rules and regulations. None of these statutes contains the "clear, affirmative indication" of extraterritoriality that RJR says is necessary to rebut the presumption against extraterritoriality. Thus, if the presumption really applies to statutes that confer jurisdiction, those statutes might be interpreted not to apply extraterritorially. This might mean that federal courts would lack subject matter jurisdiction over criminal offenses committed abroad even if the substantive offense (like money laundering or RICO violations based on money laundering) clearly applies extraterritorially. It might similarly mean that civil suits arising abroad might have to be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction even if they are based on federal statutes that clearly apply extraterritoriality or are brought between diverse parties. Any sensible court would hesitate to reach such results. But how do we know that RJR does not command them.

First, we know that the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply to jurisdictional statutes because RJR applied the presumption to RICO's substantive provisions and not to the subject matter statute on which the suit was based. RICO lacks a general subject matter provision of its own, so jurisdiction in the civil suit brought by the European Community had to have been based on § 1331, the general federal question statute. The European Community lost its claim because the Supreme Court held that RICO's civil cause of action required injury to business or property in the United States, but it lost on the merits. The Supreme Court assumed (correctly) that the district court had subject matter jurisdiction under § 1331 to hear the claim in the first place.

Second, we know that the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply to jurisdictional statutes because RJR held that two of RICO's criminal provisions do apply extraterritorially to the same extent as the predicates on which they are based. This preserves the ability of the U.S. government, in the example that the Court itself gave, to use RICO to prosecute "a pattern of killings of Americans abroad in violation of § 2332(a)-a predicate that all agree applies extraterritorially." Yet the Court's holding would be for naught if 18 U.S.C. § 3231, the general subject matter provision for violations of federal criminal law, were limited to the United States.

Third, we know that the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply to jurisdictional statutes because RJR specifically discussed the possibility that the European Community might bring suit for violations of their own laws and "invoke federal diversity jurisdiction as a basis for proceeding in U.S. courts." This would be impossible if 28 U.S.C. § 1332, the federal diversity statute, were limited to cases arising in the United States.

Fourth, we know that the presumption against extraterritoriality does not apply to jurisdictional statutes because Morrison v. National Australia Bank, the decision that RJR elaborates and applies, similarly applied the presumption against extraterritoriality to a substantive provision of the Securities Exchange Act (§ 10(b)) and not to its jurisdictional provision (§ 27). Indeed, the Morrison Court went out of its way to say that "[t]he District Court had jurisdiction under [§ 27] to adjudicate the § 10(b) question."

So if RJR could not have meant that the presumption against extraterritorially applies to statutes granting subject matter jurisdiction, what did the Court mean when it said the presumption applies "regardless of whether the statute in question . . . merely confers jurisdiction"? The RJR Court was attempting to describe what it had done with the presumption in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., a case involving the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). In Kiobel, the Court held "that the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to claims under the ATS, and that nothing in the statute rebuts that presumption." Kiobel, however, did not apply the presumption against extraterritoriality to the ATS itself-a statute the Court characterized as "strictly jurisdictional"-but rather to the implied federal-common-law cause of action under the ATS. On page 9 of the slip opinion, RJR accurately describes Kiobel as a case where "we concluded that principles supporting the presumption should 'similarly constrain courts considering causes of action that may be brought under the ATS.'" And again on page 19, RJR correctly characterizes Kiobel as holding "that the presumption 'constrain[s] courts considering causes of action' under the ATS." Understanding Kiobel to have applied the presumption against extraterritoriality to the implied cause of action and not to the ATS itself also makes sense of Kiobel's statement that the presumption "is typically applied to discern whether an Act of Congress regulating conduct applies abroad," for causes of action regulate conduct in a way that purely jurisdictional statutes do not.

In short, RJR's statement that the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to statutes that "merely confer[] jurisdiction" must be read in context as describing the presumption's application to implied causes of action under statutes like the ATS and not to subject matter jurisdiction statutes themselves. Any other reading would be contrary to what the Supreme Court held with respect to subject matter jurisdiction in Morrison and, indeed, to what the Supreme Court did with respect to subject matter jurisdiction in RJR. It would also be contrary to common sense, for it would constrain the jurisdiction of the federal courts over civil cases and criminal prosecutions based on substantive statutes that clearly apply abroad. One can only hope that lower courts do not waste too much time and effort trying to figure this out.