Blog: U.S. Supreme Court
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December 9, 2020
HLS student clinical team submits Supreme Court amicus brief on behalf of legal historians
On Dec. 1, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in Nestlé v. Doe and Cargill v. Doe—a pair of corporate human rights cases against U.S.-based chocolate companies for their role in aiding and abetting child slavery in West Africa. Despite repeated promises from chocolate companies to curtail the practice, the problem remains far from fixed, with some estimates finding as many as 1.56 million children aged five to seventeen forced to harvest cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in 2018 and 2019 alone. The plaintiffs are six former child slaves who allege they were trafficked from Mali and forced to work in Côte d’Ivoire cocoa farms. The plaintiffs make use of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a provision of the First Judiciary Act of 1789 that has allowed foreign nationals to pursue accountability for human rights violations in U.S. courts over the past several decades.
In October, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of legal historians in the consolidated cases against the chocolate companies. A student clinical team—Emily Ray ’21, Jasmine Shin ’21, Allison Beeman ’22, and Zarka Shabir ’22—under the supervision of Tyler Giannini, clinic co-director, worked with the amici on the brief. Amici were Professors Barbara Aronstein Black, Columbia Law School, Nikolas Bowie ’14, Harvard Law School, William R. Casto, Texas Tech University School of Law, Martin S. Flaherty, Fordham School of Law, David Golove, New York University Law School, Eliga H. Gould, University of New Hampshire, Stanley N. Katz, Princeton University, Samuel Moyn ’01, Yale Law School, and Anne-Marie Slaughter ’85, Princeton University and CEO of New America.
The Human Rights Program (HRP) at HLS spoke with the team about the ATS, their brief, and why the SCOTUS argument matters for human rights and corporate accountability.
Human Rights Program: What is at stake in the case?
Emily Ray: The ATS has been a key tool for many survivors of human rights abuses who have been unable to find justice in domestic court systems in their own countries or through international bodies like the International Criminal Court. For years, the ATS was groundbreaking because it allowed foreign plaintiffs to bring civil claims in U.S. courts for torts that violate the law of nations. The Supreme Court has placed restrictions in recent years on the statute, and this case decides, among other issues, whether the ATS can be used to bring cases against American corporations who have perpetrated or assisted in the perpetration of human rights abuses around the world. What the Supreme Court decides will have far reaching effects on that question.
Zarka Shabir: For me, what’s at stake is the idea that a U.S. corporation can be held liable in the United States for its involvement in rights violations regardless of where it commits them. It’s the idea that a corporation cannot, simply by virtue of being a corporation, violate accepted international law with impunity. One of the questions in the case is whether the ATS should permit claims against natural persons but not corporate entities, as Nestlé and Cargill have argued. During oral arguments, several Justices pressing counsel for the companies and the U.S. government on that point. Across the globe, an increasing number of countries have recognized that corporations cannot be left immune and without scrutiny. This case presents an opportunity for the United States to stay on track with this global trend.
Tyler Giannini: One of the reasons the First Congress passed the ATS was to send a signal to other nations that the United States would uphold the rule of law and that it could be trusted as part of the international community. This was especially true as a young nation at the time. While it’s no longer a new nation, the question of whether the U.S. will uphold basic principles of law and human rights has come under scrutiny again in recent years. As we said in the brief, it’s well established that a nation should hold its own citizens to account and not let action on its territory offend other countries and accepted international norms. The Court has the chance to affirm this idea in this case and to make clear that U.S. corporations can’t aid abuses like child slavery.
Jasmine Shin: Simply put, what’s at stake in this case is justice for the six plaintiffs who were trafficked and forced to endure unimaginable conditions. This case was first filed fifteen years ago, and these plaintiffs, who are now in their thirties, have not been able to have their day in court.Continue Reading…
December 1, 2020
Clinic Submits Amicus Curiae Brief on Behalf of Legal Historians
Today, Dec. 1, the Supreme Court of the United States hears oral arguments in a pair of corporate human rights cases against U.S. based chocolate companies Nestlé and Cargill for their role in aiding and abetting child slavery in West Africa. The plaintiffs, six survivors of kidnapping, trafficking, and forced labor, make use of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a provision of the First Judiciary Act of 1789 that allows foreign nationals to pursue accountability for law of nations violations in U.S. Courts. In examining the cases, the Supreme Court will consider the question of corporate liability under the ATS for the third time – this time focusing on whether or not the ATS permits cases against U.S. domestic corporations at all.
In October, the International Human Rights Clinic filed an amicus brief on behalf of legal historians in the case against the chocolate companies. The brief includes newly uncovered historical documents from George Washington’s first administration which clearly demonstrate how the founders intended the ATS to apply to violations committed by U.S. subjects. The documents include an opinion by Thomas Jefferson and affirm that the ATS was intended for the very purpose at issue in the current cases: to provide options for redress to foreign nationals whose rights have been violated by U.S. subjects.
A clinical team – Emily Ray JD’21, Jasmine Shin JD’21, Allison Beeman JD’22, and Zarka Shabir JD’22 – under the supervision of Tyler Giannini, Clinic Co-Director worked with the amici on the brief. Amici on the brief were Professors Barbara Aronstein Black, Nikolas Bowie, William R. Casto, Martin S. Flaherty, David Golove, Eliga H. Gould, Stanley N. Katz, Samuel Moyn, and Anne-Marie Slaughter.
The International Human Rights Clinic staff have played a major role in ATS litigation for decades, including in landmark corporate cases such as Doe v. Unocal and Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. Since 1980, the law has been a critical means of holding perpetrators accountable for abuses such as extrajudicial killing, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity when redress might otherwise be unavailable elsewhere. Still, in recent years, the law has been curtailed and challenged.
Learn more about the case in the Nestlé & Cargill v. Doe symposium on Just Security and the case preview on SCOTUSblog. Read about all eighteen amicus briefs filed in support of the survivors of child trafficking on the Corporate Accountability Lab’s blog, and dive into Daniel Golove’s article exploring the significance of the new evidence the Clinic relied on in its brief supporting plaintiffs.
February 10, 2016
Clinic Files Petition for Certiorari in Final Attempt to Hold Two U.S. Corporations Accountable for Supporting Apartheid
Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein
The Clinic and its partners today filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court in the In re South African Apartheid Litigation suit, asking the Court to clarify the circumstances under which defendants may be held accountable in U.S. courts for human rights violations. The case, which involves the actions of U.S. corporations IBM and Ford, raises questions about whether a defendant’s knowledge is sufficient to establish aiding and abetting liability, or whether specific intent or motive must also be demonstrated. It also concerns how closely a human rights violation must be connected to the United States in order to sue under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), and whether corporations can be held liable at all under the ATS.
The petition argues that through their actions, and decades-long support for violations associated with apartheid, defendants IBM and Ford purposefully facilitated violations of international law by enabling the “denationalization and violent suppression, including extrajudicial killings, of black South Africans living under the apartheid regime.” According to the petition, “IBM and Ford purposefully designed, sold, and serviced customized technology and vehicles for the South African government that they knew in advance would be used to racially segregate and systematically oppress black South Africans.”
Despite the corporations’ knowledge and deliberate action, in 2015 the Second Circuit concluded that IBM did not aid and abet international law violations because there was no evidence that “IBM’s purpose was to denationalize black South Africans and further the aims of a brutal regime.” In an equally striking 2011 decision, the Fourth Circuit imposed an aiding and abetting standard requiring defendants who supplied mustard gas to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime to not just know but rather intend that it be used against civilians.
The petition argues that, if left to stand, the Second and Fourth Circuits’ rulings will protect U.S.-based aiders and abettors of international law violations from liability. The Second and Fourth Circuits implicitly rejected the standard set at Nuremberg, under which industrialists who knew that Zyklon-B gas would be used to commit genocide, and deliberately decided to sell it to the Nazis, were convicted. Unlike the Second and Fourth Circuits, the Nuremberg courts did not require that the defendants intended their products to be used against civilians, or that they shared the genocidal motives of the Nazis.
As the petition explains, “the Second Circuit’s standard is thus so restrictive that it is now easier to convict individuals of international crimes before the [International Criminal Court] than to find individuals civilly liable under the ATS for the same acts.” In other words, perpetrators convicted of international crimes at Nuremberg would not be civilly liable under the ATS for aiding and abetting the Holocaust.
October 1, 2012
Posted by Cara Solomon
For all of you Kiobel watchers, here’s the transcript for this morning’s argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. We’ll post Tyler and Susan’s take on the questioning as soon as we can.
In the meantime, here’s some media coverage of the case, some of it published before the arguments and some of it published afterward. We were particularly pleased to see Desmond Tutu’s opinion piece in USA Today, which has clearly been making the rounds.
Desmond Tutu, USA Today: “Will U.S. Rule for Rights of South Africans?”
Jodie Kirshner, The Christian Science Monitor: “Supreme Court Case Tests U.S. Leadership in Human Rights”
The New York Times: “Justice Under the Law of Nations”
The New York Times: “October Term 2012”
Slate: “Torture Inc.”
SCOTUSblog: “Argument Recap: In Search of an ATS Compromise”
September 30, 2012
Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein
Supreme Court to Hear Major Human Rights Case Again: Much More at Stake the Second Time Around
The Supreme Court will open its new term on Monday. The first argument it hears will be Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., the most significant human rights case to reach the Court in recent years. Intense interest in the case has generated more than 80 amicus curiae briefs from a range of actors around the world, including governments, human rights organizations, and corporations. Kiobel is especially intriguing not only because of the human rights issues at stake, but also because it will be the Court’s secondtime hearing oral argument in the matter. This is a rarity; the last example was Citizen United, the major campaign finance case.
What are the issues?
Kiobel is an Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) suit based on a 1789 statute that allows non-U.S. citizens to bring civil claims in U.S. federal courts for universally recognized violations of international law. The case arises out of allegations that Royal Dutch/Shell was complicit in killings and other abuses by the Nigerian government in the 1990s. The Court first heard Kiobel last February, addressing the question of whether corporations can be held liable under the statute. But in an unusual move, a week later the Court requested supplemental briefing and a second oral argument.
June 14, 2012
History Shows That Those Who Commit International Law Violations Outside the United States Can Be Held Liable in U.S. Courts
Clinic files amicus curiae brief with U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of legal historians in major Alien Tort Statute case
June 14, 2012, Cambridge, MA—Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic has submitted a supplemental amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of petitioners in a major Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. Nine eminent legal historians joined the brief as amici: William R. Casto, Charles Donahue, Robert W. Gordon, Nasser Hussain, Stanley N. Katz, Michael Lobban, Jenny S. Martinez, and Anne-Marie Slaughter.
Clinical Directors Susan Farbstein and Tyler Giannini served as counsel for the amici, who argue that Congress, when enacting the statute, did not intend to restrict its territorial reach. Rather, the ATS was passed to address universally-condemned violations of the law of nations, such as piracy.
“This statute was clearly designed to open U.S. courts to those who suffered egregious violations of international law, wherever they are committed,” said Tyler Giannini, Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. “The framers had in mind abuses like piracy, which necessarily takes place outside the United States.”
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Kiobel in late February and a week later requested supplemental briefing on the question of whether the statute encompasses violations committed outside the territory of the United States. The case, which has attracted international attention, involves claims for human rights abuses committed in Nigeria.
“Kiobel is one of the most significant human rights cases to come before the U.S. Supreme Court in years,” said Susan Farbstein, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. “As a team, we felt honored to do the work of clarifying the historical record on how the courts have traditionally interpreted the ATS and the legal doctrines it embodies.”
Historical documents unearthed by the Clinic’s research team in British and American archives confirm that, from the outset, survivors could bring ATS claims for violations of international law occurring outside the United States. In one of the earliest interpretations of the statute, dating to 1795, the U.S. Attorney General opined that individuals harmed in a raid in British Sierra Leone could use the ATS to seek redress in U.S. courts.
“It’s been gratifying to see the principles of justice are transcendent throughout history,” said Russell Kornblith, JD ’12, who was a key member of the project team.
In addition to Kornblith, clinical students Poppy Alexander, JD ’12, Yonina Alexander, JD ’12, and Daniel Saver, JD ’12, contributed countless hours towards the brief, working in close collaboration with the amici. The Harvard team was supported by international researchers, including students from the School of Oriental and African Studies under the supervision of Deval Desai, LLM ’09.Continue Reading…
April 18, 2012
Posted by Susan Farbstein and Tyler Giannini
In a 9-0 decision authored by Justice Sotomayor, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the use of the term “individual” in the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) encompasses only natural persons. Consequently, the TVPA does not impose liability against organizations for acts of torture and extrajudicial killing. The full decision is available here.
March 6, 2012
Posted by Susan Farbstein and Tyler Giannini
The Supreme Court will not rule this term on whether corporations can be held liable for human rights violations under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). Yesterday, in an unusual move, the Court instead decided that it will re-hear arguments in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. and requested additional briefing on the question of whether ATS cases can be brought in U.S. courts for abuses committed abroad.
The order for additional briefing (to be filed in May and June) and re-argument (likely to be held in October or November) means the case could now have broader implications. If decided on the grounds of extraterritoriality, the outcome in Kiobel could affect all ATS cases, not only those against corporate defendants.
March 2, 2012
Posted by Yonina Alexander, JD ’12, and Daniel Saver, JD ‘12
Rumor had it that if we wanted much-coveted tickets to the oral argument in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., we would have to arrive at the U.S. Supreme Court very, very early. The gallery of the Court is fairly small, and there are only a limited number of seats available each day to the general public. After a few phone calls and some internet research, we decided 4:00 am would do the trick.
Then, at 10:00 pm the night before the argument, we heard from a friend that 20 people were already lined up outside the Court. After putting in countless hours working on the Legal Historians amicus curiae brief for the case this past fall, we were bound and determined to be inside the Court when the justices heard the case. Totally unprepared to spend the night outside, we decided to head over anyway.
Armed with a bag of fruit, little to protect us from the elements, but plenty of good energy to make up for it, we arrived at the steps of the Court at 11:30 pm. A couple dozen other law students, all of whom had contributed to the case in some capacity, greeted the four of us as we took our places in line—numbers 28 to 32. As the night wore on, others joined the line, and we huddled in the cold, sharing food, war stories, and predictions of what the morning would bring.
There was a sense of camaraderie in the group. We had never met most of these students, but we all shared a commitment to the issue at hand—corporate accountability for human rights violations. Sometime before dawn, a police officer referred to the gathering as “kind of like a rock concert—but for nerdy law students.”
At 7:30 am, the big moment arrived. Police officers handed us gold-colored tickets with numbers, and told us the first 40 would be admitted. We’d done it. We’d made it in.
We entered through the side door, exchanged our sweatshirts for suits in the bathrooms and, minutes before the oral argument began, walked into the grand chambers of the Court’s gallery.
It struck us at that moment—and often in the hours before—that we were among the lucky. As students at Harvard Law School, we had the opportunity to fly to Washington, D.C. and wait all night to witness this historic argument. For many others who deeply cared about the case, that was not an option.
Inside the Courtroom, we sat flanked by stone-colored colonnades and heavy, red curtains, listening to the argument unfold. It was tense for all of us, trying to divine where the justices stood on the issues. Then, in an exchange with the Defendants’ counsel, Justice Stephen Breyer read out a line from our brief. To hear those words echo through the chambers of the United States Supreme Court was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We feel so fortunate to have worked with the rest of the team from the International Human Rights Clinic on a case with this much at stake.
Yonina Alexander, JD ’12, and Daniel Saver, JD ’12, have been members of the Clinic for the past four semesters.
For more information on Kiobel, click here for our resource page.
February 29, 2012
Posted by Cara Solomon
After a months-long hurricane of hard work, the clinical team settled into their seats at the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday and heard oral arguments in Kiobel. It was, by all accounts, a long and exhilarating day. Then Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein capped it all off by writing a piece for The New York Times’ Room for Debate.
There are plenty of post-Kiobel perspectives out there right now; we’ll do our best over the next few days to post some of the more substantive ones here.
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