For some time now, Susan and I have been saying that courts already have a number of tools at their disposal to limit the reach of the ATS, even before Kiobel. Because of those tools, there was really no need for the Court to reach out and limit the scope of the potential substantive claims that could be brought under the ATS. Although the Court was concerned that the ATS permitted undue judicial interference in foreign affairs, courts could’ve already used things like personal jurisdiction, comity, forum non conveniens, and the like to keep themselves out of distant foreign fights.
The Supreme Court granted cert in a case today that shows just how that could’ve worked. DaimlerChrysler AG v. Bauman might first first appear to be a rather dry personal jurisdiction case, lovable only to civil-procedure nerds. But the root question–whether a company may be subjected to a lawsuit in the United States based only on the acts of its subsidiary–goes to a question quite close to the one in Kiobel. (And interestingly, Bauman includes claims under the ATS.) If the court uses Bauman to reemphasize the jurisdictional importance of corporate separateness, then all the problems that the Court was trying to solve in Kiobel would’ve gone away.
Take Kiobel itself as an example. That case involved a Nigerian subsidiary (who was the primary tortfeasor) and a British/Dutch parent. So far as I know, the Nigerian subsidiary had no contacts with the United States, so personal jurisdiction would be hard to establish as to that defendant. (I believe that the District Court ultimately dismissed the Nigerian subsidiary for that very reason.) The British/Dutch parent had an office in the United States, which probably shouldn’t be enough for jurisdiction. But see Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petro., 226 F. 3d 88, 92 (2d Cir. 2000). So if we’re being truthful, the lower courts were probably comfortable exercising jurisdiction over the British/Dutch parent because of the parent’s “American connection” through a separate, American subsidiary. But if Bauman goes the way that I expect, than that connection wouldn’t be nearly enough.
In any event, the Supreme Court probably took Bauman because it applies a test embraced by Wiwa, and Wiwa was invoked (and repudiated) by a few of the players in Kiobel. In other words, the Supreme Court was reminded that a bad case was floating out there and saw a chance to fix it. Still, I wish that Bauman had also reminded the Court that Kiobel was a needless overreach, which could’ve been avoided through the strict application of first-year civil-procedure principles. Too late now.