The Alien Tort Statute Under the Obama Administration: Executive Suggestions vs. Explicit Requests

On December 1st, the United States Government filed a Statement of Interest (SOI) [PDF] in defendants’ appeal from In re S. African Apartheid Litig., 617 F. Supp. 2d 228 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) to the Second Circuit, seeking reversal of the district court’s denial of the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The U.S. brief, in a turn around from its previously voiced opinions on the case, argues that the Second Circuit should decline to find jurisdiction and allow the litigation to continue in the district court.

Background on the case: The South Africa Apartheid Litigation — a combination of the Khulumani and Ntsebeza cases — has been winding its slowly through the courts for a few years, bouncing its way back and forth between the District Court and the Second Circuit. Plaintiffs have alleged that several major multinational corps are guilty of “aiding and abetting” the apartheid South African government, and eight years ago the plaintiffs brought suit under the Alien Tort Statute. After going back in the district court on remand, the defendants filed for dismissal, inter alia, on comity. They lost, and sought interlocutory appeal of the dismissal, with a hearing in the case set for January 6, 2010.

A major issue, however, is whether the Second Circuit can even hear the appeal of the dismissal. For interlocutory appeals, in addition to two other factors not at issue here, a decision by the district court must be effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment.

The U.S. Government’s SOI asks the court of appeals to find it has no jurisdiction over the case because the U.S. has not explicitly asked for its dismissal. Therefore, according to the U.S., requiring defendants to wait until a final order in the case is given does not impair any of the U.S.’s interests (not the defendants’ interests), and accordingly jurisdiction for interlocutory appeal is not present. As stated in the government’s brief,

when a defendant seeks appellate review of a district court’s order denying a motion to dismiss a suit predicated on the adverse consequences on the Nation’s foreign relations, the court of appeals has jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine only if the district court denied defendant’s motion despite the fact that the Executive Branch explicitly sought dismissal of the suit on that ground. The requirement of an explicit request for dismissal on foreign policy grounds by the Executive Branch is, in our view, critical.

The U.S.’s implicit endorsement of continuing the apartheid litigation was apparently precipitated by a letter recently sent by the South African Justice Minister [PDF]. Previously, South Africa has strenuously objected to having South African apartheid-era torts tried in American courts. However, in September, 2009, Minister Radebe wrote to the district court, unsolicited, stating that “[t]he Government of the Republic of South Africa, having considered carefully the judgement of the United States District Court, Southern District of New York is now of the view that this Court is an appropriate forum to hear the remaining claims of aiding and abetting in violation of international law.” Shortly thereafter, the U.S. filed its own SOI in which it evinced no objections to continuing the case. The impression given is that, once South Africa dropped its objections, all of the U.S.’s objections immediately evaporated as well — and that so long as the foreign sovereign involved is happy, the U.S. has no concerns of its own.

But something more is going on here. Despite the SOI’s careful language, which stresses repeatedly that the U.S. never “explicitly request[ed]” a dismissal, and its framing of earlier U.S. involvement as merely an attempt to express “concerns” about procedural scope, this is in reality a radical shift from the U.S.’s previous stance under the Bush Administration. Let’s take a look at what the U.S. had to say back in 2007:

“[i]t would be extraordinary to give U.S. law an extraterritorial effect in [these] circumstances to regulate [the] conduct of a foreign state over its citizens, and all the more so for a federal court to do so as a matter of common law-making power. Yet plaintiffs would have this Court do exactly that by rendering private defendants liable for the sovereign acts of the apartheid government in South Africa.” Brief of the United States of America Amicus Curiae Supporting Defendant-Appellees, at 21, Khulumani v. Barclay Nat. Bank, Ltd., 504 F.3d 245 (2d Cir. 2007).

This is not a statement given by a government that merely has “concerns” that can be easily resolved with a few tweaks. And according to Jack Goldsmith and Curtis Bradley, “This should have been enough for dismissal.”

However, because Obama inherited this case from Bush, he — or rather, his legal people — are trying to impose their new policy stances in a manner that is not blatantly inconsistent with previous government filings. So in the U.S. Government’s Dec. 2009 SOI, they are forced into using rather cagey language: “[t]he requirement of an explicit request for dismissal on foreign policy grounds by the Executive Branch is, in our view, critical.” Because Bush’s legal team forgot to preface its filings with the legal equivalent of ‘mother may I,’ the U.S. Government can now argue that despite all of their earlier protests and disagreements with allowing the litigation to continue, the government never actually wanted the case to be dismissed. A few years back in Sosa, the Supreme Court stated “there is a strong argument that the federal courts should give serious weight to the Executive Branch’s view of the case’s impact on foreign policy.” This statement still holds true, save that Obama is clarifying now that “the Executive Branch’s view” means only official requests — in other words, executive suggestions must now be phrased as executive demands.

Essentially, under the legal analysis offered by the government’s SOI, any opinions given by the U.S. Government in an ATS case will be treated as just another voice in the crowd (if perhaps a particularly loud one), unless and until the U.S. tells the Court, “Hey, hold up now, this time we’re actually being serious! We actually want it to be dismissed now! Consider this an explicit request!” If the U.S. opposes an ATS case but merely “reference[s] the adverse foreign policy consequences of recognizing plaintiffs’ claims,” [SOI, p. 10, referring to previous appellate briefs filed by the U.S. in Khulumani], then, according to the government’s filing, the U.S. is just making a legal argument acknowledging that foreign policy concerns exist, it is not actually invoking an Executive Branch smack down.

Unfortunately for Bush, he didn’t know about this new safe word. So instead of making an Official Executive Suggestion That the Court Stop Its Shenanigans, like he thought he was doing, Bush just gave the court a heads up on his personal legal opinion.

As for those wondering why the government’s opinion on the South African apartheid litigation has changed under Obama, well, remember — the State Department’s new legal advisor is Harold Koh, and it seems very likely that the U.S. Government’s brief was partially (or more) a result of his influence. Koh, prior to his current post, had joined a brief in the Khulumani case arguing for a broad aiding-and-abetting standard for corporate liability for complicity in foreign human rights abuses. And, as everyone knows, Koh’s also a Godless, U.N.-worshipping America-hater. With him in charge, the Obama Administration is getting ready to throw an Alien Tort Statute party, and all corporate human rights violators are invited. Until Obama explicitly says they’re not.

-Susan

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