I thought I’d drag myself out of blogger purgatory to make a brief comment on a recent decision out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania that I noticed earlier this evening. In M.C. v. Bianchi, Chief Judge Bartle denied a Motion to Dismiss on the basis that ATS jurisdiction can be conferred over non-state actors based purely on the heinousness of their actions. Assuming there is an appeal, I think it’s a safe bet the Third Circuit will swat this one down once it is reviewed, because the decision’s basis under international law is rather shaky.
My gut feeling is this is just a case of hard facts make bad law, because Defendant Anthony Bianchi, millionaire and convicted serial child rapist, is one of the least sympathetic litigants you could possibly have, and it’s not hard to see how one might be very strongly motivated to extend any assistance available to the unnamed minor plaintiffs.
But being a really horrible person does not magically invoke the jurisdiction of the ATS. Judge Bartle seems to have taken the requirement that only ‘extreme’ violations of international law are sufficient to invoke ATS liability to mean that, the more morally heinous an act is, the greater the likelihood is that there exists a cause of action for a tort in violation of the law of nations:
“Given the young age of his victims and the frequency with which Bianchi engaged in these heinous acts, this case is extreme enough for subject matter jurisdiction to exist under the ATS. What occurred here is a serious transgression of international law that is ‘specific, universal, and obligatory.’ Under all the circumstances, we conclude that Bianchi’s sexual assault of children through sex tourism falls within the ‘very limited category’ of claims cognizable under the ATS as a violation of the law of nations.” Quoting Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U.S. 692, 732.
To put it charitably, the decision is something of an international law train wreck. Its primary justification seems to be the existence of a international instrument condemning acts like those committed by Bianchi:
“[I]n support of this court’s jurisdiction, plaintiffs point to the Optional Protocol on the Rights of the Child, Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (“Optional Protocol”).” … The Optional Protocol bans the ‘offering, delivering or accepting, by whatever means, a child for the purpose of … [s]exual exploitation of the child.’ S. Treaty Doc. No. 106-37 at art. 3(1)(a)(i). It also declares that parties ‘shall ensure that all child victims of the offences described in the present protocol have access to adequate procedures to seek, without discrimination, compensation for damages from those legally responsible.’ Id. at art. 9(4).
Although the U.S. is a signatory to the Optional Protocol, because that treaty is not self-executing, Plaintiffs had to go the law-of-nations route for the ATS suit, rather than relying on the treaty alone. But calling something ‘customary international law,’ even if it were, does not mean that it automatically comes with a cause of action against private parties. Judge Bartle notes that “‘[The Optional Protocol] also provides that ‘each State Party shall take measures, where appropriate, to establish the liability of legal persons’ for these offenses, both criminal and civil,” and then blithely goes on to assume, “[t]hus, the Optional Protocol clearly contemplates the liability of private individuals.” But that’s not what it says at all. The treaty clearly contemplates obligating nations to prohibit child sex crimes as a matter of domestic law, not making child sex crimes in themselves a violation of international law.
Other than the Optional Protocol, the decision’s basis for finding a violation of international law is based on the following:
“[C]ourts across the United States have acknowledged that child sex tourism … is uniformly admonished by the international community as reprehensible.”
“[Bianchi’s] crimes represent a global problem, whereby individuals from developed nations travel to less developed nations to prey on young children from impoverished communities.”
“Courts have been willing to recognize claims by children under the ATS, even where the same claims would not be actionable if brought by adults.” Citing (questionably) Roe v. Bridgestone Corp., 492 F. Supp. 2d 988, 1019-22 (S.D. Ind. 2007).”
But none of this is sufficient to establish that Bianchi’s crimes were “a serious transgression of international law that is ‘specific, universal, and obligatory.'” His actions were evil and illegal, but not a matter of the law of nations.
Judge Bartle’s judicial over-reach in the name of universal jurisdiction is by no means an isolated decision. There is in fact fairly ample, if scattered, support for the idea that jurisdiction over Bianchi would be proper, under the argument that international commercialized child rape (I cannot bring myself to use the monstrously inadequate euphemism of ‘sex tourism’) is a modern crime akin to the traditional offenses of piracy and slavery. Eugene Kontorovich [PDF] has called this claim the “piracy analogy”. The piracy analogy is
the argument that [universal jurisdiction] is based on principles implicit in the earlier, piracy-only universal jurisdiction. According to the piracy analogy, international law treated piracy as universally cognizable because of its extraordinary heinousness. Universal jurisdiction was never about piracy per se, the argument goes, but about allowing any nation to punish the world’s worst and most heinous crimes. Thus universal jurisdiction over human rights violations is simply an application of the well-settled principle that the most heinous offenses are universally cognizable and not, as critics contend, a radical and dangerous encroachment on nations’ sovereignty.
The Bianchi decision is a text-book example of the piracy analogy in action, and of the mistaken belief that the world’s evils are best fought by expanding the nebulous jurisdictional reach of international law to encompass them. However, while states can and do use international law as a means of combating offenses that are universally condemned, as they have with the Option Protocol on the Rights of the Child, the mere fact that an offense can be regulated by international law cannot transform it into a violation of international law.