Thomas Jefferson Disagrees with the Supreme Court’s Decision in Kiobel

In 1792, Thomas Jefferson, as the first Secretary of State, made note of complaints that had been lodged against the U.S. by both Spain and France. In different incidents, citizens of Georgia had breached international law by trespassing into Florida (then a part of Spain) and into the territorial waters of Santo Domingo for the purpose of recapturing and kidnapping slaves. In examining the remedies that might be available to the United States to prevent this situation from reoccurring in the future, Jefferson affirmed the Alien Tort Statute’s extraterritorial reach, taking it as obvious that the statute conferred jurisdiction over acts that took place in a foreign sovereign’s territory:

XXX. — Opinion relative to a case of recapture, by citizens of the United States, of slaves escaped into Florida, and of an American captain enticing French slaves from St. Domingo.

December 3, 1792.

Complaint has been made by the Representatives of Spain that certain individuals of Georgia entered the State of Florida, and without any application to the Government, seized and carried into Georgia, certain persons, whom they claimed to be their slaves. This aggression was thought the more of, as there exists a convention between that government and the United States against receiving fugitive slaves. The minister of France has complained that the master of an American vessel, while lying within a harbor of St. Domingo, having enticed some negroes on board his vessel, under pretext of employment, bought them off, and sold them in Georgia as slaves.

1. Has the general government cognizance of these offences? 2. If it has, is any law already provided for trying and punishing them?

1. The Constitution says .. that Congress shall have power to “define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offences against the law of nations.” These offences were not committed on the high seas, and consequently not within that branch of the clause. Are they against the law of nations, taken as it may be in its whole extent, as founded, 1st, in nature; 2d, usage; 3d, convention? So much may be said in the affirmative, that the legislators ought to send the case before the judiciary for discussion; and the rather, when it is considered that unless the offenders can be punished under this clause, there is no other which goes directly to their case, and consequently our peace with foreign nations will be constantly at the discretion of individuals.

2. Have the legislators sent this question before the Courts by any law already provided? The act of 1789, chapter 20, section 9, says the district courts shall have cognizance concur rent with the courts of the several States, or the circuit courts, of all causes, where an alien sues for a tort only, in violation of the law of nations: but what if there be no alien whose interest is such as to support an action for the tort? — which is precisely the case of the aggression on Florida. If the act in describing the jurisdiction of the Courts, had given them cognizance of proceedings by way of indictment or information against offenders under the law of nations, for the public wrong, and on the public behalf, as well as to an individual for the special tort, it would have been the thing desired.

The same act, section 13, says, the “Supreme Court shall have exclusively all such jurisdiction of suits or proceedings against ambassadors, or other public ministers, or their domestics or domestic servants, as a court of law can have or exercise consistently, with the law of nations.” — Still this is not the case, no ambassador, &c., being concerned here. I find nothing else in the law applicable to this question, and therefore presume the case is still to be provided for, and that this may be done by enlarging the jurisdiction of the courts, so that they may sustain indictments and informations on the public behalf, for offences against the law of nations.

[A note added by Mr. Jefferson at a later period. ]

On further examination it does appear that the 11th section of the judiciary act above cited gives to the circuit courts exclusively, cognizance of all crimes and offences cognizable under the authority of the United States, and not otherwise provided for. This removes the difficulty, however, but one step further; — for questions then arise, 1st. What is the peculiar character of the offence in question; to wit, treason, felony, misdemeanor, or trespass? 2d. What is its specific punishment — capital or what? 3d. Whence is the venue to come?

As these offenses had taken place in the territory of other sovereigns — and not upon the high seas, which is the geographical extent of Congress’ authority to prescribe “piracies and felonies” — Jefferson concluded that the Constitutional authority for acting against the Georgians’ incursions came from the “offences against the law of nations” clause. Jefferson then considered whether Congress had previously, pursuant to this authority, provided for any laws that might reach the challenged conduct and, in examining the section now known as the Alien Tort Statute, finds that Congress had. Unfortunately for Jefferson, the ATS would not protect the U.S.’s interest in this instance, leading him to  lament the apparent lack of federal jurisdiction for such a case to be heard before the federal courts: “what if there be no alien whose interest is such as to support an action for the tort?”

But Jefferson implicitly accepted that, under the ATS, an alien possessed an individual cause of action for an extraterritorial tort. The Attorney General at that time, Edmund Randolph, concurred with Jefferson that a civil claim could plainly exist over the slave abductors, even though the exercise of criminal jurisdiction under those circumstances was more questionable.

And although no plaintiff existed to have standing in the cases of the Florida and St. Domingo slave abductions — and thus no claim under the ATS was available — the permissibility of civil jurisdiction over the defendants was, to Jefferson, obvious. Constitutional authority to provide a cause of action over the offence was authorized under the “offences against the law of nations” clause; subject matter jurisdiction in the district courts was provided for by section 9 of the Judiciary Act of 1789; and personal jurisdiction was to be had over the defendants owing to both their presence in the state of Georgia and their status as U.S. citizens. No ‘presumption against extraterritoriality’ would have applied, under Jefferson’s understanding, because such a judicial construction would have directly undermined the congressional purpose underlying the ATS.