At issue is the Alien Tort Statute, enacted in 1789 to combat pirates. The law says U.S. courts can hear civil damage suits brought by a foreign national for wrongs "committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States."
The case before the Supreme Court was filed against the Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. by Nigerian survivors of atrocities committed by the Nigerian regime. The survivors say the Dutch company abetted the Nigerian government.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said from the bench that no nation allows suits against foreign corporations for actions that took place outside its territory, and nothing in international law authorized suits against corporations for violating human rights, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Justice Samuel Alito also wondered why the case had made it to the Supreme Court, saying, "There's no connection between these events and the United States," the Times reported. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia also seemed skeptical, the report said.
The newspaper said the nine-member court's five conservatives seemed to be prepared to rule against the plaintiffs.
The justices also heard separate argument Tuesday on a suit brought against the Palestinian Authority and the PLO for the torture and murder of a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1993 and whether lawsuits can be brought against individuals only, or groups and entities, NPR reported.