U.S. Supreme Court justices suggested they may bar victims of overseas atrocities from using a centuries-old law to sue corporations for complicity, as the court weighed a case stemming from Middle Eastern terrorism.
Hearing arguments Wednesday in Washington, the court’s conservative wing questioned whether the 1789 Alien Tort Statute, a favorite tool of human-rights activists in recent decades, permits suits against corporations in U.S. courts.
Victims of attacks in Israel and the Palestinian territories are seeking to sue Amman, Jordan-based Arab Bank Plc for allegedly using its New York branch to distribute millions of dollars to terrorists and their families.
Chief Justice John Roberts said he was concerned that corporate liability would cause “foreign entanglements,” alluding to the Trump administration’s contention the case has caused friction with the Jordanian government.
“I’m wondering if extending it to corporate liability is, in fact, going to have the same problematic result of increasing our entanglements, as it obviously has here with respect to the government of Jordan,” Roberts said.
Another potential swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, used his only questions to cast doubt on a core premise of the argument made by the victims’ lawyer.
Multinational companies have faced dozens of suits accusing them of playing a role in human rights violations, environmental wrongdoing and labor abuses. Exxon Mobil Corp., Coca-Cola Co., Pfizer Inc., Unocal Corp., Chevron Corp., Daimler AG and Ford Motor Co. have all been sued under the Alien Tort Statute. A ruling against corporate liability would further weaken a law the Supreme Court has already undercut.
The victims’ lawyer, Jeffrey Fisher, said the volume of cases has dropped dramatically since the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the Alien Tort Statute generally doesn’t apply to conduct beyond U.S. borders. Over the next two years, that…