Much of the public has never heard of the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS,” 28 U.S.C. § 1350), but this law, dating back to the founding of the country, recently has had enormous implications for multinational corporations and foreign sovereigns, as they have often been sued in United States courts for actions taken — or allegedly taken — overseas. The Supreme Court, on April 17, 2013, handed them an important victory by severely restricting the right to sue foreign defendants under the ATS in the United States for overseas acts.
The ATS is a jurisdictional statute allowing U.S. courts to hear “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” Although rarely invoked until recent decades, plaintiffs in the 1980s began frequent invocation to challenge overseas activities allegedly fitting into the ATS definition of a “tort . . . in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” The Supreme Court added both clarity and ambiguity to the ATS in 2004 when it decided Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U.S. 692 (2004), holding that U.S. courts have jurisdiction to consider an alien’s federal common-law claim for violations of well-established and well-defined norms of international law of the type considered by Congress when it passed the ATS in 1789. The lower courts have varied in defining these norms, often allowing suits to proceed in cases alleging human rights violations.
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