SUPREME COURT NOTEBOOK

Court limits suits over foreign abuses

By Mark Sherman

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday drastically limited the ability of foreign victims of human rights abuses to use American courts to seek accountability and monetary damages for their suffering.

The decision was a major victory for corporations that have been sued in the United States over their alleged role in foreign atrocities. The court undercut a more than 30-year-old strategy by human rights lawyers to use civil lawsuits to pursue individuals who may be responsible for torture and other atrocities, as well as companies with operations in countries with poor records in the area of human rights.

The justices unanimously agreed to shut down a lawsuit filed by Nigerians against Royal Dutch Petroleum, or Shell Oil, over claims that the company was complicit in murder and other abuses committed by the Nigerian government against its citizens in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the 1990s.

The suit is one of several pending claims against U.S. and international companies that invoke the 1789 Alien Tort Statute. Human rights lawyers have used the law to sue individuals who allegedly took part in abuses and, more recently, companies that do business in the United States as well as places where abuses occur.

Robert Loeb, a former Justice Department official and an expert on the issue, called the decision "a death knell for those cases" because it focuses on where the conduct took place.

Some human rights lawyers said the ruling may be limited to international businesses like Shell and they promised to push ahead with suits that target U.S. companies. "There are going to be categories of cases that have sufficient U.S. connections that they can be brought under the statute even if the human rights violations take place outside the U.S.," said Paul Hoffman, the lawyer who represented the Nigerians at the Supreme Court.

While all the justices agreed that the Nigerians' claims could not go forward, the court split sharply on the issue of whether the 224-year-old law generally could be used to sue over claimed human rights abuses in another country. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for five justices, said that it could not.

Roberts said the law does not allow claims "seeking relief for violations of the law of nations occurring outside the United States."

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a separate opinion for four justices, agreed that the Nigerians' claims must not be accepted, but said he would leave the courthouse door open to lawsuits where alleged abuse "adversely affects an important American national interest." Breyer said that category "includes a distinct interest in preventing the United States from becoming a safe harbor ... for a torturer or other common enemy of mankind."

Energy and mining companies have been among the most frequent targets of these lawsuits in recent years following efforts by the military in Indonesia, Nigeria and elsewhere to clamp down on protests against oil and gas exploration and development.

Other cases pending in U.S. courts seek to hold accountable Chiquita Brands International for its relationship with paramilitary groups in Colombia; Exxon and Chevron for abuses in Indonesia and Nigeria, respectively; Britain-based mining concern Rio Tinto for allegedly aiding the Papua New Guinea government in a civil war; and several companies for their role in the old racial apartheid system in South Africa.

The Alien Tort Statute, adopted in part to deal with piracy claims, went unused for most of American history until rights lawyers dusted it off beginning in the late 1970s. The Supreme Court cautiously endorsed the use of the law in 2004, but left unanswered precisely who could be held liable and in what circumstances.

After Wednesday's decision, legal experts said the full scope of the ruling may not be entirely clear. But "the decision's most likely effect is to chill significantly the use of U.S. federal courts to remedy human rights violations that occur abroad," said Jonathan Hafetz, an international human rights expert who teaches law at Seton Hall University.

Among the kinds of cases that still might be considered under the Alien Tort Statute are those that include U.S. contractors who are accused of taking part in atrocities abroad, said Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at Northwestern University Law School.

Congress passed a separate law in 1992, the Torture Victims Protection Act, that says an individual who acts on behalf of a foreign nation can be held liable in a civil lawsuit for torturing or killing people. That law is unaffected by Wednesday's ruling.

No-warrant DUI blood tests rejected

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police usually must try to obtain a search warrant from a judge before ordering blood tests for drunken-driving suspects.

The justices sided with a Missouri man who was subjected to a blood test without a warrant and found to have nearly twice the legal limit of alcohol in his blood.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court that the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood is generally not sufficient reason to jettison the requirement that police get a judge's approval before drawing a blood sample.

Missouri and the Obama administration were asking the court to endorse a blanket rule that would have allowed the tests without a warrant.

Eight of the nine justices rejected that plea. Only Justice Clarence Thomas would have held that a warrantless blood test does not violate a suspect's constitutional rights.

The case stemmed from the arrest of Tyler McNeely in Missouri's rural Cape Girardeau County. A state trooper stopped McNeely's speeding, swerving car. The driver, who had two previous drunken-driving convictions, refused to submit to a breath test to measure the alcohol level in his body.

He failed several field sobriety tests. The arresting officer, Cpl. Mark Winder of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said McNeely's speech was slurred and he was unsteady on his feet.

There seemed little dispute that Winder had enough evidence to get a warrant for a blood test, but chose not to. Instead, he drove McNeely to a hospital. A technician drew blood from McNeely, who was handcuffed throughout the process.

McNeely's blood-alcohol content was 0.154 percent, well above the 0.08 percent legal limit.

But the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a lower court order that threw out the results of the blood test. The state high court said the blood test violated the Constitution's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. Police need a warrant to take a suspect's blood except when a delay could threaten a life or destroy potential evidence, the Missouri court said.

About half the states already prohibit warrantless blood tests in all or most suspected drunken-driving cases.

The Supreme Court did not offer much guidance Wednesday about when police may dispense with a warrant. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a separate opinion, said a later case may give the court to opportunity to say more on that subject.

The case is Missouri v. McNeely, 11-1425.

Published: Fri, Apr 19, 2013

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