WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court plunged into its new term Monday with a high-stakes dispute between businesses and human rights groups over accountability for foreign atrocities.
The dispute involves a lawsuit 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.
Human rights groups are warily watching the case because it would be a major setback if the court were to rule that foreign victims could not use American courts, under a 1789 law, to seek accountability and money damages for what they have been through.
Justice Samuel Alito said the Nigerian case has no connection to this country because the businesses, the victims and the location of the abuse all are foreign.
Why does this case belong in the courts of the United States? Alito asked.
Among other concerns raised by the justices was the prospect that U.S. firms could be sued in any country in any court in the world, in Justice Anthony Kennedys words.
Also Monday, the court declined to hear an appeal from a national anti-gay marriage group that tried to thwart Maines campaign disclosure law requiring it to release its donor list.
The high court turned aside an appeal from the National Organization for Marriage, a Washington, D.C.-based group that donated $1.9 million to a political action committee that helped repeal Maines same-sex marriage law in 2009.
Maines law requires groups that raise or spend more than $5,000 to influence elections to register and disclose donors.