Focus on the Court: Corporate Personhood



The Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. this term (likely in February 2012). This case poses the question of whether Indonesian villagers can sue Exxon Mobil Corp for alleged murder and torture committed by soldiers that the oil company hired to provide security for a natural gas plant. More broadly, the question is whether defendants other than individuals can be held responsible in U.S. courts for overseas human rights violations, crimes against humanity, torture, murder, or other universal law violations. The key law involved is the Alien Tort Statute(an obscure law from the 1780s that wasn’t even used until 1980).

This case revolves around a legal issue that other cases have grappled with: For the purposes of enforcing the Alien Tort Statute and prosecuting human rights violations, are corporations the same as people? The DC Circuit Court, and the Eleventh, Seventh, and Second Circuit Courts have all ruled on cases related to corporate personhood and human rights violations. The Second Circuit was the only one to side with corporations and rule that the Alien Tort Statute could not be used to prosecute a corporation’s alleged human rights violations.

Like many cases that come before the Supreme Court, the Kiobel decision could go in a number of different directions. On the one hand, the justices could choose to only address the question before them of what should happen with Exxon’s alleged activities in Indonesia. However, if the Court decides to rule more broadly, then the potential outcomes become much more interesting: This Supreme Court has proven to be receptive to the corporate personhood argument and friendly to corporations (especially in its decision in Citizens United, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign advertisements as an expression of their First Amendment rights to free speech). But in this case, a decision that endorses corporate personhood would actually be a decision that does NOT favor corporations–because it would mean that corporations can and must be held responsible for alleged human rights violations under the Alien Tort Statute.

The bottom line is, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. will be a major case this term, not only because of what it means for the Indonesian villagers whose allegations are serious and disturbing but also because it will give us insight into how exactly the Supreme Court views corporations and the way they should be treated under U.S. law. Keep checking RACblog for updates on this and other important Supreme Court cases.

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Katharine Nasielski

About Katharine Nasielski

Katharine Burd Nasielski is the Communications Associate at the RAC and was an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant from 2011-2012. She graduated in 2011 from Northwestern University and is originally from Philadelphia, PA where she is a member of Society Hill Synagogue.

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