Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that the Alien Tort Statute should continue to have some strong enforcement application.
"International norms have long included a duty not to permit a nation to become a safe harbor for pirates (or their equivalent)," he said, citing past Supreme Court cases. "This approach would avoid placing the statute's jurisdictional scope at odds with its substantive objectives, holding out 'the word of promise' of compensation for victims of the torturer."
The civil lawsuits in the international law context have been compared to a separate, high-profile domestic political dispute. The high court in 2010 concluded that corporations -- businesses, unions and issue advocacy groups -- enjoy the same free speech rights as individuals when it comes to independent election spending. Now the issue in part was whether corporations and political entities should be treated the same as individual offenders when it comes to enforcing international human rights.
The current case is Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. (10-1491).