DOROTHEA BEANE & PHILIP HADLEY
The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of 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
This simple sentence has given rise to volumes of academic analysis and
thousands of federal cases
However, the fact of the matter is that it is
impossible to know with unwavering accuracy the precise intentions behind
thirty-three words written more than two hundred years ago. The parties in
can (and do) argue all they want about legislative intent and the
outer limits of the ATCA and customary international law, but ultimately,
whether or not foreigners should enjoy the right of redress in federal court
against corporations for violations of their human rights is a policy question.
We argue that the answer to this policy question is an unqualified “yes”.
II. Congressional Intent Behind the ATCA
It can hardly be disputed that, on its face, the ATCA places no limit on the
class of defendants that can be sued for international law violations. Under
the most elementary rule of statutory interpretation, corporations are there-
fore covered under the Act as prospective defendants. Courts give great
deference to the axiom, “Statutes mean what they say and . . . legislators
have said what they meant.
Nevertheless, the ATCA is a two-century-
old law which, unlike current statutes, contains no definition section, nor
7 The results of a broad WestlawNext search for “Alien Tort Claims Act” conducted on
March 13, 2012, yielded 4,468 secondary sources and 1,361 cases.
Petition of Famous Brands, Inc.