SCOTUS: Corporations are people, unless they torture other people
Corporations, as Mitt Romney famously reminded us this summer in Iowa, are people under the laws of the United States. Just take a look at the U.S. Supreme Court‘s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The five justices in the majority (you know who they are) held that corporations are entitled to the same First Amendment right to free speech as regular old people, so Congress’ attempt to ban corporate electioneering was unconstitutional.
When are corporations not people in the eyes of the Supreme Court? When they’re accused of torturing or killing real live human beings. Last week, in Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, all nine justices agreed that when Congress enacted the Torture Victim Protection Act in 1991, it restricted causes of action to those against “an individual” — and individuals aren’t organizations or corporations. The court looked at the dictionary definition of the word individual, as well as the legislative history of the anti-torture law, to conclude that Congress intended the law to apply only to “natural persons.” The opinion said it’s notable that lawmakers used the word “individual” instead of “person” in defining potential torture defendants because “‘person,’ as we have recognized, often has a broader meaning in the law than ‘individual.'”
Right. Corporate “persons” have First Amendment rights to unlimited Super PAC spending but corporate “individuals” don’t exist. I’m sure the relatives of Azzam Rahim, the naturalized U.S. citizen who was kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the Palestinian Authority in the case that gave rise to the Supreme Court’s ruling, were compelled by the high court’s parsing of the distinction between a “person” and an “individual.”
So, no doubt, were the Nigerians, whose Torture Victims Protection Act case was turned down Monday by the justices. They alleged that Chevron conspired with the Nigerian government to use deadly force in stamping out a protest against offshore drilling. As is customary, the Supreme Court did not explain its decision not to grant certiorari in Bowoto v. Chevron, but we can safely assume that it’s because the justices already answered the question of whether the Nigerians can assert the TVPA against Chevron in last week’s Mohamad ruling. That leaves the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal’s 2010 opinion in Bowoto, in which the appeals court also said the torture act doesn’t apply to corporations, as the last word in the Nigerians’ case.
Human rights advocates had frequently used the Torture Victim Protection Act in tandem with the Alien Tort Statute to pursue claims against corporations that allegedly engaged in overseas torture and killing, with U.S. citizens suing under the TVPA and foreign nationals relying on the ATS. Now, with the TVPA severely restricted and the Alien Tort Statute on the brink of impotence, thanks to the restrictions on extraterritorial reach that the Supreme Court imposed in Morrison v. National Australia Bank, the justices have gutted human rights litigation in U.S. courts.
Whether you’re a “person” or an “individual,” you’ve got to be concerned about that.
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