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Kiobel (III): Universality as a Constitutional Question

Lets take a break from the ACA to think about the federal government’s power to to deal with matters that have no connection to the U.S., an issue the Court will take up when it hears the expanded arguments in Kiobel, the ATS case.

Yesterday I talked about how the ATS extraterritoriality at issue in Kiobel is really something rarer and more extreme: universality. Thus the analysis starts with the classic universal crime and obscure constitutional provision – Piracy, which has gotten significant play in the courts of appeals’ extraterritoriality cases like Doe v. Exxon and Rio Tinto (as well as in the Kiobel oral arguments on corporate liability). Because Sosa held that piracy would be actionable under the ATS, it is clear that the battle over extraterritoriality in Kiobel will be a naval engagement. It is true that piracy occurs extraterritorially, and under the current piracy statute, can be prosecuted even with no connection to the U.S. But proponents of foreign-cubed draw precisely the wrong inferences from piracy’s exceptional status.

Piracy is not just any international crime: it has its own separate constitutional provision: Congress can punish “piracies and felonies on the high seas, and Offenses against the law of nations.” Thus whatever is true of “piracy” is not necessarily true of other “Offenses” that can be reached under the ATS: these are separate, though related, Art. I powers. The Constitution’s singling out of piracy is striking and demands explanation, because it creates a double-redundancy. Does anything make piracy different from other high seas felonies and international law offenses? Yes: it was the only universally cognizable offense at the time.

Starting with this textual observation, I have explained that Congress can at most only use universal jurisdiction over offenses that clearly have that status in international law (see The [...]

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