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 “Define and Punish” Clause and the Limits of Universal Jurisdiction, 103 NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY LAW REVIEW 149 (2009)). There is evidence for this not just in the structure of the clause, but in grand jury instructions of Wilson and Story, the pronouncements of Marshall, and important judicial and Congressional precedents from the early Republic. For example, in U.S. v. Furlong, the Supreme Court in 1820 found that a statute that purported to punish “murder” by “any person” on the high seas does not apply universally because it is not a UJ crime.

Because murder was not universally cognizable, such “an offense committed by a foreign upon a foreign ship” is a matter in which “Congress ha[s] nor right to interfere.” The Court suggested this limitation was Constitutional, noting such universal regulation would exceed “the punishing powers of the body the enacted it,” i.e. go beyond the Define and Punish clause. Or as Marshall put it in 1800: “[T]he people of the United States have no jurisdiction over offenses committed on board a foreign ship against a foreign nation. Of consequence, in framing a Government for themselves, they cannot have passed this jurisdiction to that Government.”

Congress’s failure to Define
Courts in ATS cases have usually skipped the UJ question entirely. As I show in my forthcoming paper, Discretion, Delegation and Defining in the Constitution’s Offenses Clause, 106 NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY LAW REVIEW __ (2012), when Congress exercises its power to “Define” an offence, it gets some degree of deference about the content of the offense, as well as its UJ status. Congress did not “Define” in the ATS, but rather broadly delegated to the courts. Courts do not enjoy any special discretion to “Define.” In the absence of congressional definition, courts must stick closely to well-established international precedent on universal cognizability, an effort they have not even attempted. This is not just because Sosa’s requirements; rather, the Offenses Clause requires it. Indeed, the plurality in Hamdan case rejected conspiracy to commit war crimes because there were no precisely on-point international precedents, a demanding standard equally applicable to the universal cognizability of ATS offenses. Ironically, conservatives favored a loose approach to finding international norms in Hamdan and liberals a highly restrained one; the roles here are gain reversed.

Furthermore, a statute’s mere reference to international law in the ATS does not automatically trigger UJ. Indeed, in U.S. v. Palmer, Chief Justice Marshall read a statute criminalizing “piracy” by “any person” as requiring a U.S. nexus, even though it was clear that Congress could constitutionally apply it universally. The fact that Congress quickly acted to override this construction does not disprove the existence of the presumption as applied to international law offenses: one point of presumptions is to put the burden of clarity on Congress, and this is even more so in foreign relations issues.

[Cross-posted on OpinioJuris]

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