The Supreme Court plunged into its new term Monday with a high-stakes dispute between businesses and human rights groups over accountability for foreign atrocities.
The term that concluded in June set a high bar for drama and significance, and the new one holds considerable potential as well. Cases involving some of the most contentious issues in American life — including affirmative action, gay marriage and voting rights — are likely to be decided after voters choose a president and new Congress next month.
Meeting on the first Monday in October, as required by law, the justices entered the crowded marble courtroom for the first time since their momentous decision in late June that upheld President Obama's health care overhaul.
The crucial vote in favor of Obamacare, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was smiling as he led the justices into the courtroom just after 10 a.m. The conservative chief justice will be watched closely in the coming months for any new indications of a willingness to side with the court's liberals, as he did in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act case.
Chief Justice Roberts formally opened the term, and the court turned quickly to its first argument, which could have far-reaching implications.
The dispute involves a lawsuit against Royal Dutch Petroleum, or Shell Oil, over claims that the company was complicit in murder and other abuses committed by the Nigerian government against its citizens in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
Human rights groups are warily watching the case because it would be a major setback if the court were to rule that foreign victims could not use U.S. courts, under a 1789 law, to seek accountability and money damages.
The justices appeared ready to impose some limits, but it was unclear how far the court would go to shield businesses and perhaps individuals as well, from human rights lawsuits under the 223-year-old Alien Tort Statute.
Justice Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. said the Nigerian case has no connection to this country because the businesses, the victims and the location of the abuse all are foreign. "Why does this case belong in the courts of the United States?" Justice Alito asked.
Among other concerns raised by the justices was the prospect that U.S. firms could "be sued in any country in any court in the world," in Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's words.
The Obama administration is partly on the oil company's side in this case. "There just isn't any meaningful connection to the United States," Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. said.
But Mr. Verrilli also said the court should not issue a broad ruling that would foreclose all similar lawsuits, even when the corporation being sued is American. The administration is not endorsing such lawsuits, but argues that the broader question should wait for an appropriate case. U.S. allies also oppose a broad interpretation of the law.
The Alien Tort Statute went unused for most of American history until rights lawyers dusted it off beginning in the late 1970s. Lawsuits have been brought against individuals who allegedly took part in abuses and, more recently, against companies that do business in places where abuses occur as well as in the United States.
Paul Hoffman, a Venice, Calif.-based lawyer who represents the Nigerian victim, drew a parallel to Nazi Germany and the role played by chemical giant I.G. Farben in supplying Nazi death camps with poison gas.
"Is it the case that a modern-day I.G. Farben would be exempt from the Alien Tort Statute?" Mr. Hoffman said.
Business interests argue they are being subjected to claims about the bad behavior of foreign regimes, which are shielded from lawsuits here under U.S. law. A decision is expected by spring.