The Supreme Court issued an order on May 12 stating that it would not be able to hear a case involving black South Africans suing 50 of some of the worlds largest corporations because the court lacked a quorum. The suit is being brought against such corporations as British Petroleum, Exxon Mobile, IBM, 3M, Citigroup, Hewlett Packard and several dozen others. The plaintiffs in the case, Am. Isuzu Motors, Inc., et al. v. Ntsebeza, Lungisile, et al, have brought multiple claims against the corporations, alleging that they violated US and International law while doing business with South Africa’s Apartheid government.
The case was initially dismissed by a federal District Court in New York, but was later heard by the Second Circuit Appeals Court. The appeals court vacated the ruling of the District Court and allowed the suits to continue under the Alien Tort Claims Act. The United States government issued a brief to the Appeals Court in support of the corporations stating that continuing to litigate the case against the companies “risked potentially serious adverse consequences for significant interests of the United States.”
The plaintiffs in the case allege that the named corporations “actively and willingly collaborated with the government of South Africa in maintaining a repressive, racially based system know as ‘apartheid,’” according to the appellate court ruling. Many of the plaintiffs allege that they “were themselves tortured, sexually assaulted, indiscriminately shot, or arbitrarily detained by the apartheid regime.” Others act as the personal representative of victims of extrajudicial killings. According to CNN, the suits could total more than 400 billion dollars if they succeed.
Lawyers representing the corporations appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. Although the court initially agreed to to hear the case, Justice Kennedy, Justice Alito, Justice Breyer and Chief Justice Roberts were forced to excuse themselves from the proceedings due to conflicts of interest. According to financial disclosure documents, Justices Breyer, Roberts, and Alito own stock in one or more of the corporations listed in the suit while Justice Kennedy’s son is managing director of Credit Suisse, a party in one of the suits.