If corporations are legal persons

Why are they never held accountable for their criminal actions in the same way that real people are?

NEXT week, the Supreme Court will hear a case with many potential ramifications for American and international law, and for corporate responsibility for human rights around the globe. The justices will be asked to decide whether the corporations to which they have been extending the rights of individuals should also be held accountable for crimes against human rights, just as individuals are.

The story behind the case begins in 1980, when my colleagues at the Center for Constitutional Rights and I helped obtain the first semblance of justice to the family of a slain 17-year-old Paraguayan youth named Joelito Filártiga.

A police inspector general in Asunción, the capital, had tortured the boy to death in retaliation for his father’s opposition to Paraguay’s brutal dictatorship. But the case was decided in New York, far from Paraguay, where the crime had occurred and where justice had proven impossible for the Filártiga family; the boy’s murderer was ultimately ordered to pay the family $10.4 million in damages.

The precedent-setting case was made possible by a remarkable decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which allowed it to be brought under a long-obscure law enacted by Congress in 1789. Known as the Alien Tort Statute, the law has been interpreted to mean that foreigners who commit heinous crimes abroad in violation of international law can be held accountable in the United States if they are present or do business here; the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in 2004.

Since that decision, dozens of successful alien tort claims have been brought in American courts — at first against individuals, and eventually against corporations. As a result, many foreign victims of egregious crimes — ranging from torture and slave labor to the execution of loved ones — that were sanctioned, endorsed or commissioned by corporations have found justice in our courts.

Yet in September 2010, a divided Second Circuit — the very court that had rendered the Filártiga decision — held that only individuals, and not corporations, can be sued under the statute. That ruling, in a case known as Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, came less than a year after the much more famous — and criticized — Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which removed restrictions on political spending by contributions and wildly expanded the concept of corporate personhood.

Together, these decisions have triggered a wave of outrage among advocates for human rights, which see in them a signal from the courts that corporations have extensive rights but few responsibilities under American law.

Since we are living in a bank-run corpocracy, I tend to doubt the Supreme Court will be inclined to permit corporations to be held liable. And this will go a long way towards demonstrating the necessity of ending the facade that corporations should be given the rights of real people.