Things We Do with Presumptions: Reflections on Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum

Carlos Manuel Vazquez

Georgetown University Law Center


Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 89, pp.1719-1748, 2014

The author argues in part I that the presumption should be regarded as categorically inapplicable to statutes conferring jurisdiction on the federal courts. He argues further that the majority opinion in Kiobel supports the conclusion that the presumption is inapplicable to such statutes. It is clear from the Court’s opinion that it was not applying the presumption to determine the geographical scope of the ATS qua jurisdictional statute. It was instead applying the presumption to determine the geographical scope of the federal common law cause of action it had recognized in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain.

Even when the presumption against extraterritoriality is applicable, courts will not always conclude that the statute does not apply extraterritorially. Although the courts presume that Congress meant for the statute to apply only domestically, that presumption can be rebutted or overcome. The usual way in which the presumption can be rebutted or overcome is through sufficient evidence that Congress meant for the statute to apply extraterritorially. In some cases, the Court has focused exclusively on the statute’s text, suggesting that the presumption against extraterritoriality is a clear statement rule that can be overcome only by clear statutory language. But, in Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd., the Court recognized that “context” can be taken into account as well. And, in Kiobel, the Court recognized that a statute’s “historical background” might also “overcome” the presumption. These methods of rebutting or overcoming the presumption are discussed in part II.

When a court finds the presumption applicable and not rebutted or overcome, it must determine whether the statute applies to the particular case before it. As the Court recognized in Morrison, a non-extraterritorial statute might reach a case based on conduct that is partly foreign and partly domestic. Applying the presumption in such a case, the Court explained, requires identification of “the ‘focus’ of congressional concern” under the relevant statute. If the statute is non-extraterritorial, the conduct that was the focus of congressional concern must have occurred in the United States. When a court determines the statute’s applicability to the facts of a particular case, it might be said to be determining whether the presumption has been satisfied in the particular case. How to satisfy the presumption is discussed in part III.

The Court in Kiobel may have recognized a fourth thing that might be done with the presumption against extraterritoriality: the presumption might in certain circumstances be displaced. The majority used this term in the final paragraph of its opinion, a paragraph that has generated much debate about what sorts of questions the Court left open in Kiobel. The Court wrote that “even where the claims touch and concern the territory of the United States, they must do so with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application.” The Court may have been using the term to refer to the issue I have refer to as the “satisfying” of the presumption. There is also some basis, however, for understanding the Court to have left open the possibility that the presumption might be inapplicable or rebutted with respect to some claims brought under the ATS for violations of customary international law. What the Court meant by “displacing” the presumption is the subject of part IV.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 31

Keywords: presumption, extraterritorial, federal common law, litigation, international law, conflict of law

JEL Classification: K00, K30, K39

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Date posted: June 22, 2014 ; Last revised: September 18, 2014

Suggested Citation

Vazquez, Carlos Manuel, Things We Do with Presumptions: Reflections on Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (2014). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 89, pp.1719-1748, 2014. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2457176

Contact Information

Carlos Manuel Vazquez (Contact Author)
Georgetown University Law Center ( email )
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
6009 Hotung Building
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9447 (Phone)
202-662-9411 (Fax)
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