The Curious Case of Corporate Liability under the Alien Tort Statute: A Flawed System of Judicial Lawmaking

45 Pages Posted: 9 Dec 2010

See all articles by Julian Ku

Julian Ku

Hofstra University - School of Law


This article challenges the widely held view that the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) imposes liability on private corporations for violations of customary international law. I lay out the modern origins and development of this cause of action in U.S. federal courts and argue that doctrine rests on shaky, indeed illusory, analytical and jurisprudential foundations. Despite the absence of a well defined norm of customary international law that imposed liability upon private corporations, courts, when they even considered the validity of the claims, built a consensus around the fact that no norm existed forbidding the imposition of liability on private corporations. This doctrinal approach was particularly questionable in light of the Supreme Court’s position that recognition of causes of action under the ATS be limited to situations involving violations of norms that are specific, universal, and obligatory. Finally, I argue that the rise of this flawed consensus reveals that our system of federal courts is particularly ill-suited to the type of independent lawmaking that modern ATS doctrine has enabled up to this point. These developments indicate that courts should adopt a restrictive approach to corporate liability under the ATS going forward.

Keywords: Customary International Law, Corporate Liability, Alien Tort Statute, Legal Personality

JEL Classification: K10, K22, K33

Suggested Citation

Ku, Julian G., The Curious Case of Corporate Liability under the Alien Tort Statute: A Flawed System of Judicial Lawmaking. Virginia Journal of International Law, Vol. 51, p. 353, 2010; Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 0-43. Available at SSRN:

Julian G. Ku (Contact Author)

Hofstra University - School of Law ( email )

121 Hofstra University
Hempstead, NY 11549
United States
516-463-4237 (Phone)
516-463-6264 (Fax)

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