WASHINGTON (AP) - The Bush administration has asked the Supreme Court to throw out a lawsuit that accuses more than 30 U.S. and European corporations of violating international law by assisting South Africa's former apartheid government.
The case -- three suits being considered jointly -- seeks up to $400 billion in damages from corporations such as Ford Motor Co., IBM Corp., Citigroup Inc., and General Electric Co., for their business relationships with the South African government from 1948 to 1994, according to court papers.
The case is the latest test of an 18th-century law, known as the Alien Tort Claims Act, that allows foreigners to sue in U.S. courts over international law violations. Originally intended to allow foreigners to seek redress for piracy and other wrongs, the law has been increasingly used in the last 15 years to sue corporations for their alleged involvement in human-rights abuses overseas.
Yahoo Inc., for example, was sued last year for its decision to provide China's government access to a political dissident's e-mail account.
That case was settled, but there are at least 24 other suits pending that cite the ATCA, the government said in court papers.
The Justice Department's Solicitor General, the administration's lawyer, urged the Supreme Court on Monday to reverse an October 2007 appeals court decision that allowed the apartheid suits to proceed.
The ruling, by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New York City, 'allows an unprecedented and sprawling lawsuit to move forward and represents a dramatic expansion of U.S. law,' Solicitor General Paul D. Clement wrote.
Business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are concerned that the appeals court's decision expands the reach of the ATCA, because it said companies could be held liable for 'aiding and abetting' international law violations, in addition to actually committing them.
The suits also name Hewlett-Packard Co., Exxon Mobil Corp., Bank of America Corp. and General Motors Corp.
The law firm representing the Khulumani Group, one of the three groups of South African plaintiffs, says on its Web site that IBM allegedly provided computers that South Africa used for its racial identification system, while car manufacturers sold armored vehicles and banks provided funding that enabled South Africa to expand its police and security apparatus.
Michael Hausfeld, lead counsel for the Khulumani group, said the companies 'knew the goods and services they were providing were going to be used in the commission of some crime.'
The Khulumani group includes 87 South African victims of apartheid-era torture, murder and arbitrary arrest, and their families. The Khulumani Support Group is a South African human rights organization.
The case raises questions about how the United States deals with countries that abuse human rights. The government's brief argues that in some cases, such as apartheid-era South Africa, the United States may impose targeted sanctions while still allowing commerce in order to encourage reform.
'Such policies would be greatly undermined' if corporations that subsequently do business in those countries are sued under the ATCA, the Justice Department said.
Paul Hoffman, the lead attorney for the other two groups of plaintiffs, said he will argue in a brief to the Supreme Court next month that it is too early in the litigation for the justices to weigh in. The lower court rulings have only addressed the question of whether to dismiss the suit.
If the case is allowed to proceed, Hoffman said he will file a narrower complaint that will draw closer connections between the actions of the companies and the South African victims. That complaint will also likely name fewer companies, he said.
South Africa's government has repeatedly criticized the litigation as an infringement on its sovereignty, the Justice Department's brief said, and has asked U.S. courts to dismiss the case.
The court won't decide whether to take the case until late April at the earliest, and if it agrees to do so, oral arguments will take place during the court's next term, which begins in October.
The case is American Isuzu Motors Inc. et al. v. Lungisile Ntsebeza, 07-919.