WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court opened its new term Monday by hearing a second round of arguments in an important human rights case that it first considered in February.
The question before the court then was whether federal courts have jurisdiction to hear lawsuits against corporations said to have committed human rights abuses abroad.
But it quickly became clear that some of the justices wanted to address the larger question of whether such suits are proper if they involve corporations or not.
The human rights case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., was brought by 12 Nigerian plaintiffs who said the defendants, English and Dutch oil companies, had been complicit in torture and executions committed by the Abacha dictatorship in Nigeria.
‘‘What business does a case like that have in the courts of the United States?’’ Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked at the first hearing in February. ‘‘There’s no connection to the United States whatsoever.’’
Six days later, the court issued an order calling for new briefs and a reargument to consider the broader issue. The last time the court asked for a second set of arguments was in 2009, in the Citizens United campaign finance case.
In the case against Royal Dutch Petroleum, the Nigerian plaintiffs said their case could be brought in a US court because of the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that allows federal courts to hear ‘‘any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.’’
A majority of the justices Monday seemed prepared to limit the reach of that law, but there was no apparent consensus on how to do so.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Paul L. Hoffman, told the justices that there were good reasons to allow the case to be heard in a US court. His clients live in the United States, having received asylum, and the companies do business here, he said.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wondered if courts abroad could on that same theory hear suits over claims that US companies committed human rights abuses in the United States. Hoffman said that was possible.
Kathleen M. Sullivan, a lawyer for the defendants, said Congress was free to enact a broader law than the one it passed in 1789. But she said that law did not allow suits over conduct that took place abroad.
In Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain in 2004, the Supreme Court left the door open to some claims under the law, as long as they involved violations of international norms with ‘‘definite content and acceptance among civilized nations’’ like piracy and attacks on ambassadors.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer said it was a small step from piracy to torture and genocide.
‘‘If, when the statute was passed, it applied to pirates, the question to me is, who are today’s pirates?’’ he said. ‘‘And if Hitler isn’t a pirate, who is? And if, in fact, an equivalent torturer or dictator who wants to destroy an entire race in his own country is not the equivalent of today’s pirate, who is?’’
Justice Elena Kagan read from the Sosa decision to suggest that Sullivan was asking for too much.
“For purposes of civil liability, the torturer has become like the pirate and slave trader before him, an enemy of all mankind,’’ the Sosa decision said, quoting from a seminal 1980 decision of the federal Appeals Court in New York.
Sullivan responded that ‘‘the fact that the nations of the world agree on norms does not mean the nations of the world agree on remedies.’’ Allowing civil suits in US courts over human rights violations abroad, she went on, should be allowed only if Congress specifically says so.
Sullivan said she also had backup positions. The first was the one she pressed in February, that corporations may not be sued under the 1789 law. The second was that only claims of direct action, as opposed to aiding and abetting, are covered.
Donald B. Verrilli Jr., the nation’s solicitor general, argued in support of the defendants. But he did not endorse Sullivan’s broad argument that federal courts may never hear cases about human rights violations abroad.
Instead, he urged the justices to take the smaller step of barring suits against ‘‘a foreign corporation when the allegation is that the defendant aided and abetted a foreign sovereign.’’ Whether those kinds of suits should be allowed, Verrilli said, depended on ‘‘a weighing of interests.’’ That somewhat fuzzy approach did not seem to satisfy some of the justices.
“I really don’t understand how you would decide,’’ Alito said.
When Hoffman returned to the lectern for rebuttal, he grew more passionate. He said that shutting down the possibility of human rights suits in US courts over conduct abroad would allow torture and other atrocities to go unpunished.
“Suppose there is an Iranian corporation that secretly supplies poison gas to the current Syrian regime in order to kill tens of thousands of Kurdish citizens,’’ he said. Denying them the right to sue after being granted asylum here, he said, would be like protecting ‘‘a modern-day I.G. Farben,’’ the German chemical firm that collaborated with the Nazis.