The Supreme Court opened its new term Monday with a high-stakes dispute between businesses and human rights groups over accountability for foreign atrocities.
The justices appeared ready to impose new limits on lawsuits brought in U.S. courts over human rights violations abroad.
The argument was the first in a term that holds the prospect for major rulings about affirmative action, gay marriage and voting rights.
U.S. & World
Meeting on the first Monday in October, as required by law, the justices entered the crowded marble courtroom for the first time since their momentous decision in late June that upheld President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
The lineup of justices was the same as in June, but the bench had a slightly different look nonetheless. Justice Antonin Scalia was without the glasses he no longer needs following cataract surgery over the summer.
Chief Justice John Roberts formally opened the term and the court turned quickly to its first argument.
The dispute involves a lawsuit filed against Royal Dutch Petroleum over claims that the oil company was complicit in abuses committed by the Nigerian government against its citizens in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
Justice Samuel Alito said the case has no connection to this country and wondered why it should "belong in the courts of the United States?"
It was unclear how far the court would go to shield businesses and perhaps individuals as well from the human rights lawsuits under the 223-year-old Alien Tort Statute.
The Obama administration is partly on the oil company's side in this case. "There just isn't any meaningful connection to the United States," Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. said.
But Verrilli said the court should not issue a broad ruling that would foreclose all similar lawsuits, even when the corporation being sued is American. The administration is not endorsing such lawsuits, but argues that question should wait for an appropriate case.
Human rights groups have said that the 1789 law has been an important tool in establishing accountability for human rights abuses abroad.
Business interests argue they are being subjected to claims over the bad behavior of foreign regimes, which are shielded from lawsuits under U.S. law.
The court first heard the case in February to consider whether businesses could be sued under the law. But the justices asked for additional arguments about whether the law could be applied to any conduct that takes place abroad.
A decision is expected by spring.
The first blockbuster case on the court's calendar is Oct. 10, when the justices will hear argument in a fight over the University of Texas' affirmative action program. Texas uses multiple factors, including community service, work experience, extracurricular activities, awards and race, to help fill the last 20 to 25 percent of the spots in its freshman classes. The outcome could further limit or even end the use of racial preferences in college admissions.
The court also is expected to confront gay marriage in some form. Several cases seek to guarantee federal benefits for legally married same-sex couples. A provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act deprives same-sex couples of a range of federal benefits available to heterosexual couples.
Several federal courts have agreed that the provision of the law is unconstitutional, a situation that practically ensures that the high court will step in.
A separate appeal asks the justices to sustain California's Proposition 8, the amendment to the state constitution that outlawed gay marriage in the nation's largest state. Federal courts in California have struck down the amendment.
The justices may not even consider whether to hear the gay marriage issue until November.
Another hot topic with appeals pending before the high court, and more soon to follow, is the future of a cornerstone law of the civil rights movement.
In 2006, Congress overwhelmingly approved, and President George W. Bush signed, legislation extending for 25 more years a critical piece of the Voting Rights Act. It requires states and local governments with a history of racial and ethnic discrimination, mainly in the South, to get advance approval either from the Justice Department or the federal court in Washington before making any changes that affect elections.
The court spoke skeptically about the provision in a 2009 decision, but left it mostly unchanged. Now, however, cases from Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas could prompt the court to deal head on with the issue of advance approval. The South Carolina and Texas cases involve voter identification laws; a similar Indiana law was previously upheld by the court.
It is unclear when the justices will decide whether to hear arguments in those cases. Arguments themselves would not take place until next year.
The court itself has largely been absent as an issue on the campaign trail. But the justices could become enmeshed in election disputes, even before the ballots are counted. Suits in Ohio over early voting and provisional ballots appear the most likely to find their way to the justices before the Nov. 6 election, said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine law school.