US Supreme Court readies for weighty social issues


Mon, Oct 01, 2012 - Page 7

The US Supreme Court is back in session today to tackle social issues such as same-sex marriage and affirmative action, as well as an international human rights case.

On its first day back in session, the highest US court is to start by re-examining a suit, alleging complicity in acts of torture, against Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell in Nigeria.

Twelve Nigerians accuse the wealthy oil multinational of becoming an accomplice to torture, extrajudicial executions and crimes against humanity in the Niger Delta.

The nine justices are to decide whether to hold firms liable for crimes committed outside the US by virtue of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a law passed 200 years ago.

“ATS clearly covers those violations,” Carey D’Avino, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said. “There’s nothing in the ATS that violates domestic and international laws.”

Not everyone is so sure.

The court could be “afraid of some kind of backlash, what other nations will think of us,” constitutional lawyer Lisa Blatt said.

In what could be the term’s most prominent case, the justices are to take up affirmative action at the University of Texas. The policy, aimed at correcting historic imbalances in education by favoring US minorities in public university admissions and other circumstances, has come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of a growing minority population.

A white student is accusing the university of using quotas for minority groups in university admissions in a way she claims violates her US constitutional rights.

Alan Morrison of The George Washington University Law School stressed that “there’s a lot at stake and plenty of reasons to be concerned.” He called the affirmative action decision “crucial.”

Still, in terms of social reach, it is the court’s looming moves on same-sex marriage that have both captured a lot of Americans’ attention and fueled strong reactions. All eyes will be riveted on the court when it takes up any of at least eight appeals in line for consideration.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself has said that “it’s most likely that we will have that issue before the court toward the end of the current term.”

James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union rights group suggested the court will agree next month to take up some months later the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that defines marriage as a legal union of a man and woman.